As part of the ongoing litigation against the Ennis School Board and Doug Walsh, old newspaper articles from Plentywood and testimony in a deposition have brought the past into the present for the Ennis School superintendent.
The old newspaper articles that were filed as evidence in the lawsuit against Walsh and the school board don’t tell a clear story of the circumstances, but they do outline a series of charges and final disposition of a case against the superintendent nearly 20 years ago in a small community on the other side of the state.
The articles were submitted as evidence along with Walsh’s deposition as part of the lawsuit filed by David Kelley of Ennis last August.
The suit claims, essentially, that Walsh’s contract as bus supervisor is fraudulent and that the school spent money illegally out of the adult education and transportation funds. It also claims Walsh’s contracts with the school, dating back to when he officially retired as superintendent, are in violation of laws governing the Montana Teacher’s Retirement system.
At question in the lawsuit are procedures for putting contracts out to bid and the difference between a school employee and private contractor. Both of these issues appear to be part of the criminal case in Plentywood, Kelley wrote in a motion to unseal the old court documents.
“To the extent that violations between independent contractors and employees were issues in the criminal prosecution of [the] Douglas Walsh as Superintendent of Schools in Plentywood in Sheridan County information relative to that case is relevant to the above captioned matter (the current lawsuit),” Kelley writes in his motion to unseal the old case.
Walsh has been instructed by his attorney Elizabeth Kaleva, who is representing him personally in addition to the school board, not to talk about the Plentywood case. Gathering information about the case is difficult since the court file has been sealed. According to the Sheridan County Clerk of District Court, she isn’t even allowed to talk about the charges or confirm the validity of the old newspaper articles.
Joe Nistler, who wrote the articles for The Plentywood Herald didn’t want to comment on the issue.
However, Chris Ator was a school board member in Plentywood when Walsh was hired in 1987 and when their school burned to the ground in 1991. He remembers the circumstances vividly.
When the school burned down, citizens in Plentywood really struggled, Ator said. Kids were going to classes in buildings around town and sports teams were having to travel out of town for practice.
“The emotions in your community get totally out of hand,” he said. “They (citizens) all feel they own a piece of it (the school) and when they lose something they don’t know what to do about it. They mourn and that’s what they do.”
Ator remembers walking into a local café during the reconstruction of the school when Plentywood was becoming very divided as a community. He grew up in Plentywood, went to school there, made his life there – but when he walked into the local café, everyone stopped talking. He’ll never forget that moment.
“I walked in and the whole place got quiet,” he said.
The problems surrounding Walsh stemmed from his removal of asbestos from the school prior to the fire. Plentywood, like many other school districts at the time, were trying to address their asbestos issue, Ator said.
Thought he doesn’t remember the timeline, questions surrounding the asbestos removal led to an investigation by the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department and the investigation led to charges being filed.
In 1992 Walsh was charged with six misdemeanors and four felonies. In 1993 he made a plea agreement and plead guilty to three misdemeanors and all the other charges were dropped, according to The Plentywood Herald.
Also according to the newspaper, the case was prosecuted by Mark Murphy who was Assistant Montana Attorney General at the time. Murphy, who now lobbies for the Montana County Attorney Association in Helena, didn’t return a phone call to ask for clarification of the charges.
According to The Plentywood Herald articles, the charges against Walsh in 1992 included three misdemeanor counts of official misconduct, two felony counts of tampering with public records or information, one felony count of fabricating physical evidence and one count of felony theft.
In June of 1993 the three misdemeanors he plead guilty to were submitting false claims to a public agency and two violations of the Asbestos Control Act. He was ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution and fined $500 for each of the three misdemeanors. The rest of the charges were dropped.
Walsh was also given a two-year deferred sentence, which meant that if he didn’t get in trouble for two years, he could have the charges wiped off his record, which is what happened.
On Oct. 15, 1995 Walsh was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and enter a not-guilty plea and the charges were dropped, said Sheridan County Sheriff Patrick Ulrickson.
Ulrickson wasn’t sheriff until 2004, but he found the old investigation files from the case and the 1995 filings were the last documents in the box.
After Kelley filed the request that the old case files from Sheridan County be unsealed, Walsh’s attorney Kaleva filed an opposing motion.
“Mr. Kelley is attempting to use this Court to access confidential criminal justice information for no legitimate or relevant purpose,” Kaleva writes. “Rather, this attempt appears to be nothing more than an attempt to embarrass and harass Defendant Douglas Walsh.”
Kaleva also asks that Walsh’s deposition be sealed and stricken from the record, in part, it wasn’t signed by Walsh prior to its filing.
Walsh would not provide any explanation about the Plentywood issue, but did say the Ennis School Board knew all about it in 1994 when he was hired.
“They wanted to know what was up and I answered that,” Walsh said. “Teachers and board members were present and discussion took place. They did call the attorney for the school district in Plentywood that represented the school itself. I didn’t hide a thing.”
Glines confirms Walsh’s statement. He was on the school board when Walsh was hired and remembers finding out about his past prior to the interview with him.
“Doug offered that information, but I knew about it before he was even interviewed,” Glines said. “It was resolved to our satisfaction.”
The school board also interviewed school board members from Plentywood, including Chris Ator.
“Somebody called me from there and I talked to him,” Ator said. “We spent at least an hour on the phone.”
For his money, Walsh was a good superintendent and he gave him a strong recommendation, he said.
Judge Mike Salvagni from Bozeman, who is presiding over the case, has yet to rule on either Kelley’s or Kaleva’s motion. Kelley is still planning to file a response to Kaleva’s latest motion.