Montana News Briefs

Group seeks investigation into Zinke’s ties to gun company

BILLINGS (AP) — A political watchdog organization says U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears to have violated a conflict of interest law by meeting with executives of a Montana firearms company in which he holds stock. The Campaign Legal Center on Friday asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate Zinke’s actions in relation to PROOF Research, which is based in Columbia Falls. Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift rejected the group’s suggestion that he did something wrong. Swift says the former Montana congressman owns 1,000 shares of PROOF stock, worth about $250 to $400 in total value. She described the meeting in Zinke’s office with PROOF representatives last April as a “social call” from fellow Montanans. The Washington, D.C.-based legal center has filed previous complaints against Zinke including over his use of campaign funds.

Criminal charges dismissed after evidence theft

BILLINGS (AP) — Yellowstone County is dropping criminal charges in about 40 cases and is no longer pursuing about a dozen others due to the theft of drug evidence from the Billings police evidence locker. The Billings Gazette reports county attorney Scott Twito on Thursday confirmed the effect of the theft of prescription narcotics from 138 cases. The evidence technician involved has been fired. At the state crime lab in Missoula, officials are notifying county attorneys around the state about the theft of drug evidence submitted for analysis. Forensic Science Division administrator Scott Larson says the lab is determining the extent of the theft and if it compromises any cases. Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst tells the Missoulian that police are investigating and she expects charges will be filed against the employee, whose name has not been released.

Man convicted of threatening municipal court judge

BOZEMAN (AP) — A jury has convicted a Montana man of threatening a Bozeman Municipal Court judge over fines owed in a years-old disorderly conduct case. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports 45-year-old James King, of Belgrade, was found guilty Friday of threats and other improper influence in official and political matters. Prosecutors say he left a note at Judge Karl Seel’s house in March trying to persuade him to vacate his conviction or dismiss $235 in fines and fees. The letter said King would stop at nothing to have Seel removed from the bench and disbarred or criminally prosecuted. Gallatin County Deputy Attorney Bjorn Boyer says King told an FBI informant that he was going to attack and shoot Seel. King disputed that claim and said he only asked in the letter that the judge do his “required duty.”

State crime lab chemist charged with stealing meth

MISSOULA (AP) — A former chemist at Montana’s state crime lab in Missoula is charged with taking meth left over after testing for suspected drugs in criminal cases. Court records say the chemist’s brother-in-law told police the man confessed to using meth taken from the lab. The chemist told investigators the lab’s drug testing process does not use the entire sample. The remainder was supposed to be destroyed. He faces three counts each of felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs, misdemeanor theft and misdemeanor official misconduct. Missoula County prosecutors asked that the man be issued a summons to appear in District Court. Court records say investigators used data from the man’s Fitbit to note an elevated heart rate at the times the man said he used meth. Lab officials are working to determine if any criminal cases have been compromised.

Yellowstone park plans more security for corralled bison

BOZEMAN (AP) — Yellowstone National Park plans to increase security after fences were damaged at a bison capturing facility outside the park, in one case undoing efforts to certify the bison hadn’t been exposed to a wildlife disease and could be transferred to an Indian reservation. The bison are captured as they leave the park in the winter to reduce the size of the herd and to prevent the spread of brucellosis. Fifty-two bison escaped through two layers of damaged fence at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility near Gardiner in January. Officials have said the bulls were about 6 months from being certified as brucellosis free. Late Wednesday or early Thursday, at least 350 bison were inside the damaged fencing. Most were recaptured. Park Superintendent Dan Wenk on Friday declined to tell the Bozeman Daily Chronicle what extra security measures were planned.

Montana woman sentenced to 40 years for Great Falls robbery

GREAT FALLS (AP) — A Montana woman accused of orchestrating a marijuana robbery that led to the stabbing death of a Great Falls high school student was sentenced to 40 years in prison. The Great Falls Tribune reports Brianna Coombs was sentenced Friday after pleading guilty to a felony robbery charge last year. Authorities say Coombs and her boyfriend Joseph Knowles robbed 18-year-old Megan Meriwether in September 2016. Knowles stabbed Meriwether after she resisted and pulled her own knife. Knowles was sentenced to 60 years in prison in December. In a statement to the court, Coombs apologized, saying she wished she could take Meriwether’s spot so her family “could have their little girl back.” Coombs’ sentence includes 10 years suspended and 518 days credit for time already served.