Sheriff suspended, trial date uncertain
Initial court appearance set for October 1
VIRGINIA CITY—Madison County Sheriff Roger Thompson was officially suspended on Tuesday, September 11, with three months’ pay and benefits.
About 30 people attended the discussion, which was an agenda item at the county commissioners’ weekly meeting. Of the three criminal charges brought against Thompson, the only one that the commissioners have any official business with is the misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.
“Montana Code Annotated states that a public servant that has been charged with official misconduct may be suspended from office without pay pending final judgment,” said chairman Ron Nye. “On final judgment of conviction, the public servant shall permanently forfeit the public servant’s office. Upon acquittal, the public servant must be reinstated in office and must receive all back pay.”
The county commissioners have no jurisdiction over the two felony charges brought against Thompson: perjury and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence. Those are left to the District Court for adjudication. The main task of the commission was to determine whether or not Thompson would be paid while on suspension.
Thompson attended the meeting along with attorney Todd Whipple, a former chief prosecutor from Bozeman who has assisted with many cases involving law enforcement officers over his 21-year career. Thompson made a brief statement to the commissioners before deliberations and public comment began.
“As you all are aware, allegations have been made against me,” Thompson read. “As your duly elected sheriff for the last three years and a sworn law enforcement officer for over 30 years, I pride myself on my character and my sense of integrity.
“Although I strongly desire to defend myself against these allegations before the commission, I must first address them where they have been made: in a court of law. I must accept the fact that while these allegations are being resolved, they obviously create a distraction to the sheriff’s office. I therefore accept suspension pending resolution of this matter.”
Whipple requested that the commissioners consider placing Thompson on paid suspension, based on the fact that his obligation to the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, while not in the capacity of sheriff, will not end during his suspension.
“He will still be required to occasionally answer questions and address situations that might arise, although not in his official capacity as sheriff, but just as a person with institutional knowledge,” Whipple said. “When officers are suspended, or accept suspension, and they maintain that presumption of innocence…it is customary and routine that that officer would be suspended with pay.”
Commissioner Jim Hart made the distinction between the commission’s options to follow heart or head in the matter at hand.
“We all could lead from our heart and be comparatively lenient,” Hart said, “or simply go with our logic: commissioners are mainly responsible for finances and our employees. Roger technically is not our employee, but we do have to pay attention to the finances.”
Another thing to consider was the potential duration of the investigation, which is currently unknown. Whipple mentioned that because an out-of-district judge from Helena would be presiding, it could take more or less time depending on her schedule.
County attorney Chris Christensen noted that a number of variables would determine the length of Thompson’s suspension, the first of which is the length of the trial itself. But Christensen did not expect a trial to begin until at least six months from now.
“After the initial appearance…the court schedules an omnibus hearing, and there the attorneys decide how many days they think it will take to try the case. That is then given to the court, and the court determines the trial date.”
Before voting on whether or not to pay Thompson during his suspension, the commissioners opened the meeting to public comment. All the comments offered by attendees were positive toward the sheriff.
“I would recommend a little bit of heart in this situation,” said Karen McMullin, an attorney in Ennis. “It would certainly lessen a hardship for not only the sheriff but his family.”
Twin Bridges mayor Tom Hyndman agreed.
“I’ve worked with Roger Thompson for quite a while now and I’ve been mayor for 13 years. He has served us very well in Twin Bridges,” Hyndman said. “I know in his investigations he tries to be as careful as he can and tries to get things straight so there are no problems.”
After the public comment period, Hart made his recommendation to his fellow commissioners: three months’ worth of pay and benefits. Commissioners Dan Allhands and Ron Nye agreed, and the motion was carried in a unanimous vote.
Pending the outcome of Thompson’s trial, Madison County undersheriff Phil Fortner will be acting sheriff. Thompson’s initial appearance before the District Court is scheduled for October 1.