BILLINGS — After a Lewistown judge slapped his female law clerk's butt with a folder, the clerk first sued her boss. Now she wants his job.
Attorney Britt Long characterizes her election bid to replace Judge E. Wayne Phillips on the bench in Montana's 10th Judicial District as a battle against an entrenched status quo that doesn't want her to speak up.
"I didn't go to look-the-other-way school. I went to law school and I intend to enforce the law," Long told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I have the experience, the qualifications and the courage to hold government accountable."
Phillips, 63, who made recent headlines with his release of accused killer Barry Beach to face retrial after three decades behind bars, has acknowledged the Dec. 2010 slap on Long's buttocks with the file folder.
But he says it was a "tap" made out of frustration after Long complained at length about Phillips' administrative assistant.
"I apologized from the get-go that I tapped her on the rear with my file folder," Phillips said. "It was not wise of me to do that. It wasn't right and professional and I recognize that, but damn."
Phillips said he is considering retirement and has not decided whether to seek another term.
The 43-year-old Long says she'll press her lawsuit regardless of his decision. She claims Phillips assaulted her and is seeking his dismissal and unspecified monetary damages.
Long grew up in New Jersey, graduated from law school at the University of Arkansas in 2004 and worked in the Wyoming Attorney General's Office before coming to Montana in 2005 to work for a state agency.
Interviews and court documents reviewed by The Associated Press reveal the dispute with Phillips is not Long's first legal run-in with a former employer — and that her claims against the judge for assault and retaliation have so far been rejected by authorities.
After she was hired by Phillips in 2008, Long sued her former bosses at the Montana Department of Conservation and Natural Resources over allegations of workplace discrimination. A judge recently dismissed the suit, issuing sanctions against Long for repeatedly failing to show up for depositions to provide testimony.
Long lost her job as Phillips' clerk last November. She said she had been given little work for months before then and was shorted on wages she claims she was owed.
Since last year, Long has run a solo legal practice specializing in employment law.
Phillips said his intra-office dispute with Long did not escalate into a legal matter until months after the slapping incident, when he admonished Long over her job performance and for intruding into the business of another member of the court staff. He said Long's decision to run for his position had unmasked the true motivation for her lawsuit, which he said was designed to wreck his reputation and advance her own political ambitions.
"She wants money or she wants me to step down so she can win," Phillips said. "It's common political practice. You make the other guy look bad so you can win the election."
Attempts by Long to press criminal charges against Phillips were rejected by prosecutors. Her subsequent request for a restraining order against Phillips also was rejected, by former Montana Supreme Court justice John Warner.
An investigation into Long's charges by the Montana Court Administrator's Office sided with Phillips. The investigation was conducted by Lucy France, director of the University of Montana's affirmative action program.
A copy of France's confidential report was provided to The Associated Press by Long. It says Long's allegations that her resistance to the judge spurred him to retaliate "is not supported by the evidence."
"There is no credible evidence that Ms. Long was subjected to sexual harassment or discriminatory retaliation in her employment with the Tenth Judicial District Court," the report concluded.
Long contends the report was based on false information provided by Phillips and members of his staff.
A second investigation into the allegations against Phillips, based on a complaint filed by Long with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, remains pending.
Long suggested she remains undaunted by the decisions against her, and sees her disputes with the DNRC and Judge Phillips as intrinsically linked.
She says both cases have been influenced by an insider's network of Montana judges and attorneys determined to frustrate her challenge to authority.
The sanctions Long received in the DNRC case require her to reimburse legal fees and related expenses racked up by the agency due to her missed and cancelled depositions, scheduled in October, November and December. DNRC attorney John Sullivan said those costs topped $15,000.
Long blamed a doctor's appointment, the death of a relative's infant and other personal emergencies for missing the depositions. A court hearing on the DNRC case is scheduled to resume March 20.
No hearing dates have been set in the suit against Phillips.
In an amendment to her lawsuit against the judge, filed in October, Long added as defendants two members of the judge's staff, Arlene Mari and Deidre Dietrich; as well as France and Beth McLaughlin with the Court Administrator's Office, who apparently played a role in the 10th judicial district investigation.
"There's a gentleman's agreement here that you don't challenge power, but that's not what the Constitution says," Long said.
Matt Volz contributed from Helena.