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Musselshell County undersheriff vying for sheriff under investigation for intimidation, campaign violations

Posted at 4:38 PM, Oct 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-11 14:38:32-04

ROUNDUP – The undersheriff for Musselshell County is under investigation by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices after reports of intimidation and campaign violations surfaced in his campaign for sheriff.

Shawn Lesnik is the current undersheriff for the county and is running for sheriff as a Republican. He will face write-in candidate Ronnie Burns in the Nov. 6 election, according to the Musselshell County website.

According to the complaint provided by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practice’s website, Lesnik is accused by residents of Roundup of campaigning while on duty while in uniform and while driving a county patrol vehicle.

He is also accused of intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse of other Musselshell County employees.

Lesnik is actively fighting the accusations, telling Q2 News exclusively that the complaints are an attempt to defame his character.

Lesnik sent a lengthy statement in response to the claims and denies ever campaigning while on duty. He also gave numerous witness accounts that can be found below, something he said his counterparts in this complaint have not done.

Lesnik also said he has video surveillance to back up his claims.

The investigation started on July 2 when two Musselshell County women filed the complaint. Lesnik said one of the complainants is not even a registered voter in the county and is actually a resident of Golden Valley County.

In the complaint, Shirley Marking listed her address in Roundup and alleged that on June 18 she witnessed Lesnik campaigning while on duty on numerous occasions.

“I have watched him harass and intimidate other county employees because they have his opponent’s election material in their yard or in their family’s yard,” Marking said in a written statement in the complaint.

Marking also alleged in the complaint that she witnessed a secretary for the county attorney work in the dark and with her office door locked because she knew Lesnik was in the building and “was afraid of what he might say or do to her. “

Her complaint also states one time the secretary hurt herself running to her office because she was afraid Lesnik would see her in the building. She also watched the secretary cry when Lesnik called her on the phone and yelled about election signs, according to Marking’s statement.

Lesnik answered the allegation in his statement: “I vehemently deny any allegations of intimidation or threatened persecution of any resident due to election issues or any other issues.”

He says at no time did he ever seek out interactions with county employees who “were not directly supportive of my campaign.”

Lesnik maintains the complaints are based on an attempt to erode his character and derail his campaign from those also seeking elected positions within the county.

“Ms. Marking’s Complaint includes innumerable open-ended, vague accusations based solely on hearsay or hearsay within hearsay which I summarily deny. Ms. Marking fails to identify individuals, including, any against whom I have allegedly threatened some sort of retaliation,” Lesnik said in his statement.

The clerk for the Musselshell County Attorney, Teresa Fauth, is also listed in the complaint saying she reported Lesnik’s behavior to County Attorney Kevin Peterson about a confrontation in her yard over election signs.

Fauth alleged Lesnik blocked her vehicle in and confronted her demanding to know where the election sign that was missing from her father’s front yard went. She reported that Lesnik’s tone was abusive and threatening while in his patrol car.

Lesnik said in his statement that he finds it difficult to fathom how any interaction with a person who cannot vote for him or opponents could constitute as campaigning.

“I have attempted to answer as fully as possible each of the allegation leveled against me by Marking and Fauth. I deny each one of the serious and now publicized allegations against me, my personal and professional reputation, and my personal integrity,” he said in his statement.

On Wednesday, a state investigator with the Commission of Political Practices declined to comment, telling Q2 News the agency does not comment on open investigations.

Scott Cook with the Commissioner of Political Practices office said he doesn’t know when the investigation will be completed. He added that 45 complaints have been filed this election year, about par for the course, and Cook is the only investigator.

Cook said when the complaint has been fully investigated Commissioner Jeff Mangnan will offer a decision. If there is a finding of violation usually it goes to a monetary settlement but that depends as each complaint is different, Cook said.

Cook declined to discuss the details of the investigation.

The complaint filed to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices can be found here.

Lesnik’s full statement in response to this story is below.

