Former public works director suing county, former clerk and retired ISP detective
POCATELLO — Former Bannock County Public Works Director Dan Copeland is suing the county, the former county clerk and a retired Idaho State Police detective for allegedly defaming his character and making slanderous and libelous statements about him publicly.
Filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday, the lawsuit names Bannock County, former County Clerk Robert Poleki and now-retired ISP detective Tom Sellers as defendants.
The suit is largely in response to public comments the defendants made about a financial audit and fraud investigation into alleged abuse of authority and misappropriation of county assets by Copeland. The investigation concluded Copeland inappropriately benefited from county labor and supplies worth just under $7,000, but officials said no charges could be filed because a statute of limitations had already expired.
Seeking compensation for damages in excess of $500,000, the lawsuit includes seven counts of alleged wrongdoing on behalf of the defendants, including the deprivation of Copeland’s due process rights, the real and implied defamation of his character, the violation of county personnel policies, libel and slander, negligence and the invasion of Copeland’s privacy.
The suit also claims that a state police detective coerced statements from people he interviewed and then later misrepresented those statements in reports he authored.
“For nearly two years, Bannock County officials have falsely, irresponsibly and erroneously disseminated information claiming I criminally stole money from the county and have been under investigation for a $623,000 shortfall of the 2016 (county) landfill budget,” Copeland said in a written statement that his Pocatello attorney, Bron Rammell, provided to the Journal on Wednesday. “This personal attack and defamation of my character has left me no choice but to file suit against Mr. Poleki, Idaho State Police investigator Sellers, and Bannock County for the personal damage they have cost me.”
Citing a county policy to not comment on pending litigation, Bannock County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Kerbs declined to comment for this story. Poleki declined to comment for this story, stating he has yet to receive a copy of the suit.
State police also declined to comment on this story, citing a policy to refrain from making statements on pending litigation, and Sellers did not return the Journal’s request for comment.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a press conference Poleki hosted in January, during which he revealed the findings of a financial audit and fraud investigation of the Bannock County Public Works Department. Local accounting firm Deaton & Company conducted the fraud investigation between June and September 2017. The county solicited the audit at a cost of $2,000, Poleki said in January.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office, Idaho State Police and Oneida County Prosecutor Cody Brower, with assistance from Poleki’s office, collaborated on the forensic audit, which began in late 2016 and ended in December 2018.
During the press conference, Poleki said that as clerk he was responsible for reviewing county budgets, adding that he ordered the audit and investigation after county employees told him in 2016 that Copeland, as early as 2009, had been using county labor, equipment and supplies to improve his Bingham County home.
According to the audit and investigation, Copeland allegedly misappropriated public assets and labor worth at least $6,814 for his own benefit, which included asking workers to conduct personal favors for him such as replacing his fireplace, excavating his property and spraying his property for mosquitoes.
Further, in his Dec. 9, 2018, report concluding the forensic audit, Brower claimed that county employees told state police that Copeland used a roller, excavator and backhoe belonging to Blackfoot-based Mickelsen Construction to dig a septic tank and pond at Copeland’s Blackfoot property shortly after the company was awarded a major Bannock County landfill contract. According to the investigation report, Copeland claimed Mickelsen allowed him to use the machine in repayment for a debt they owed him.
The county workers interviewed by state police said they put in a combination of work done on their own time, often for compensation by Copeland, and work done on county time. Mickelsen officials denied to state police that they had made the arrangement with Copeland, claiming he still owes the company $4,160 for the equipment rental.
Poleki’s press conference occurred less than a month after Brower released a statement that said Copeland, who retired in February 2017 after 11 years with the county, would not face any criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired. Brower was handling the case after Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog recused himself to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
According to the lawsuit, a former unnamed county commissioner deemed Copeland to be “one of the best and hardest workers” in the county.
“Circumstances began to change in late March of 2017 when … Poleki began making statements or publishing information which impugned the honesty, integrity, virtue and reputation of Dan Copeland,” the lawsuit says.
