This is the story of how Mayor John Engen targeted his political opponents with deadly force during the terrifying military occupation of Downtown Missoula on 12 February 2020, and his propagandist Hatchetman who published the lies that made the siege possible.
The eyes of the world have fixed upon Missoula, Montana. A procedural squabble over the otherwise boring municipal business of Tax Increment Financing has spiraled out of control, resulting in a global outcry against the continued detention of a world-renowned US military whistleblower. Staff Sergeant Brandon Bryant remains in the Missoula County Detention Facility on $100,000 bond, charged with “Threats and undue influence in official and political matters”. As the story dominates local news coverage and citizen dialogue, Missoula officials desperately scramble to control the narrative through their enthusiastic mouthpiece, the Missoula Current, headed by former Marine and useful idiot Martin Kidston. The Current has long been something of a punchline in Missoula’s local journalism scene, but this most recent storm of events has provoked Kidston to release a flurry of articles, showcasing a flabbergasting abandonment of journalistic ethics in favor of blatant fear-mongering and propaganda. He supports his pro-elite, anti-citizen rhetoric with an ever more absurd slew of false facts and authentic conspiracy theories. Kidston’s coverage has become so bad it is no longer hyperbolic to acknowledge that readers of the Missoula Current are actually less informed than those who know nothing.
Bryant’s lawyers appeared twice in Missoula District court to defend their client against a politically motivated prosecution. At Bryant’s arraignment his public defender Robin Hammond asserted that her client’s detention and prosecution violates his rights under four separate constitutional amendments, including, but not limited to, his right of free speech, right to peaceable assembly, right to equal protection under the law, right against cruel and unusual punishment and right against excessive bail.
The free speech argument in Bryant’s case will be obvious to even the most casual of observers. The other violations of his constitutional rights are somewhat more nuanced but all can be plainly understood even by those who don’t speak the truth-obfuscating language of legalese. Importantly, at this moment where his $100,000 bail has been upheld by Judge Shane Vanetta three weeks in a row, the maximum fine for the crime Brandon is charged with is $50,000. His bail is double the amount of the maximum fine allowable under the law.
Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings insists that the $100,000 bail must be maintained to protect the safety of the Missoula City Council whom Sergeant Bryant is charged with threatening. The monkey wrench in the works of Jennings’ argument however is the inconvenient fact that four members of the Council have publicly stated that they do not consider Brandon Bryant a threat and have explicitly called for him to be released and his charges dropped. One council member, Heather Harp, read a heartfelt letter to Brandon Bryant at the last Council Meeting on 24 February. Before everyone who attended the meeting Mrs. Harp pleaded for Bryant’s release and called for the charges against him to be dismissed. Four days later, three more members of the City Council (the anti-TIF voting block collectively referred to as “Team Liberty”) released their own letter, demanding Brandon’s release and accusing their Council colleagues of encouraging Bryant’s draconian prosecution in order to stifle the growing local outcry against the use and abuse of Tax Increment Financing.
City Council member Jesse Ramos was present in the courtroom during Brandon Bryant’s omnibus hearing on Thursday, 27 February. He informed Bryant’s lawyers that he was there in support of Brandon, a fact highlighted by public defender Jake Coolidge who presented Team Liberty’s letter to the Court. Every soul in the courtroom sat in silence for a few tense moments as Judge Shane Vanetta silently read the letter, which had been written and delivered to Bryant’s lawyers that same morning.
At this time the Court is still awaiting the prosecution’s response to a 28 page motion to dismiss the charges. While every hearing so far has been packed to the gills with precedent-backed arguments against Brandon’s excessive bail, Judge Vanetta has, thus far, been unmovable and inscrutable, maintaining the $100,000 bail pending a mental health evaluation. However, public defender Robin Hammond made several arguments, citing US Supreme Court precedent, that the court cannot legally compel a mental health evaluation, referencing Bryant’s right to privacy and right against self-incrimination.
Bryant’s mother started a go-fund-me campaign: “Freedom For Brandon Bryant” shortly after her son’s arrest in an attempt to raise the money for her son’s bail. His lawyers argue that the excessively high bail explicitly violates his 8th Amendment right against excessive bail.
