By Billings Gazette
The Billings Gazette and KTVQ Communications have filed to intervene in a legal action by three police officers seeking to keep their names out of the news after being disciplined for sexual trysts.
The media organizations filed a motion Wednesday to be heard in the case currently under consideration by District Court Judge Michael Moses.
Three officers initiated the case on Monday to keep their names private. The city was set to release their identities and related investigatory documents at 3 p.m. that day.
The planned release of the names was a response to records requests from media organizations about sexual encounters between the officers and a civilian police employee that the Billings Police Department confirmed last Wednesday.
Two of the encounters took place while the officers were on duty, including one in a patrol car. Those officers were suspended without pay for two weeks.
And, two of the encounters took place in the police department’s records storage area in the basement of City Hall. One of those was while the officer was off-duty. He was suspended for a week without pay.
The Billings Police Department had previously released the name of the civilian employee involved in the encounters, but The Gazette has declined to name the woman until all the names are made public.
Moses ordered three individual case files sealed on Monday, granted the officers a temporary restraining order against the city and set the matter for a private hearing on May 3. The news organizations are hoping to join that hearing.
The three officers are being represented by Scheveck Law Firm. The media organizations are represented by Sheehy Law Firm. Assistant City Attorney Thomas Pardy said it was not yet known whether the city would handle the matter with in-house counsel or hire an outside firm.
As the parties requesting the documents, the media outlets should be allowed to appear and be heard, they argue. What’s more, there are no legal grounds for sealing the officers’ cases, they say.
The judge should, at the very least, unseal the filings and redact them, the media organizations argue.
Jon Stepanek, news director at KTVQ, said the television station joined the motion in an effort to ensure government operates transparently.
“Anytime that a government’s going to put restrictions on the free flow of information, I think it’s our responsibility that we challenge to find out why that is,” he said, “and at least get some explanation as to why they believe that that’s the proper course of action to take.”
Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick said the legal move was an effort to hold public entities accountable.
“We believe the public has a right to know how its police department operates and under what circumstances police officers, some on duty, are disciplined,” he said. “We will fight on the public’s behalf because it speaks to the core of who we are — here to hold public officials accountable. That cannot be done with restraining orders and sealed files.”