We tend to think corruption happens somewhere else. Chicago maybe. Surely not in rural Montana.
It hurts to admit that our beautiful state is just as vulnerable to government corruption and election fraud as anywhere else. Maybe more so, because rural people are often trusting souls.
The recent release of Lynn Rosenberg from prison resurrects the story of the “Wheatland 6” and the ugly corruption scandal that enveloped the community of Harlowton a few years ago.
The story got more national attention than local. If you are one of the many who missed it, here’s a Cliffs Notes version of the sordid tale.
In January of 2008, Lynn Rosenberg was sentenced to 54 months in prison for the theft of over $194,000 in taxpayer funds (the actual amount embezzled was probably greater) and aggravated identity theft. Mrs. Rosenberg ran the Office of Public Assistance in Wheatland County, a one-person department in the small town of Harlowton.
The drama began when authorities learned that for years she had been creating fake welfare client accounts, mostly using identities of former Wheatland County residents who had moved away long ago. She set up bank accounts and post office boxes to receive welfare checks, food stamps, and EBT cards (electronic benefit cards), forging endorsements on the checks and draining the cards at Wal-Mart. The scheme finally blew up when an anti-theft federal computer program cross-matched one of her welfare “clients” as a truck driver in Oregon who had been earning $80k per year since 2003, and hadn’t received benefits since he lived in Wheatland County in 1991.
For years, Mrs. Rosenberg was on a taxpayer-funded spending spree, aided by many people who had to have known, or at least suspected, that something was amiss. So why didn’t anybody “blow the whistle” sooner?
One possible reason: her husband, Jim Rosenberg, was – and still is – the county sheriff, a powerful local figure clearly able to ruin your day if you are a local resident.
In November of 2010 a group of concerned Wheatland County citizens, who came to be known as “the Wheatland 6”, were incredulous that Sheriff Rosenberg was running for re-election as if nothing had happened. His wife had admitted serious embezzlement from the taxpayers. “If he knew about it, he is corrupt. And if he didn’t know, he is incompetent. Either way, we want him out,” the Wheatland 6 said.
The group met with the Montana Dept. of Justice to determine if the DOJ had investigated whether the Sheriff was complicit in the embezzlement scheme. The response from the DOJ was to refer them to federal authorities, who had requested jurisdiction in the case, calling prosecution at the federal level a “cakewalk”.
The Wheatland 6 mounted a primary campaign to battle Sheriff Rosenberg’s re-election. To their amazement, the Sheriff had some local support, but their relentless efforts to educate local voters began to get traction, and in the days approaching the primary they were confident the voters would reject a sheriff whose wife is a convicted felon serving time.
Two citizens who were later aligned with the Wheatland 6 were election judges, working in the voter area at the polling station on election day. They watched and noted many inappropriate and disallowed practices, such as vote counters (who should be sequestered) wandering around the voting area and conversing with election judges and voters, discussing the counts, and making and receiving phone calls during the process. They witnessed “chaotic” conditions in the counting room, as officials allowed lists and ballots to be strewn around the room, with little or no oversight of the reading and counting of votes.
Feeling insecure as novice election judges, they did not question other, more experienced election officials about these improprieties during the polling. But they were so alarmed at what they saw, they sought out the County Clerk immediately after the polls closed. Based on their observations, the County Clerk agreed that there should be a recount, and said she would look into it. When she failed to follow through on her promise, the citizens began the process of seeking an official recount, escalating their request to the Commissioner of Political Practices and the Secretary of State.
After initially encouraging the Wheatland 6 to pursue a recount, support from the Secretary of State’s office soon waned, leaving their fate in the hands of the county commissioners. At the next commission meeting, the commissioners refused to hear any testimony, approved the canvass, sealed Rosenberg’s primary win, and summarily ruled against recount. Their response to the upset citizens was, “If you don’t like our decision, sue us.”
Life goes on in Wheatland County. Jim Rosenberg won the general election and is still the sheriff. His wife again lives in Harlowton, having completed her prison sentence.
And the Wheatland 6 still wonder who they can trust.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side
Nobody rocks it like Steve Miller –
You know he know just exactly,
What the facts is.
He ain’t gonna let those two escape justice,
He makes his livin’ off of the people’s taxes.
Go on, take the money and run!
Go on, take the money and run!