A cursory perusal of the headlines from local media outlets might seem to indicate that Brandon Bryant’s landmark legal case is not the only news story in Missoula. But a closer reading of the headlines reveals that many of the most shocking news items published recently by local media connect themselves to the Brandon Bryant affair in some way. These items include the ongoing contention over a $16.5 million dollar taxpayer giveaway to Wisconsin millionaire Nick Checota, a highly controversial round of public comment to the City Council on 24 February, and the terrifyingly bizarre lockdown of the downtown area by militarized police originally purported as the result of an armed attack on Missoula Police Officers. The Missoula Police Department have since admitted that their response to the spontaneous shattering of a patrol car’s rear window may have been an overreaction.
On President’s Day 2020, immediately following the publication of our report, “Brandon Bryant Is A Political Prisoner”, Missoula’s local entrepreneurial organization the City Club hosted a luncheon featuring a keynote speech and Q&A with Nick Checota of Logjam Presents, and Jim McLeod of The Farran Group. Checota and McLeod are the chief developers of the proposed downtown “Riverfront Triangle”, and the recipients of the $16.5 million dollar taxpayer giveaway that sparked off the Missoula TIF controversy ultimately resulting in Brandon’s arrest and detention. At the City Club forum, Checota and McLeod gave a presentation detailing their plans for Checota’s “Drift” project, a hotel and condominium tower with attached convention center. Controversy surrounds this project as it constitutes the largest TIF giveaway in Montana State history.
During the presentation Checota mentioned that the construction of the convention center would not have been possible without the inclusion of TIF funds. He stated that despite the runaway success of his entertainment empire, that the financial numbers for the convention center simply didn’t “pencil out”. He essentially acknowledged that a convention center of this sort was unlikely to be a profitable venture, and so the decision to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to build such an unprofitable enterprise seems like a poor choice for the City. It is, however, an extremely favorable deal for Checota. He will own the attached hotel and condo tower but the convention center will be owned by the City, with Checota receiving a lucrative deal that gives him exclusive rights to book events there for the next 75 years. The way Checota’s lease agreement is structured with the City, his property taxes for this building will NOT go towards the increased use of police, roads, fire services, etc., but will be instead paying for a conference center over which Logjam and only Logjam will enjoy exclusive booking rights for 75 years. Wouldn’t it be sweet if your property taxes paid for your own mortgage? That’s essentially the deal that Checota has cunningly negotiated with the City, determining where his tax dollars go. Said tax dollars will pay for his conference center; money that would otherwise go toward paying for the government services his project will require.
This is one of the most blatant examples of privatized gains and socialized losses. As a private business leasing the conference center from the City, Logjam stands to profit handsomely off of its events, but since the City owns it, should it be rendered useless or underutilized as the result of an economic downturn, Checota will be insulated from loss.
The City Club forum is a staple of the Missoula business community, bringing local business people together in one room to hear a keynote speech and then ask questions of a highly successful entrepreneur. However, 2020’s February City Club forum at the Double Tree started off on a particularly discordant note. After introducing the keynote speakers and event protocol, City Club Vice Chair Susan Hay Patrick delivered a stern warning to the audience, alluding to provocateurs who had apparently threatened to disrupt the event:
“You may note the presence of law enforcement today. That’s because we’ve been told that there are some people determined to disrupt today’s forum at any cost. So if that’s your purpose, this isn’t the place for you. And I just want to give you a heads up that if you’re here to disrupt or insult our speakers, we just can’t tolerate that. So if you become disruptive, you’ll be asked first to leave, by me because we paid to rent this space, then by Double Tree staff representing the property owners, and should you refuse to do so, you will be escorted from the room by law enforcement and likely charged with Criminal Trespassing. That’s not the outcome we want, but it is an outcome we are prepared to enforce.”
