Judge halts recount efforts in race for sheriff in Musselshell County

Posted at 4:09 PM, Dec 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-28 23:52:05-05

BILLINGS – A Montana judge on Thursday halted a recount for the Musselshell County sheriff’s race, finding the challenger and county elections officials didn’t follow state laws governing recount procedures.

After a Thursday hearing, Judge Katherine Bidegaray of Richland County said unsuccessful write-in candidate Ronnie Burns failed to advise the court that Shawn Lesnik was not served with an application for a recount as required by Montana law, among other things.

Also listed in the ruling, Burns is said to have failed to guide the court through the procedural requirements of Montana law concerning recounts, that he violated Montana law which is designed to protect the rights of elected candidates and failed to pay a cash deposit for the probable cost of the recount.

The recount came after a close-call election in Musselshell County.

Lesnik, who is the current undersheriff, ran as a Republican for the office of sheriff. Lesnik won over Burns in the primary election, prompting Burns to run in the general election as a write-in candidate.

(Ronnie Burns, left, and Shawn Lesnik are competing for the Musselshell County sheriff’s seat)

In November, Lesnik received 1,142 votes in the election and defeated Burns by 41 votes. The margin was above the threshold to trigger an automatic recount, according to state law, so Burns filed a lawsuit.

Burns filed a motion for a “preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order” on Nov. 30, as well as a “stipulation and request to place matter and hearing abeyance” on Dec. 6 and filed an order for “unopposed motion setting specific recount parameters” on Dec. 21. All were vacated by Judge Bidegaray.

He took to his Facebook page in late November to say that he was weighing his options and that he filed a petition for a recount with the Fourteenth Judicial District Court, Musselshell County.

The process of the recount was set to continue into Friday, but Clerk and Recorder Cheryl Tomassi said late Thursday evening the judge vacated the issue, by video conference.

Tomassi, who is also Musselshell County Elections Administrator and the elected official in charge of the recount, is also named in the complaint by Burns.

“It’s been crazy, I am glad it’s over for now,” said Tomassi.

However it’s still unclear if Burns will file an appeal, MTN News reached out to his lawyer Chris Gallus Friday but have not yet received a response.

Bidegaray also ruled that Lesnik may be entitled to costs and attorney fees but that he must file a brief for that award.

Tomassi said the sheriff, which is presumably Lesnik, is set to take over for Musselshell County on Monday.

MTN News also reached out to Lesnik’s lawyer for comment and will update this story with a comment.

Reporting by Andrea Lutz for MTN News