COMMUNITY WANTS ANSWERS: Coker addresses scrutiny after former job report surfaces

Dunn County Sheriff Clay Coker came under fire from the community when documents were released detailing what some considered misconduct on his behalf at his former job in Montana.

Sheriff Clay Coker
Sheriff Clay Coker

By BRYCE MARTIN | N.D. Group Editor |

Dunn County Sheriff Clay Coker came under fire from the community when documents were released detailing what some considered misconduct on his behalf at his former job in Montana.

Coker, running for election in the November general election against Kenny LaRocque, previously served as a compliance officer for the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council, upon his resignation effective May 31, 2013.

A fact-finding report was drafted in October 2012 by Jim Kerins, a third party consultant with Communication and Management Services, LLC of Helena, Mont., to investigate Coker’s supervisor and POST executive director, Wayne Ternes. The objectives of the review were to identify and verify issues related to constituent and council concerns and identify potential solutions and strategies for improving individual and organizational performance, according to the document.

The lengthy report contained interviews, conducted by Kerins, with several POST employees and other law enforcement officials familiar with its operations.

The council was not a “big hit” to begin with as the Montana state legislature had recently transformed it into a standalone entity that would investigate the conduct of other law enforcement departments across the state, functioning as an internal affairs bureau. Never before had the organization had a compliance officer to complete the investigations.

A “vocal group” of people that didn’t appreciate having their activities documented and investigated, according to Coker, were responsible for making what he considered to be false statements to Kerins for the report, some of which involved his own actions.

“I don’t know what type of supervision it would take with Clay. He has lost a lot of trust and I know there are a lot of people that won’t trust Clay Coker in their record room. I don’t trust him,” said Dennis McCave in the report. McCave was a POST council member that has since retired. “I don’t trust either one [Coker or Ternes] to competently do the job.”

Coker credited McCave’s remark to the general dislike of POST and its investigative duties.

“It was a Wayne Ternes thing, not a Clay Coker thing,” Coker said of the report’s findings. “I don’t have to defend myself because I did nothing wrong.” Instead, Coker said he was criticized for doing the right thing in his position, often having to make tough, unpopular decisions.

When Ternes was placed on administrative leave, before he made the decision to resign, Coker was named acting director of POST. Coker said he made the decision to leave, several months later, because the position’s wages were low and frozen and that he was performing two jobs for less pay, which was verified by his exit interview and letter of resignation, which were made public record.

Following Ternes’ departure and the resignation of the council’s chairman, Coker was placed under the supervision of Hal Harper, the acting chairman of the council.

Harper told the Dunn County Herald on Wednesday that Coker “worked together to refocus” the objectives of the council.

“I thought it was good performance,” Harper said.

Because he was made chairman while the report was being finished and hadn’t been privy to the actual events that took place, he wasn’t able to speak to its most of its contents.

Another issue raised within the report was the fact that Coker was a member of the Montana Roughnecks – a motorcycle club, with which he is no longer active. It was made clear in the report that a few of the individuals involved with POST considered it a motorcycle gang, pointing out public photos of the group posed as “outlaws,” wearing bandanas covering their faces and brandishing weapons.

“The general feeling is that law enforcement officials have no business belonging to motorcycle clubs that emulate outlaw motorcycle gangs in their appearance and organization,” Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said in the report.

Coker said it was far from anything like a group of outlaws.

The group’s motto on their website——reads, “We represent the 99 percent of the population that gives a [expletive] about society and the laws that govern the world we live in. We are not Outlaw. We are Lawmen: Respecting all and fearing none.”

It was “totally ridiculous to spin it” into being a bad group, Coker said. Instead, he said the group often worked at fundraising events in the state. The photo, he explained, was the group dressed to spoof the official patch of the group, “Johnny Law.”

The negative remarks contained within the report were merely opinion, not fact, and some of those opinions have since changed, according to Coker. The facts, which were brought to light in federal lawsuits, seemed to vindicate Coker, POST and some of the incidents cited in the report.

“It went deeper than even I can discuss,” Coker said.

After an amicable split with POST, Coker headed to Dunn County to fill the vacant sheriff position, hired by the Dunn County Board of Commissioners. Coker the fact-finding report was never addressed during his interview for the sheriff position.

Allegations of questionable activities by deputies in Dunn County under his direction surfaced after this year’s election for sheriff heated up. Many allegations and rumors on both sides spread like wildfire through the communities, including an allegation that female drivers were being pulled over, unnecessarily, just to assert the office’s control.

Coker said he never received any complaints from any such scenarios, but encouraged people to do so if there is any problem.

All traffic stops are monitored by car-mounted video cameras with audio recording capability. If such a case arose, Coker would review the tapes to investigate the complaint in an unbiased fashion.

But Coker admitted he had received other complaints regarding his deputies, four or five, each of which were proved unfounded; some were disproved by the patrol videos.

Regarding a recent case in Killdeer where a local oil company reported large quantities of oil being stolen and not responding until several days later, Coker admitted that the deputy “dropped the ball.” Though, Coker added that it was not a crime in progress so it wasn’t considered urgent.

Coker’s main message is to treat everyone the same when it comes to law enforcement, he said. Friends of the department would not receive special treatment and no unethical breaks would be provided, regardless of whom the person is.

With being a public servant, said Coker, a person’s private life is placed under increased scrutiny. But he’s familiar with that, having been a public servant for his entire adult life.

“There’s a double standard for law officials and maybe there should be,” Coker said. “And I’m not afraid to answer the hard questions.”

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