A palpable fear coursed through the room, populated primarily by affluent business owners, many of whom were previously insulated from the growing local tensions. Susan Patrick has an outstanding reputation in Missoula and she obviously intended to diffuse and minimize potential interruptions to keep the event flowing in good order. But the opening statements had the opposite effect, pouring lots of unintended gasoline on a rapidly spreading fire of indignation and apprehension. Throughout the luncheon, these bizarre threats of arrest hung over the guests, all of whom had paid to attend. Many tables in the crowded convention hall murmured to themselves, escalating tensions and sparking further rumors and speculation by the community; a community where rumors spread quickly according to Mayor John Engen.
Under this cloud of oppressive fear the forum continued almost as-normal. Checota and McLeod presented their plans for the future of the Riverfront Triangle project in the most detailed terms yet. Checota even dedicated the final third of his presentation to addressing “the TIF aspect” of the project which he acknowledged was a highly contentious issue. This basic acknowledgement of the controversy reflects the degree to which the anti-TIF activists have been successful in bringing it into the public narrative. Tax Increment Financing has been heavily used by the City Council and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) for years, but in 2020 it has been pushed to the forefront of every municipal debate.
As anti-TIF rabble-rousing escalated following the announcement of Checota’s $16.5 million dollar TIF giveaway, some citizens warned against their contemporaries getting “too myopic about TIF”, advising instead that the underlying principle of income inequality was more important and that the City’s use of TIF was only one aspect of that struggle. However as TIF debate comes more and more into the limelight, the heavy proponents of its use seem ever more reluctant to discuss it. Multiple local media personalities have discussed a frustrating track of events, when TIF dealers like MRA Director Ellen Buchanan are questioned about TIF, their first tactic is to condescend, telling citizens and journalists alike that they just don’t understand the issue.
Sometimes active TIF proponents like Ellen Buchanan and Council Vice President Gwen Jones will offer to explain the workings of Tax Increment Financing, but as the debate becomes more and more heated, MRA director Buchanan has become more and more hostile to discussion of her favorite imperfect tool. When approached for an interview about TIF she first expressed frustration, saying she didn’t want to explain it again. When clarified that she didn’t need to explain it, that instead she would be asked to field detailed, educated questions about the use of TIF, she clammed up entirely. It is becoming more obvious with every passing day that those within the City behind the expanding use of TIF just don’t want to talk about it, especially not with anyone who is informed and engaged.
On the topic of informed and engaged citizen attention in city affairs, the 24 February City Council meeting was once again a showcase of the tensions currently gripping the Garden City. It was the first City Council meeting since Brandon Bryant’s arrest on 11 February, and the brief but intense round of public comment spurred yet another controversy in local media coverage, the results of which are still unfolding. A key figure in this round of public comment was one Matthew Wardell. He is one of the many citizens who has been speaking out regularly at Council meetings against the City’s misadventures with TIF, and was prominently featured in a recent NBC Montana piece highlighting the role citizens have had in bringing the issue to the forefront of discussion.
Wardell is a personal friend of Brandon Bryant, and in the Council meeting prior to Bryant’s arrest he spoke passionately about the injustice inherent in banning Bryant from Council meetings. The source of widespread local outrage comes from the unscrupulous behavior of the aforementioned Missoula Current, a local news publication of little note outside of their recent bombastic attacks on anti-TIF activists, as well as the publication cited in the anti-trust suit that allowed newspaper conglomerate Lee Enterprises to buy up both of Missoula’s main newspapers, the Missoulian, and the Missoula Independent, prior to the shutdown of the Independent. The existence of the Missoula Current was cited as the reasoning for ruling that Lee Enterprises’ ownership of both the Missoulian and the Independent did not constitute a monopoly.
At the 24 February Council meeting (again, the first meeting since Bryant’s arrest) Wardell again spoke with great personal passion. He shared some personal details about his own struggles with chronic illness and the accompanying struggles he’s had with addiction. He said he shared these openly in order to prevent these facts from being used against him, as anti-whistleblower activist Rick Rynearson had been in contact with Wardell and others discussing the issue on social media. Rynearson operates the Youtube channel that hosts the video that led to Brandon Bryant’s arrest.
