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She fought the law. And she won: Newspaper publisher challenges county attorney’s election


She fought the law. And she won: Newspaper publisher challenges county attorney’s election

Feb 07, 2023 | 9:24 pm ET
By Darrell Ehrlick
She fought the law. And she won: Newspaper publisher challenges county attorney’s election
Darla Downs, owner and publisher of the Northern Plains Independent in Wolf Point, Montana. In this Aug. 24, 2021 picture she stands in front of the building where a new door and flooring are being installed to update the newspaper office which had been closed since May 2019 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

On paper, it seems a mismatch: A newspaper publisher who has training as an accountant taking on the county attorney.

But Northern Plains Independent Publisher Darla Downs took on the election of now-former Roosevelt County Attorney Frank Piocos. She couldn’t afford an attorney, so she filed a lawsuit pro se, or on her own.

In a court hearing that took the judge just minutes to decide after both parties presented their cases, Judge Katherine Bidegaray ruled that Piocos was not a resident of the county when he ran for election in 2022, and therefore, he was ineligible for the office. She also ordered a new special election.

On Tuesday, Roosevelt County Commissioners told the Daily Montanan that Piocos was no longer the county attorney and that they will be discussing next steps on Thursday.

However, Roosevelt County Commission Chairman Gordon Oelkers said he’s been surprised at the number of people coming forward to either help in the interim, or consider running.

“There are not a lot of lawyers up here in this corner of the state,” he said. “But I’m pleasantly surprised by the number who are willing to help provide guidance and move us in a positive direction.”

The Roosevelt County Attorney’s Office has one other full-time attorney. However, in order to be appointed to the position or run for it, the person must have five years of practice. They said the current person in that position is less than two years out of law school so will need to have some sort of supervision, assuring that the county’s legal services continue to run smoothly.

Bidegaray’s decision, issued in writing on Friday, was a concise five-page order that said under the law, a qualified elector meant a person who has residence in a particular county. Residency is determined largely by where the person lives.

Piocos, in previous reporting, didn’t dispute that he was trying to buy a residence in Roosevelt County, but lived instead in nearby Valley County. Piocos had even rented office space in the county, but the judge said renting space is not the same as establishing residency, and therefore Piocos was not qualified to run for office in 2022.

Piocos had previously been an assistant county attorney, which is not elected but appointed.

Downs first challenged the lawsuit shortly after the election, but not quickly enough, Piocos had originally argued. He said that he couldn’t be removed after the election because it would have deprived him of due process. He also said that Downs had not challenged his election properly, which Bidegaray ultimately found unpersuasive.

Bidegaray ordered a special election, and by state law, it cannot be held less than 85 days from the judge’s order. However, officials said they also didn’t know how long they have to hold the election because the issue hasn’t seemed to come up previously in case law.

Oelkers said that the county may even consider waiting until the 2024 election, working with some attorneys on an interim basis.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office said it is up to the county officials to set a new special election date. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who was previously Roosevelt County Attorney, as well as the former Speaker of the Montana House, would not comment if the department is involved with helping the workload or the commissioners find a solution.

During the court hearing, Downs was able to cross-examine Piocos and she asked him about the space he rented in Culbertson. He said that he didn’t have a desk there or a bed, according to the Northern Plains Independent.

Bidegaray said that Montana was clear that a person may only have one residence.

Piocos had testified that he had rental property in St. Marie in Valley County, spent time with his girlfriend in Billings, but considered Wolf Point and Roosevelt County his home.

He had used his address in Culbertson to get on the voting rolls, but records show he did not vote in the 2022 election.

The Roosevelt County Clerk and Recorder told the Independent that she had cancelled Piocos’ voter registration.

“This was outside my normal wheelhouse. I knew the law was on my side, and I had the help of plenty of county residents who were on my side,” Downs said. “I believe in watchdog journalism, and people knew it was wrong and wanted me to do something.”

She presented her case on her own, and won as her own attorney.

“I wasn’t not surprised,” she said. “I was relieved.”