This letter responds to the Complaints filed by Mses. Marking and Fauth. First, I deny ever campaigning while on duty or while driving a work vehicle or while wearing my uniform. Second, I never accessed ballots before, during, or after the Primary. Third, while I of course engaged in many conversations with county employees, I know of only a couple county employees who were “not directly supportive” of my campaign. I set forth those interactions below. I never acted in the disrespectful and intimidating manner described in the Complaints. I. I Did Not Campaign While On Duty. At no time during the campaign for Sheriff of Musselshell County did I hand out campaign brochures or pamphlets, distribute campaign signs, go door-to-door soliciting votes, or actively solicit support from citizens while in uniform or while using a county owned vehicle. I did not attend any campaign functions while in uniform or use a county owned vehicle to attend any campaign functions. That being said, there were times, while in uniform and while driving a county owned vehicle, that I was approached by members of the community and asked questions about my candidacy, to which I briefly responded. I made an effort to limit my responses and often referred them to my Facebook page to obtain more information about me. It is difficult for this not to happen while in the public eye. A. Fauth Complaint. Ms. Fauth, a resident of Golden Valley County, not Musselshell County, sets forth two incidents wherein I was attempting to investigate an apparently stolen campaign sign at her father’s residence. (The allegations in Ms. Fauth’s Complaint are repeated by Ms. Marking in her Complaint.) Ms. Fauth happens to be both the secretary at the Musselshell County Attorney’s Office and the daughter of the gentleman on whose property my campaign sign had been placed. However, Ms. Fauth cannot vote in Musselshell County and, in addition to denying that I campaigned to her on duty, I find it difficult to fathom how any interaction with a person who cannot vote for me or my opponents could ever constitute campaigning. Ms. Fauth’s Complaints are the same as those set forth by her boss, Musselshell County Attorney Kevin Peterson, in a document hand-delivered to the Musselshell County Commissioners on May 21, 2018. Mr. Peterson, who seeks election as County Attorney, wrote to the County Commissioners and advocated for my termination from employment based, in part, on the exact allegations in Ms. Fauth’s Complaint Mr. Peterson represented to the County Commissioners that his “complaint” against me constituted a public record and could be released to the press. MACo and the Montana Attorney General’s Office disagreed and deemed the document to be of a confidential personnel issue and it was not released to the public as Peterson had intended two week prior to the primary election. Mr. Peterson’s May 21, 2018 letter prompted the Musselshell County Sheriff, Michael Thomas, to conduct an internal investigation. Sheriff Thomas tasked Sergeant Scott Johnson with the investigation. Upon concluding his investigation, Sergeant Johnson, prepared a report of his findings. Sergeant Johnson’s report addresses the allegations of Ms. Fauth’s Complaint as well as the same allegations involving Ms. Fauth as alleged in Ms. Marking’s Complaint and was submitted to the Musselshell County Commissioners. B. Ms. Marking Complaint pertaining to Heidi Taylor. Ms. Marking also alleges that I campaigned on duty in an encounter involving Heidi Taylor. I deny campaigning on duty to unregistered voter, Heidi Taylor. Instead, I was checking Ms. Taylor’s welfare generally as Undersheriff of a small town. As with the Complaint by County Attorney Peterson’s secretary, Ms. Fauth, the Heidi Taylor Complaint as alleged by Ms. Marking mimics the claim pertaining to Ms. Heidi Taylor as asserted by County Attorney Peterson in his May 2018 letter seeking my termination. (Interesting how Marking became privy to the Taylor complaint after it was deemed to be confidential personnel information) As part of the Sergeant’s investigation, I wrote up facts pertaining to my welfare check on Heidi Taylor which is included in the response to the Commissioners. As such, the Sergeant’s report also addresses Ms. Marking’s Complaint pertaining to Heidi Taylor. I vehemently deny that my check-up on Heidi Taylor constitutes campaigning while on duty. Additionally, Ms. Taylor does not complain about my interaction with her. In fact, Ms. Taylor only submitted to an interview with County Attorney Peterson after he summoned her to do so. C. Ms. Marking Allegation re. Campaigning on Radio while on Duty and in Uniform. Ms. Marking alleges that on May 25, 2018, I campaigned over the local KLMB 99.9 radio station while in uniform. I deny this allegation. I was neither in uniform or on duty on May 25, 2018. Friday, May 25, 2018, was the last day of public school in Roundup, MT. My four-year-old son and I enjoyed a “Daddy Day” that day. My son and I did things around our house, got haircuts, and then met “mom”/my wife, a high school teacher, for a late lunch. As stated above, I deny Ms. Marking’s specific complaint that I campaigned in uniform on the local radio station on May 25, 2018. And, while I did appear on the local radio station twice during April of 2018, I did not campaign during those appearances. I spoke on the radio twice in late April of 2018 to promote the county’s “Prescription Drug Take Back” program. These promotions have been part of my duties for the last several years, in conjunction with the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Neither the election, nor my status as a candidate, was a topic of discussion during either of these segments. In fact, I specifically cautioned the talk show hosts, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Morgan, to avoid those topics because I was in uniform. D. Ms. Marking Complaint pertaining to Tana Cates. I assume Ms. Marking’s Complaint re. Tana Cates concerns improper campaigning of some sort. I deny that I campaigned to Tana Cates while on duty. Moreover, as with Ms. Fauth, Tana Cates neither resides in, nor can vote in, Musselshell County. (Ms. Cates later shared with me that she was never contacted by Marking about being included in Marking’s complaint and had no knowledge of the complaint, prior to reading her name in it after it was filed.   