After a year-long court battle over wanting to take a peek at some state documents, the Missoula Independent is stuck having to foot the bill for their court fees even though they won the right to look at the documents in question.

The issue began in 2012, while the Independent was following up on accusations against seven members of Lake County law enforcement. In his Independent article "To Serve and Deflect" writer Matthew Frank described the charges as "a range of dishonorable and criminal acts, including poaching, perjury, nepotism, ethics violations, false claims of military combat, and witness tampering and intimidation in Lake County."

When the state began to investigate, the Independent requested access to some of the reports, but ended up with a lawsuit.

"The Peace Officer Safety and Training organization [POST], which is the state agency charged with overseeing lawmen, engaged in some disciplinary precedings with some of these fellas and we asked to see the files," said Missoula Independent Owner Matt Gibson. "Instead of giving us the files, the state Attorney General's office went to district court and filed a lawsuit labeling the Independent as a defendant."

The Independent stuck with the case and eventually won the right to view the files (with some redaction). When they finally were able to look at the documents what they found led many to believe that the lawsuit wasn't just about the state's interest in protecting the privacy of the individuals involved, but also about protecting the political career of Attorney General (now Governor) Steve Bullock.

Gibson said the testimony of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Frank Bowen was most astonishing. Bowen was reportedly ordered by his superiors to stop his investigation and was forbidden to discuss his work.

"Ultimately he was reassigned to another office and it was made abundantly clear to him, in very explicit terms, that if he pursued the investigation it would be embarrassing to the Attorney General who, at the time, was running for Governor," said Gibson. "That it would make the Attorney General -- who is, supposedly, responsible for law enforcement in Montana -- that it would make him look lax in his pursuit of these lawmen in Lake County."

Gibson reports that Bowen's superiors said that the investigation into the Lake County lawmen's misdeeds needed to end and that "it wasn't a matter of conscience anymore, it was a matter of party loyalty."

The case touches on disturbing elements of corruption in many ways, but perhaps the most disturbing to journalists, is the way that the state responded to a request for public information. That trouble was only compounded by the judge's decision not to reimburse court fees.

"What about the legal bills?" asked Gibson. "We were simply trying to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed right to know. It's in the state constitution. The state made us spend a lot of money to exercise that right. We wanted our fees and the court said 'no, you can't have your fees,' that it is perfectly fine for the state to name you in a lawsuit whenever you try to exercise your constitutional right to know. When the judge said in the ruling that our request for reimbursement would be a 'substantial injustice' to the state, I was really surprised."

Gibson said that the Montana Newspaper Association is now working to craft legislation that hopes increase public access to information without the risk of a lawsuit.

Interview with Matt Gibson:

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