He has faced numerous accusations for cyberstalking and online harassment. Wardell used his brief three minutes of public comment to publicly and unequivocally state that nothing he has said or will say to the Council should be construed as a call to violence. He went on to share with the Council some of the consequences to members of the community based on their attacks on Sergeant Bryant in local media and Bryant’s resulting arrest.
Wardell concluded his brief comments by reminding the Council of comments made by Council Vice President Gwen Jones who chaired the 10 February meeting. At that meeting, Councilwoman Jones responded to a member of the public who beseeched the Council to help Bryant rather than punish him, assuring the man that “efforts are being made” to connect Bryant with services. As Wardell pointed out, less than 24 hours later Brandon Bryant was in jail, facing a charge that essentially amounts to terrorism.
“Looking to exact undue influence with fear in a political matter,” said Wardell. “The textbook definition of terrorism.” Wardell stared directly at Councilwoman Jones, stating plainly that he and many others are now afraid of the kind of “help” the City Council seems all-too-willing to supply. He concluded his statements with the phrase “we’re afraid of you”.
Before Matt had even taken his seat, Council Vice President Bryan von Lossberg loudly interjected. “Point of order! Not gonna take the personal attacks on Council members or the inaccuracies around this. So…”
The meeting continued without any attempt by von Lossberg to elaborate what “inaccuracies” he might be referring to. Wardell is unquestionably afraid, as evidenced by his body language and the quiver in his voice. Asserting to a member of the public that plainly stating their own emotional state is an “inaccuracy” would be a stretch even for the out-of-touch leadership of the Missoula City Council, so what other “inaccuracies” might von Lossberg be referring to? To be fair, Gwen Jones did, in fact, claim that efforts were being made to help Brandon Bryant, as seen in the video archived on the City website (start @ 12 minutes).
Point of Order, President von Lossberg: If you are going to accuse your constituents of “inaccuracies” in their public comment, it might be helpful to elaborate. It has seemed abundantly clear for months now that the ordinary practice of the City Council is to habitually ignore public comment, routinely prioritizing procedural norms over public good. In this case, the Council President breaking protocol seems detrimental both to procedural norms and to public good. The public comment portion of the meeting is explicitly set aside for comment by the public. It is a time for them to lend their voice to the proceedings.
The time for general Council comment doesn’t come until the end of the meeting. Emotionally unstable responses from Council that are critical of the public’s right to speak during the time period specifically allotted to them have a chilling effect on the public’s faith in their right to participation that is guaranteed under the law. But considering his other public statements about the detrimental effect that Brandon Bryant’s emotional outbursts have had on proceedings at these meetings, President von Lossberg’s emotional outburst appeared powerfully hypocritical.
No part of Wardell’s comments seem particularly vulnerable to von Lossberg’s accusations of “inaccuracy,” rooted as they are either in statements about his own personal history and mental state, or in recalling and highlighting the words of Council Vice President Gwen Jones at the previous council meeting. So moving beyond Mr. von Lossberg’s unsupported complaint about “inaccuracies,” what, pray tell, are these personal attacks that the Council President must break protocol to defend against?
Does Wardell’s confession that “we’re afraid of you” somehow warrant accusations of personal attack? Clearly Wardell is using his three minutes of procedurally protected public comment to communicate how he feels personally attacked by the actions of the City Council. Has Bryan von Lossberg reduced himself to victim blaming?
Perhaps when President von Lossberg says he “won’t take the personal attacks” he means that he doesn’t want you to personally attack the Council’s ability to throw citizens in jail on politically motivated charges.
In an attempt to refute the widely-held public perception that the City Council provoked Brandon Bryant’s arrest, Councilwoman Stacie Anderson stated:
“It’s really important the public knows that we had absolutely nothing to do with putting anyone behind bars. We don’t have that authority.”
Stacie Anderson’s attempt at obfuscation must be one of the false facts and inaccuracies that Martin Kidston and Bryan von Lossberg seem to be so upset about. After all, Bryant’s trespass order from the Missoula City Council chambers was originally imposed following an Email exchange between Council President Bryan von Lossberg to City Attorney Jim Nugent. This is direct evidence that the Council indeed had something to do with Brandon’s prosecution and arrest, in spite of vociferous deflection to the contrary.
