The status of an Environmental Protection Agency investigation into Lincoln County’s handling of a previous grant agreement with the agency remains unclear, but an attorney representing the county said the investigation “is giving rise to litigation.”
“Please note, that litigation will not be with the EPA but rather a non-governmental third party,” Jinnifer Mariman, special deputy county attorney, said via email.
Mariman did not identify the third party. However, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General has been investigating the improper disbursement of grant funds to former special deputy county attorney R. Allen Payne and his legal firm, Doney Crowley Bloomquist Payne UDA.
Mariman did not respond by press time to a question asking whether the third party is Payne or his firm.
The investigation began after the agency received a letter dated May 18, 2016 and signed by the Lincoln County Commission, comprised then of Mike Cole, Greg Larson and Mark Peck. The commissioners had discovered that those disbursements, made through a cooperative agreement between the EPA and the City-County Board of Health, went against federal grant funding regulations, and asked the EPA to conduct a review.
The agreement, in place since April 2012 and renewed periodically, supports the administrative and educational activities of the Libby Asbestos Resource Program. As a result of the investigation, the agreement’s renewal in 2017 was delayed for months, and when a new agreement was finally reached in the fall, it was made between the EPA and Lincoln County.
“The EPA was more comfortable having that cooperative agreement directly with Lincoln County as they are the entity that’s financially responsible,” Nick Raines, the program manager at the time, said in an October 2017 interview.
Details about the investigation and the pending litigation have not been forthcoming. At the Board of Health’s monthly meetings in October, November and January, discussions related to both matters were closed to the public.
According to Mariman, discussions relating to the Office of Inspector General’s investigation have been closed due to attorney-client privilege, and those pertaining to litigation strategy have been closed so as not to “have a detrimental effect on Lincoln County’s position in the litigation.”
Mariman pointed to Montana Code Annotated section 2-3-203(4)(a) as allowing for the closure to the public of those parts of the meeting.
“The (Health) Board and Lincoln County have consistently expressed their desire that, as soon as they can open our discussions and make this public, they do,” Mariman wrote.
The Board of Health and Lincoln County have been “cooperating fully” with the Office of Inspector General’s requests for additional information “in an effort to avoid any adverse determination,” Mariman wrote.
Commissioner Peck said that the Office of Inspector General hasn’t apprised the county of the status of the investigation, a point of frustration for him.
“The bottom line is, I’m pissed at the EPA,” Peck said. “I don’t know if (the investigation) is on hold or what the status is and it’s been over a year and a half. We’re the ones that initiated it, and the citizens have a right to know. It’s that simple.”
Peck said he might push for the Commission to send a letter to the EPA’s regional and Office of Inspector General offices “demanding to know the outcome of this investigation.”