Bitterroot Star co-owner Michael Howell says it feels like the militiamen are after him again.
For nearly two years, Howell’s weekly newspaper in Stevensville—the only family-owned paper in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys—has been fending off a libel lawsuit filed in federal court by the infamous Valerie and Richard Stamey, who are seeking $8 million in damages over an article Howell published about them in 2014. Howell is confident he’ll eventually prevail in their “frivolous” claim, just as he was able to clear up a multimillion-dollar lien filed against the Star years ago by Montana militiamen during their “paper terrorism” campaign, as the tactic has been called.
But the expectation of victory gives Howell little solace, because he and his wife, Victoria, have already accrued a $45,000 legal debt mounting their defense. Even if they are awarded legal fees, they don’t expect the Stameys will pay up, as Valerie has yet to do since being ordered to pay Ravalli County $151,000 last year in a different case stemming from official misconduct during her disastrous stint as county treasurer.
“We don’t expect to ever get justice in that sense out of this,” Howell says. “So we’re going to have to pay for it. It’s weird. It shouldn’t happen in America, it seems.”
The libel claim originates from a disputed $162 advertisement placed in the Star in 2010 by Richard Stamey’s state legislative campaign, for which his wife was treasurer. The Stameys claim the ad was defective and that Victoria Howell forgave the debt, which the Stameys then reported as an in-kind contribution on campaign finance reports. Michael Howell discovered the supposed contribution in 2014 while investigating the Stameys’ background for a series of stories about the treasurer debacle. The Howells filed a complaint with Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who later ruled that the Stameys had filed a false campaign report. Howell reported on Motl’s ruling under the headline, “Stameys filed false campaign finance report,” and now they’re in federal court.
Howell says the Star carries libel insurance, but is still negotiating coverage with the company. So on Dec. 27 he published another plea for donations to the Bitterroot Free Press Foundation to help offset legal costs. He says the ordeal has been “very stressful.”
“I don’t really know what it’s going to mean,” Howell, 66, says. “Does it mean that we don’t get to retire? Does it mean we work the rest of our lives to pay off a debt that was accrued by some sort of wacko, unsupported claim?”
Another lawsuit the Stameys filed against the Star and pretty much every public official in Ravalli County, seeking $20 million in damages, was tossed out by Judge Dana Christensen last month. And, in a bizarre twist, the Stameys’ attorney, Robert Myers, was disbarred Dec. 28 for making false claims about his opponent during a 2016 judicial race.
On Jan. 2, as his “last act,” Myers requested a filing extension in the Star suit. He wrote that he had been unable to contact the Stameys since his disbarment to discuss their plans for how to proceed without him. A hint came on Jan. 5, when Valerie Stamey appealed the dismissal of her other $20 million suit against the Star and county officials. She signed the appeal herself.