Sinclair Television of Montana, LLC, the parent company of local NBC affiliate KECI (and stations in Butte, Kalispell and Bozeman) filed a civil action in Missoula District Court on Aug. 3 seeking the release of detailed legal bills related to the city’s purchase of Mountain Water. At a May 7 City Council meeting, Mayor John Engen said, “As of today, acquisition costs are $9,163,724.54.”

Attorneys Quentin Rhoades and Nicole Siefert are counsel for the plaintiffs. The suit states its claim under MCA section 2-3-221, the state’s “right to know” laws.

According to the filing, KECI sent a letter to the city in June requesting bills and correspondence related to the Mountain Water acquisition. The request was denied, with the city claiming the bills were subject to attorney-client privilege and constituted “attorney work-product.” The suit counters that since the Montana Supreme Court compelled the city to release similar information to the other parties in litigation, it no longer has a claim to keep that information confidential.

The plaintiffs have also filed a “motion to substitute” a judge other than Judge Karen S. Townsend, who presided over the Mountain Water litigation.

Ward 4 council member Jesse Ramos, who has been vocal about his desire for the release of the bills (and is personally represented by Rhoades in his own attempts to see them), told the Indy he is glad action has been taken. “This is one of the things about taking something public and quote-unquote ‘giving water back to the people,’ Ramos says. “If [Engen] wants to treat it like the people’s water, then the people have a right to see what they paid for, how much they paid for it, and what services were provided for the money they shelled out.”

Calls for comment to the KECI and attorney Rhoades had not been returned at the time of this post.

Attorney Natasha Jones of Boone Karlberg, commenting on the city’s behalf, tells the Indy the suit’s assertion that “the Montana Supreme Court has ordered the City to produce its billing records to the other parties in the action for inspection” is wrong. “There was an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court that indicated that certain information about the fees and costs incurred by the City of Missoula would be shared with the defendant on remand to the district court,” Jones says, “but that order was very specific, and said that did not authorize the defendants to engage in a fishing expedition that would allow them unrestricted access to all the city’s itemized billing statements and attorney-client communications.” And while the lawsuit says that the Mountain Water case is “complete but for attorney fee issues,” Jones says that since the city revived its 2015 bad-faith and fraud lawsuit against onetime Mountain Water owner the Carlyle Group, the legal bills remain part of an active case. She also says that a great deal of information about the costs has already been made publicly available via City Council meetings.  

On Aug. 9, Tribune Media announced it is withdrawing from a proposed merger with Sinclair Broadcast Group and suing Sinclair for breach of contract over Sinclair’s “belligerent and unnecessarily protracted negotiations” with the FCC and the Justice Department, which have oversight of the merger. The broadcast company has been covered extensively for its requirements that affiliates broadcast commentary by former Trump campaign staffer Boris Epshteyn and that local anchors read commentary supplied by its national office.

** This story was update Aug. 9 at 1:37 p.m. to include comment from attorney Natasha Jones.

Staff Reporter

Susan Elizabeth Shepard lived in Missoula from 2008 to 2011 before returning in 2017 to work at the Independent. She is also a two-time resident of Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, with an interest in labor, music and sports. @susanelizabeth on Twitter.

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