The suit states that during the forensic audit “neither (Poleki) nor his investigators spoke with the former chairman of the Bannock County Commissioner’s Office in charge of the Public Works Department, Howard Manwaring,” adding that if such contact had occurred, Poleki would “have discovered that Manwaring and then Deputy County Prosecuting Attorney Jared Johnson had interviewed individuals about Mr. Copeland and had concluded there was no basis to believe any criminal activity had occurred.”
Nonetheless, Poleki pushed the audit and investigation. And in January, Poleki blamed former members of the Bannock County Commission who were in office at the time for insufficient oversight and turning a deaf ear to county employees’ complaints regarding the Public Works Department.
The primary basis for Copeland to sue Poleki involves many statements Poleki made to local media outlets throughout the course of the investigation and audit.
“Poleki … publicly implied that Mr. Copeland acted as if he were above the law, repeatedly engaged in criminal activity and self dealing at the public’s expense and committed criminal acts so frequently that even an investigation and audit could not reveal the full extent of Mr. Copeland’s criminal activities,” the suit says.
The lawsuit also claims that while Poleki was making public statements about the investigation and audit, Copeland had requested records from the county, including information related to the audit and investigation. His requests were all denied, the suit states.
“Throughout this entire investigation, I have only been questioned one time and that was over two years ago,” Copeland said in his written statement. “In his last press release, Poleki maliciously accused me of committing a crime despite the absence of forensic proof, going so far as to claim I have committed untold numbers of crimes for which even he acknowledges they have no evidence. I have been denied due process of law, violating my civil and constitutional rights.”
Without access to the documents, Copeland “did not have the power to publicly refute the statements and inferences that Poleki and Bannock County were making against him,” the suit says.
Though Poleki released the audit and investigative reports to the media during the press conference, the records were never released to Copeland and he was not aware what the reports or audit found until Poleki released them publicly, the suit adds.
“Copeland and his family have been forced to endure intense scrutiny, hatred, contempt and public ridicule as a result of the defamatory and libelous statements made by Mr. Poleki and Bannock County,” according to the suit. “Poleki … also implied to the public that Mr. Copeland not only criminally stole money from the public, but that he caused the county to exhaust and waste money on auditing expenses in order to prove that Mr. Copeland was a crook.”
Copeland is suing Sellers, who participated in the forensic audit, primarily because he allegedly “created police reports with slanderous and untrue or misleading information.”
“According to individuals whose alleged statements were in Mr. Sellers’ reports, Mr. Sellers threatened them and pressured them to misstate the facts,” the suit reads. “The statements in these reports were created with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Furthermore, the suit states that a county-led follow-up investigation revealed that Sellers “coerced, threatened or otherwise caused witnesses to make untrue statements about Mr. Copeland,” and that these allegedly untrue statements “were relied upon by Deaton & Company, who prepared a forensic audit that Mr. Poleki and Bannock County published.”
As a result of Sellers actions and a “reckless disregard for Mr. Copeland’s rights, a slanderous, inaccurate and untrustworthy forensic audit was published,” the suit adds.
The suit claims that Poleki and Sellers acted in conspiracy or consort to defame Copeland and that their actions compromised Copeland’s ability to work in his field of expertise. This ultimately culminated in Copeland being required to relocate and take work out of state.
In his written statement provided to the Journal, Copeland vehemently denied ever misusing public funds, adding that he actually donated a facility to the county that he claims is still in use today.
“I worked extremely hard to do what was asked of me by the County Commission, taking on multiple departments and projects in my tenure as public works director, along with turning millions of unspent public works dollars back into the general fund,” Copeland said. “In 2007, I even donated a $4,000 commercial gym to the county, which I believe is still being used today by county employees.”
No trial date has been set in the case, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill. Summons for the defendants have been issued but have not yet been delivered. Once delivered, each defendant has 21 days to respond, otherwise Winmill can rule in Copeland’s favor without a trial.