New Hill County attorney takes office; questions remain about past attorney’s conduct

(Havre Herald) As of 8:01 Monday morning, there is a new Hill County attorney after Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson’s resignation ended a tumultuous 19-month tenure.

Karen Alley was sworn in as the Hill County attorney on Monday morning. (Paul Dragu/Havre Herald)

Karen Alley has taken over an office swimming in cases, and for now, has no deputy county attorneys.

She’s aware of the difficult road ahead.

“I have a tremendous backlog to deal with,” said Alley, who beat out attorney Randy Randolph in June’s Democratic primary.

Commissioners Mark Peterson and Diane Mclean voted 2-0 to appoint Alley. Commissioner Mike Wendland was absent.

“I believe Karen (Alley) has done a great job to keep the office afloat during tough times,” Peterson said.

Peterson asked that people be patient with the county attorney’s office and Alley said the Montana Attorney General’s Office will be in Tuesday to begin helping with the caseload.

Two deputy attorneys have been hired and they will start in coming weeks, but neither will start this week.

Alley said the deputies are Penelope Oteri of Conrad and Tim Jeffrey from Omaha, Neb. The latter is not licensed in Montana, but he can do research and legal paperwork, Alley said.

He cannot argue cases in court yet. His license is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.

Alley has the option of hiring a third deputy attorney if she chooses to go that route instead of hiring an office manager or personnel director, which are also options.

Alley, who graduated from the University of Montana Law School, came to Havre in 2011 to practice. She first worked at Lorang Law, which is now Hi-Line Law. And she worked for the Regional Office of Public Defender before being hired by Cole-Hodgkinson as a deputy county attorney.

On Monday morning, she said that any potential conflicts connected to her time as a public defender will be handled by the Attorney General’s Office.

Cole-Hodgkinson is ordered to be in District and Justice courts in the coming weeks for show cause hearings — to give reason as to why she did not appear for a total of 10 hearings.

“I am truly disappointed with the conduct of our former county attorney,” Commissioner Mclean said Monday.

Cole-Hodgkinson’s beleaguered tenure started in 2016, after she was appointed by the county commissioners on recommended grounds. In a Democratic forum at Montana State University-Northern earlier this year, Commissioner Peterson said the recommendation came from former county attorney Gina Dahl.

In late February 2017, then-relatively new Hill County Attorney Cole-Hodgkinson granted an interview to this reporter, for the Havre Daily News at the time. The interview was a result of weeks, more than a month, of phone calls and emails with requests to interview the county’s new attorney and one of its most highly-paid employees. Who is the person who would be prosecuting the bad guys? Who would be offering legal advice to the county? Who was taking on the large caseload that had been the norm?

During that February interview, Cole-Hodgkinson sang a familiar tune: The Hill County Attorney’s Office has a large caseload and not enough people and money. During her exit interview, Dahl said her entire eight-year term had been plagued by a caseload that never dwindled and a lack of resources.

Cole-Hodgkinson’s desk was stacked high with files, cases upon cases in piles next to more piles, illustrating the point. She spoke of Hill County’s high crime rate and the common denominators in essentially all local lawlessness: drugs and alcohol.

The only way to beat back the crime, to get ahead in her caseload, to serve the people of Hill County, she said then, was a bigger budget for her office — more money, more attorneys. The goal, which she jokingly said would surely get her re-elected, was to get more money for the office.

(By the time election season came around, she never filed to run and the Democratic primary was won by Alley. Republicans did not field a candidate for the fall elections.)

Cole-Hodgkinson also spoke of what was then the upcoming Marsy’s Law, an amendment that had been passed by voters the November she took over. The new law would have listed 18 rights for crime victims, including the right to due process, privacy, which included the right to refuse a defendant’s requests for interviews, to be noticed of all hearings, and to seek help from an attorney, among others.

Marsy’s Law would have required more resources and would make the office susceptible to lawsuits, she had said.

In November 2017, the Montana Supreme Court struck down Marsy’s Law on the grounds that when Montanans voted for the initiative, they voted for multiple changes to the state constitution that were not related.

By November 2017, Cole-Hodgkinson’s office had already had its share of controversy and bad publicity.

The first outward sign that trouble was brewing was when, in a March 2017 letter to the editor of the Havre Daily News, the then- personnel clerk who had worked in the county attorney’s office, Emily Mayer, essentially said Cole-Hodgkinson had barely been in the office since taking over.

“She has apparently spent much of her time on the Hill County taxpayer’s dime in Missoula, supposedly closing her private practice as required under Montana statute (MCA 7-4-2704),” Mayer wrote. “For while staff members must come in to work and do their jobs in order to get paid, she gets her paycheck regardless of how many hours she works — or in this case, doesn’t work. We Hill County taxpayers pay this position just short of $95,000 annually (data from the Hill County Auditor’s Office),” Mayer wrote.

In her letter, Mayer also touched on Cole-Hodgkinson’s lack of communication, a sentiment that, in the coming months would be echoed by employees of the Office of Public Defender, and many attorneys whose work sent them into the Hill County Courthouse, including Randolph in a letter written to The Herald before June’s Democratic primary race.

By March 2017, an assault victim had filed a complaint, suing the county for $1 million on the grounds of gross incompetence by Cole-Hodgkinson.

The case against the victim’s assailant was dropped after Cole-Hodgkinson asked District Judge Daniel Boucher to dismiss the case on the victim’s behalf because she had broken off communication and, Cole-Hodgkinson claimed, was no longer interested in testifying.

The woman, however, argued she had been willing to testify in the case and if the county attorney had put any effort, she would’ve found her, especially since she had provided multiple avenues to be reached.

Boucher dismissed the woman’s $1 million lawsuit. The charges were later refiled by the Montana Attorney General’s Office and the assailant, Eric Hawley, received seven years in the Montana State Prison.

The poor communication problems came to a head March 2017, when Justice of the Peace Judge Audrey Barger scolded the county attorney for not showing up to a trial. Cole-Hodgkinson told Barger paperwork had been misfiled and no one from her office knew about the trial.

During the hearing, Barger also scolded Cole-Hodgkinson for her lack of poor communication where courthouse staff, and other attorneys, were not receiving responses and paperwork.

Then came the list of dismissed cases, summarily a result of Cole-Hodgkinson’s unpreparedness, as cited by Boucher on a September 2017 morning in court, when three District Court cases were dismissed. The three dismissed cases came on the heels of the dropped lawsuit and at least two other cases that had been dismissed.

One of the more notable cases dismissed that September morning was a felony assault with a weapons charge against former speaker of the Montana House of Representatives Robert Bergren Sr., who was accused of threatening a tenant with his shotgun.

And then there were complaints by those working in or with Cole-Hodgkinson. Out-of-town attorneys were getting frustrated with the late plea deals and canceled trials they had driven hours to attend.

Other side effects of the late plea deals were the number of times potential jurors had been called in and paid to attend that first day. Documents obtained by this reporter showed that there had been an uptick in the number of jurors who were called in, only to be dismissed after a plea deal.

On Thursday, Cole-Hodgkinson is ordered to come before Boucher in seven show cause hearing to give reason as to why she didn’t show up to seven hearings. On Aug. 7, she is asked to do the same for three hearings, before Barger.