I Had No Access To Ballots Before Or After The Primary Election And Saw No Ballot Except My Own At Any Time. Ms. Marking alleges I had access to ballots before, during, or after the Primary election. I deny this allegation. I have never been in any room with “mail in/absentee” ballots being processed at the Musselshell County Courthouse or at any other location. In fact, while Clerk and Recorder, Cheryl Tomassi, would be able to address this issue, I believe mail in ballots are processed on the day of the election only. I took vacation on the 5th and 6th of June, in part, to avoid being anywhere near the ballots or the ballot boxes. In previous years, part of my duties on election days included traveling to and collecting ballots from Musselshell and Melstone, Montana, returning the ballots to Roundup and delivering them to the Clerk and Recorder’s Office in Roundup. I did not work on the 5th or 6th and did not have any involvement with any ballots other than my own. On June 5, 2018, I had the day off and I cast my personal ballot in civilian clothes. This, of course, required me to be in the presence of/near ballots and/or voting machines. I left the premises after casting my ballot. On June 6, 2018, the day quoted in Ms. Marking’s Complaint, I never left my rural residence/property. Surveillance video from Musselshell County Courthouse from the 6th of June has been preserved and it clearly shows that I was never present in the building at anytime during the 6th of June 2018. I was only in the presence of cast ballots and Clerk and Recorder Cheryl Tomassi during the June 11, 2018 processing of the provisional ballots. Ms. Marking’s husband, Brad, and his candidate, my opponent Ronnie Burns, were also present when Ms. Tomassi processed the 10 provisional ballots at 1500 hours, June 11, 2018. III. Interaction With County Employees Who Were Not Directly Supportive Of My Campaign. At no time did I ever attempt to ascertain how the employees of the Musselshell County Sheriff’s Office or any of the employees of Musselshell County voted or planned to vote. At no time did I seek out interactions with county employees who “were not directly supportive of my campaign.” I vehemently deny any allegations of intimidation or threatened persecution of any resident due to election issues or any other issues. As such, I have little information to provide on that part of Markings complaint. Of course, I am regularly at the Courthouse as part of my duties. While at the Courthouse, I know there have been times when the election came up. For example, I recall being advised once by the Treasurer of Musselshell County that she had taken a “straw poll” of the Courthouse employees and that all but a couple of people told her they were voting for me. The Treasurer conducted this straw poll of her own volition and provided me with the results unsolicited. I am sure other conversations at the courthouse or in other places occurred which involved county employees, but I am unable to recall any to provide the specifics of such conversations. I deny ever seeking out county employees who did not support my campaign for Sheriff. I deny every threatening anyone for persecution. I generally do not know which sheriff candidate county employees supported or did not support. And, I have absolutely no knowledge about who county employees voted for or failed to vote for. I would surmise that certain county employees, who do not care for me on a personal level, likely voted for one of my opponents. I am fine with that. In fact, I prefer a person vote for my opponent than fail to exercise his right to vote. Finally, Ms. Marking’s Complaint includes innumerable open-ended, vague accusations based solely on hearsay or hearsay within hearsay which I summarily deny. Ms. Marking fails to identify individuals, including, any against whom I have allegedly threatened some sort of retaliation. Ms. Marking alleges that a Ms. Tara Kinsey witnessed the “incident” between Ms. Fauth and me. Additionally, the Musselshell County IT Department has preserved surveillance video of several of the alleged incidents and in every occasions the support my recollection of events and refute the allegations alleged by Marking and Fauth. IV. Conclusion. I have attempted to answer as fully as possible each of the allegation leveled against me by Marking and Fauth. I deny each one of the serious and now publicized allegations against me, my personal and professional reputation, and my personal integrity. As I have previously mentioned, the timing of the “tip” coincides with my continued campaign and the placement of my campaign banners and yard signs. It is meant solely to defame my character, thus improving my “write in” opponent’s position at the polls.  Sincerely, Shawn L. Lesnik

*This statement has been altered by Q2 News to remove personal phone numbers.