A District Court judge has agreed to impose sanctions on a Billings lawyer accused of attempting to obstruct an investigation into a so-called dark money group by the state Commissioner of Political Practices.
The lawyer, Emily Jones, was accused of trying to intimidate potential witnesses by claiming that they could get into legal trouble for disclosing information about a defunct political consulting firm owned by her husband, Jake Eaton, a former executive director of the Montana Republican Party.
Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted a motion for sanctions against Jones last Wednesday, saying Jones’ actions “usurped the Court’s inherent authority to control discovery and trial administration in the interest of fairness and justice.”
Seeley ordered Jones to pay all attorney fees and expenses related to the motion for sanctions, and she also forwarded a copy of her order to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. That office has jurisdiction over allegations of ethics violations by Montana lawyers.
Billings lawyers Gene Jarussi and John Heenan, who filed the motion for sanctions on behalf of the Commissioner of Political Practices, said in the motion that Jones may have violated Montana Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4, which says a lawyer shall not “unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence.”
Seeley said in her order that “Jones’ actions may well have violated Rule 3.4.”
The motion was filed early in January by Jarussi and Heenan, who had been appointed special attorneys general by then-Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl to aid his investigation into the Montana Growth Network, which he had accused of breaking elections laws and failing to report all its activities.
Motl stepped down from his position in mid-May and was replaced by Jeff Mangan, who is listed as the plaintiff on the order issued by Seeley.
The investigation into the Montana Growth Network dates back to 2012, when the political nonprofit spent tens of thousands of dollars on elections. The Montana Growth Network had raised over $900,000 that year, part of which was then spent on election activities under the direction of then-Republican state Sens. Jason Priest, of Red Lodge, and Ed Walker, of the Billings area.
In June 2016, Motl’s office served a subpoena on 47 North Communications, the political consulting firm run by Eaton, seeking information and documents relating to the Montana Growth Network case, in which 47 North was listed as a witness.
A month later, Jones filed a motion to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it was too broad. The court granted that motion last January, but it also authorized Motl’s office to issue a new subpoena seeking more limited information.
In December, while the motion to quash was still pending, Motl’s office served additional subpoenas on other possible witnesses, using language the court had already approved in a similar subpoena issued to Priest. Those witnesses included Republican lawmakers Ed Walker, Art Wittich and Jeff Essmann, and Thomas Hauptman, a Billings businessman who had given substantial financial support to Republican candidates over the years.
After those subpoenas went out, Jones wrote to the four men that same month, saying she represented Eaton and his company, 47 North Communications. She said she had been informed that the subpoenas asked for, among other things, all communications between the witnesses and Eaton’s political consulting firm in 2012 and 2013.
“By this letter,” she wrote, “47 North informs you that you are not authorized to publicly disclose any of 47 North’s confidential, proprietary, or trade secret information that may be in your possession.”
Jones’ letter went on to demand that the four witnesses “protect any and all such information,” and to warn them that “unauthorized disclosure of 47 North’s confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information could expose you to liability for any resultant damages.”
Hauptman’s lawyer, James Healow, of Billings, brought Jones’ letter to the attention of Jarussi and Heenan, which formed the basis of their motion to impose sanctions on Jones. Healow also wrote a blistering response to Jones on behalf of Hauptman, asking Jones, “Did you and/or your client actually harbor fantasies of intimidating this guy? Seriously? Well, we are not amused.”
Healow told Jones she apparently “forgot” to attach to her letter “the phantom non-disclosure agreement that Tom has never seen, much less endorsed, whereby he would have agreed to preserve the sanctity of your client’s precious trade secrets.”
Healow further told Jones that Hauptman “is offended and incensed to have been treated so shabbily by your client. His anger at Mr. Eaton by far eclipses his anger at Gene Jarussi, which a week ago I wouldn’t have thought possible.”
In an April hearing on the motion to impose sanctions on Jones, Jones told Judge Seeley that she “could produce no contracts between 47th North and the witnesses identifying any confidential, proprietary or trade secret information which had been provided to a witness by 47 North.”
Jones also informed the judge that 47 North was no longer in business. In fact, according to the Montana secretary of state’s office, 47 North Communications went out of business as of Feb. 8, 2015.