By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The Missoula County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the origin of a forged letter suggesting that county commissioners no longer support the reopening of a refugee resettlement office in the city.
The letter, which is dated Feb. 10 and bears a Great Falls postmark, includes official county letterhead and the signatures of all three Missoula County commissioners. It was addressed to the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
“Our community members have expressed a tremendous amount of concern and will not support Middle Eastern refugees here in Missoula,” the letter reads. “After further review, we don’t feel (M)iddle (E)astern cultures are compatible with our community values.”
Brenda Bassett, spokesperson for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, said Mayor John Engen was meeting with members of the International Rescue Committee about the planned reopening of the resettlement office when the letter came to light.
“It came to the mayor from the IRC and the State Department, all from this unknown individual who had written it,” said Bassett. “We have a detective on it. We don’t know if we have a crime yet. We’re hoping to find the person who wrote the letter.”
Charges could include impersonating an elected official – a felony – and a misdemeanor charge of forgery, among others.
The forged letter marks a strange twist in a debate that appeared settled in March. Opposing rallies for and against the resettlement office played out across the city earlier this year, culminating with a community forum on the topic hosted by the City Club Missoula.
County commissioners sent their original letter to the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in January. The letter supported Soft Landing’s request to the IRC to place roughly 100 refugees per year in Missoula.
The forged letter, however, suggested that commissioners had reversed their decision.
“The opening of the International Rescue Committee office in Missoula will need to be suspended at this time,” the letter concludes. “Missoula regrettably is unable to accommodate the resettling of refugees for the foreseeable future.”
Commissioners called the letter an embarrassment and categorically false.
“Looking at the letter now, it’s obvious we’d never write something like ‘Middle Eastern culture’ isn’t compatible with the community,” said Commissioner Stacy Rye. “But there was some serious concern that spread throughout the community. It’s not okay to try to interrupt a democratic process like that, or to attempt to reverse a decision.”
Officials at the county believe the letter was pieced together using a number of other county letters printed under official county letterhead.
The forgery also includes an official agenda number, though the sheriff’s department said it stems from a land-use issue and has nothing to do with the resettlement office.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “Of course, we’ll follow with a letter (to the State Department) saying it’s false. They did keep the envelop. It went through Great Falls. Most of the opposition we got was not from Missoula.”
Commissioners said they still stand behind Soft Landing, the IRC and the refugee resettlement program.
“It’s not like we ever wavered in our decision,” said commissioner Jean Curtiss. “It will be interesting how the sheriff’s department investigates it.”