By Ross Markman
The primary race for the low-profile office of Hill County treasurer has an unusual twist this year. The Democratic challenger, who used to work in the office, said she was fired because she questioned the integrity of incumbent Carrie Dickson.
Challenger Kathleen "Kitty" Galbavy-Williams, who was dismissed in July, said she lost her job because she claimed that Dickson maintained a "slush fund."
"I want people to know I wasn't fired for stealing, and I was wrongfully discharged because I was asking questions about something illegal," said Galbavy-Williams, who is running against Dickson in the June primary. "I just know I was made the scapegoat for asking and I was wrongfully terminated."
Dickson, treasurer since 1994 and a clerk in the Treasurer's Office for five years before that, declined to discuss the circumstances that led to Galbavy-Williams' dismissal, saying it was a personnel issue.
"Allegations were made and they were investigated. My audits have been perfect," she said.
County Attorney David Rice determined that Dickson hadn't properly documented the fund and urged her to start doing so. But he said she hadn't done anything illegal.
"This was a concern, but it didn't rise to a criminal action," he said. "Evidently, this has carried on for years. Carrie just carried on that tradition."
The fund in question had been in existence for at least 15 years, Rice said, and was used for small office expenses.
James O'Leary, treasurer prior to Dickson, said the fund existed during his 6 years with the county. It was used primarily to purchase office supplies, O'Leary said.
"It's always been there. A petty cash fund is all it was," he said.
The money, O'Leary said, came from mailing fees collected when people paid for their license plates. Every month or two, he said, the petty cash was emptied into the office's general fund.
"That was done often enough to keep it from growing too big," O'Leary said, estimating the amount never exceeded a couple hundred dollars.
Janice Rosgaard, Galbavy-Williams' campaign manager and a former Treasurer's Office employee, said the fund existed for most of the 26 years she worked in the office.
Rosgaard said she didn't think the fund was illegal.
"All I know is that any time we were audited, that bag was hidden," she said.
"Every day you balance receipts against the amount of money coming in. Say you were $2 short for the day. The money that was in that fund went to cover that," Rosgaard said. "That petty cash was strictly for if a clerk forgot to charge somebody on a receipt."
She said Dickson began using the fund for "frivolous things," like birthday cakes, coffee and Christmas decorations for the office.
"I was the one who counted the money. Ms. Dickson had a card where she kept track of how much was in it," Rosgaard said.
When she resigned in July 2000, Rosgaard said, there was more than $400 in the fund.
Money, according to Galbavy-Williams, took several paths to the fund.
Someone wanting a photocopy, for instance, was typically charged 50 cents. Receipt of that money wasn't recorded and it went directly to the fund. In addition, fees for car registration duplicates or postage sometimes found their way to the fund, Galbavy-Williams said.
"There was no way of tracking it. (Dickson) had total control over that bag," she said. "We would just put the money in that was not receipted."
Galbavy-Williams said she first raised a concern about the fund to Hill County Clerk of Court Dena Tippets on Feb. 12, 2001, during what she assumed was a confidential conversation. Tippets, she said, contacted Rice, who, Galbavy-Williams presumed, spoke with Dickson.
Tippets confirmed this week that Galbavy-Williams did discuss the allegations with her, but said the conversation was not held in confidence. Galbavy-Williams, Tippets said, spoke openly about her relationship with Dickson and the fund. The discussion, she added, was not behind closed doors.
"Kitty came up to me one day at noon. While she was here, she started talking about the Treasurer's Office and Carrie," Tippets said. "At the end of the conversation, I was left with the impression that she was alleging there was a misuse of funds in the office."
Within 24 hours, Tippets said, she contacted Rice.
"She didn't ask me to do anything about it, but I have an obligation to the taxpayers," she said. "I thought, I just can't pretend I didn't hear it.'"
Two days later, Galbavy-Williams claims, she was reprimanded for dressing inappropriately at work. Galbavy-Williams said she had just returned to work after a month-long absence for back surgery, and was wearing light blue, stone-washed jeans.
According to the Hill County Personnel Manual, "dress and grooming is at the employee's discretion" and "employees are encouraged to wear appropriate attire associated with a public service employee."
Galbavy-Williams was suspended for one day without pay on Feb. 15, she said.
The feud between Galbavy-Williams and Dickson became somewhat public when Galbavy-Williams sent a letter in April to Dickson, Rice and the Hill County Commission outlining her complaints about the treasurer.
In the letter, she alleged that throughout her eight years with the Treasurer's Office, Dickson had treated her with "disrespect, disdain and dishonesty."
The letter said Dickson kept a bag of money in her office for which no records were kept. The money, Galbavy-Williams wrote, was "improperly used for personal benefit of the treasurer."
How her allegations about the fund came to be investigated remains unclear. Havre police Lt. George Tate said he investigated after receiving a complaint from a source he declined to identify, although he said it was not Rice.
Rice said he informed Tate of the allegations after hearing them in February from a Hill County official, whom he declined to name. Following the investigation, Tate submitted his findings to Rice.
After receiving Tate's report, Rice sent a letter to Dickson, dated May 29.
In the letter, he said, "I really don't like the idea of balancing your accounts with the fund, so find some other way to handle that."
"I wouldn't say it was illegal. It was inappropriate. That leftover money should have been used for county purposes," Rice said.
"The bottom line for me, when I heard it was more than $25, I said, That money needs to be receipted,''' he added. "I told them, Don't have an account like that,' and as I understand, it was closed out."
Dickson suspended Galbavy-Williams for nine weeks with pay, effective May 24. According to a letter dated one day earlier from Dickson to Galbavy-Williams, an investigation was being conducted of Galbavy-Williams' "duties and conduct as clerk."
Between her first and second suspensions, Galbavy-Williams said, the relationship between her and Dickson worsened. During the second suspension, Galbavy-Williams said, she was never contacted for questioning.
"I was never given a chance to rebut. I was never given the opportunity for a closed hearing. I was never even asked a question," she said.
Galbavy-Williams retained a lawyer, Elizabeth Best of Great Falls, who asked the county to fast-forward the grievance procedure and to waive a hearing in front of Dickson. Best suggested a three-member panel hear the case.
The following day, according to Galbavy-Williams, she was fired.
Rice agreed to the panel. Galbavy-Williams and the county each selected one member, who together selected the third.
The county chose Ray Peck, a former Democratic state representative from Havre. Galbavy-Williams selected Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell, whom she referred to as a personal friend. Together, Isbell and Peck named Lynda Taplin, vice president of Heritage Bank, to chair the panel.
In October, the panel unanimously agreed that Galbavy-Williams should not be reinstated as clerk; that she did not lose any of her rights due to the agreement reached by Rice and Best to waive the hearing in front of Dickson; and that issues dealing with Galbavy-Williams' compensation for work missed should be settled by attorneys. The panel also denied Galbavy-Williams' request to have documents removed from her personnel file.
The Hill County Commission, in an Oct. 12 letter to Galbavy-Williams, said the termination would stand.
"It was a personnel issue and we really can't talk about it. Everything has been investigated," Commissioner Kathy Bessette said last week.
"Ever since I've been here, (Dickson's) always had a clean audit," Commissioner Doug Kaercher added. "The accountants gave the Treasurer's Office a clean bill of health."
Galbavy-Williams has since moved on from what she calls "eight years of hell." In September, she took a job teaching at the Eastend Hutterite Colony.
If she wins the June Democratic primary, she'll face another former colleague, Wanda Mork, one of two deputies in the Treasurer's Office. Mork is running unopposed as a Republican.
The deadline to file for office was March 21 at 5 p.m. Galbavy-Williams filed at 4:05 p.m.
Mork filed at 4:15.
"I was pretty much planning on running the whole time," Mork said.
Galbavy-Williams maintains that her relationship with Dickson was at its worst when she first mentioned running against her boss four years ago.
"I could tell that once Janice (Rosgaard) left (the Treasurer's Office), I was a short-timer," Galbavy-Williams said. "But I was going to make her fire me. I wasn't going to quit."