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BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — A state judge ordered the City of Bozeman to give the Bozeman Daily Chronicle the records of its investigation into an employee who was eventually charged with embezzling more than $6,000 from the city, but gave the Gallatin County attorney time to object if he feels the records could be considered confidential criminal justice information.

District Judge John Brown’s April 19 ruling chastised the city for filing a lawsuit asking him to determine which records should be released before giving the newspaper a written decision, as required by law.

However, he did not order the city to pay the Chronicle’s attorney fees.

“We asked the city why it was investigating a former employee and got sued,” Nick Ehli said, managing editor of the Chronicle. “The court agreed with our position, but without an award of attorney fees, the ruling sets a potentially dangerous and chilling precedent when it comes to the public’s right to know about the public’s business.”

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports it sought information about an investigation into former neighborhood coordinator Jessica Johnson last summer after her resignation letter indicated she would be available to “finalize the investigation.”

The city did not respond to the request, but notified Johnson, who asserted her privacy rights. The city then filed a lawsuit asking a judge to review the documents, saying it wanted to avoid the risk of any potential lawsuits filed by Johnson if the information was released, or a lawsuit by the Chronicle if it didn’t release the records.

“Rushing to file suit” to minimize the risk of potential lawsuits “sends a message to individuals seeking information from public entities that they need to have enough money to participate in a lawsuit in order to even get an answer to their letter of request,” Brown wrote.

He said the city was required to issue a written decision, which would have given the Chronicle the chance to “decide whether they had a dispute that they wished to litigate, rather than being drawn into a lawsuit against their will as a consequence of exercising their respective constitutional rights,” Brown wrote.

Brown’s order cited case law that establishes public employees do not have the right to personal privacy with regard to investigations into misconduct, their ability to perform their duties, a violation of public trust or misappropriation of public funds.

He wrote he hoped his ruling “will prevent any further shortcomings in the city’s handling of any public records requests.”

Still, he did not order the city to pay attorney fees, saying he didn’t believe the city took “a wholly unreasonable approach” when it filed the suit.

“The city welcomes the clarity provided by the court and appreciates the recognition the city’s process was reasonable,” City Attorney Greg Sullivan said.

The city must file Johnson’s redacted disciplinary file and her correspondence with the court by May 4. Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert has until May 11 to make any arguments if he believes the records are confidential criminal justice information. Lambert has argued that mug shots are confidential criminal justice information.

Johnson also has been charged with taking more than $2,000 from the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, where she went to work two weeks after quitting her job with the city. She has not entered pleas in either case. Court records say she has repaid the city $2,000.


Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle,