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By Tim Leeds 

Alley appointed new Hill County attorney

 

Ryan Welch

New Hill County Attorney Karen Alley is sworn in this morning by Hill County Commission Chair Mark Peterson.

The Hill County Commission wasted no time this morning accepting the resignation of Hill County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson and appointing her successor.

By 8:10 this morning, Commision Chair Mark Peterson and Commissioner Diane McLean, with Commissioner Mike Wendland absent, unanimously accepted the resignation and appointed Deputy Hill County Attorney Karen Alley as the new top law official in the county.

Peterson asked the public to be patient as Alley worked to catch up on a backlog in the office.

"I believe Karen has done a great job trying to keep the office afloat during some hard times," he said. "I think it is the right thing to do."

McLean concurred.

"She has walked in to a very difficult spot," McLean said. "I am truly disappointed in the misconduct, really, that we have seen in the previous county attorney's work."

Alley said that in addition to having two new deputies coming in - Peterson said Friday that one starts Aug. 6 and the other arrives the following week - the state Attorney General's Office has offered to help her prosecute cases in which she has a conflict, and will have people here this week.

"I not only have people coming on board, but have the assistance of the Attorney General's Office," she said.

Peterson said Alley will have to decide whether to continue with a change put in place by Cole-Hodgkinson to replace office staff with a third deputy attorney.

Alley defeated Havre Attorney Randy Randolph in the Democratic primary election in June for county attorney and is unopposed in the general election.

Cole-Hodgkinson, who was appointed in November 2016 to replace outgoing Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl, did not run for the office in this year's election.

She submitted her letter of resignation Thursday effective at 8 a.m. today, although she still faces hearings in state District and Hill County Justice courts.

Cole-Hodgkinson faced complaints and allegations of misconduct almost from the start of her term, with some members of the office staff saying she had hardly been in Havre for the first few months of her tenure, working from Missoula.

She then had cases dismissed due to failing to show up for a Justice Court trial and not being prepared and failing to have the victim - and key witness - present at a District Court hearing.

Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger held a contempt of court hearing. Sshe did not find Cole-Hodgkinson in contempt, although she chastised her for missing the hearing and for other problems in the office, primarily lack of communication with attorneys and other county offices.

The dismissed District Court case led to the filing of a $1 million lawsuit against the county saying it happened due to gross imcompetence. That lawsuit was dismissed and the Attorney General's Office refiled and prosecuted the case, leading to a guilty plea.

The past year has had other problems, including Cole-Hodgkinson saying she was not prepared to go to trial on several cases scheduled as possible trials that day, leading to them being dismissed. That included a felony assault with a weapon charge against former Democratic Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives Bob Bergren.

Cole-Hodgkinson said she was prepared to prosecute a case that day from the list of possible cases.

The issues have continued this year. The Hill County Attorney's Office was ruled in June as being incapable of prosecuting a case in District Court because Alley had represented the defendant as a public defender before becoming a deputy county attorney.

Cole-Hodgkinson faces hearings in District Court Thursday and Justice Court Aug. 7 to show cause why she failed to have judgments for the judge to sign filed in District Court and failed to have an eligible attorney appear to cover cases in Justice Court when her deputy had conflicts in the cases.

Barger today issued a ruling denying a request sent today by Cole-Hodgkinson in which she apologized for missing the hearings in question and asked Barger to vacate the Aug. 7 hearings.

Ryan Welch

"I have been largely away from the office for the past few weeks dealing with three rather overwhelming and unexpected personal matters. I trusted that the office was able to take care of things," she wrote.

She wrote that she will be out of the state Aug. 7 and requested the hearing be rescheduled or she be permitted to appear by telephone.

Barger denied the request, finding that no statutory or case law was provided to show why the court should excuse her or t without a hearing, just that Cole-Hodgkinson asserted "she was 'simply unaware that (sic) of her conflicts or that she needed my assistance.'"

The motion also did not have good cause to grant a continuance, simply a statement Cole-Hodgkinson would be out of state, Barger's order said.

Barger denied the request and orered Cole-Hodgkinson to appear in person Aug. 7.

 

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