As reported by ABC FOX Montana Thursday:
Indeed, it was Council President Bryan von Lossberg who directed the YouTube video to police, according to court documents.
Earlier this week, von Lossberg told the Missoulian he believed any official involvement in Bryant’s legal process should be left to the county prosecutor’s office.
Council President von Lossberg sent an Email regarding Brandon Bryant to the City Attorney, directly resulting in Bryant’s trespass from Council chambers enforced by arrest should he ever attend Council meetings again.
Matt Wardell’s statements in the City Council chambers that night ruffled feathers outside the City government. By early the next morning a sensationalist article in the Missoula Current was raising eyebrows across the city (at least it would have been if the Missoula Current had anything approximating citywide readership).
A few keen observers noticed a particularly egregious error in the Missoula Current’s coverage of the 24 February Council meeting. Missoula Current editor and reporter-in-chief Martin Kidston tacked a quick smear of Wardell and other anti-TIF activists onto the end of an article about the Council making a non-decision and sending a proposal for a River street warehouse back to committee.
What follows is the original, pre-correction text that appeared in the Missoula Current on 25 February 2020:
Monday night’s meeting got off to a rocky start, prompted by public comment rooted in false facts and conspiracy theories, including those surrounding the arrest of a Brandon Bryant – a man who threatened to murder members of the City Council and others.
One of those speakers, who has protested during public comment several times in recent weeks, admitted that he too has made a threatening video. Like Bryant, he also contends his video was taken out of context by what he described as a digital stalker.
He accused the council of trying to make an example of Bryant. But council members unanimously disputed the accusation, saying the Missoula County Attorney alone made the decision to arrest Bryant for threats of murder and intimidation against public officials, as permitted under Montana law.
Those who were physically present for the 24 February Council meeting found it an extremely suspicious assertion that yet another TIF activist made yet another threatening video. The Missoula Current article never mentioned Wardell by name (a libel suit would likely have followed if it had), but based on the other context provided in the article there can be little doubt that Wardell was the next citizen the Current was attempting to implicate for “threats and undue influence in official and political matters”. Seeing as the last person to make a “threatening” video directed at the City Council was currently in jail, this accusation no doubt made Wardell uneasy.
Given this, it seems entirely plausible that writer-in-chief Martin Kidston may be unfamiliar with the concept of irony; a concept explained perfectly by legendary comedian and linguist George Carlin:
Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result. For instance: if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.
Wardell set out from the beginning of his comments to establish publicly that he had not and would not make any calls to violence or threats. He expressed his fear that his sincere attempts to protect his town from income-inequality producing fiscal policy would result in political retribution against him just as it had against his friend. And in turn, a publication ostensibly dedicated to journalism literally put words in his mouth in an attempt to paint him as someone calling for or threatening violence against the City Council. The Missoula Current’s response to Wardell’s impassioned confession of fear of political retribution involved fabricating comments and attributing them to him in order to expose him to political retribution. Thus, Kidston’s attempt to change Wardell’s comments into an incriminating confession conforms beautifully to Carlin’s explanation of irony.
To say that the Missoula Current distorted Wardell’s words would be inaccurate. The Missoula Current’s coverage of Wardell’s speech was an outright fabrication.
At no point did he say anything that could remotely be construed as a confession to having made a threatening video of his own. Martin Kidston and the Missoula Current have officially gone over to the dark side, abandoning all pretense of journalism and instead embracing their role as propagandists and stenographers for the powerful. This might not actually be so offensive if Kidston’s approach to the whole thing weren’t so ham-handed.
A quick tip in inculcation for you Kidston: you’re supposed to twist the narrative, not make it up outright. That’s propaganda. And when people inevitably see through it, you make both yourself, and the oligarchs you’re trying so hard to serve, appear foolish.
The irony only grows deeper when one considers the intended affect of Kidston’s lies as compared with their actual result. Since the Brandon Bryant case started generating headlines Kidston’s coverage has been aggressively pro-government. He took hours of citizen comment describing the day-to-day difficulties and indignities of living in a city with the 33rd highest income inequality in the nation, flippantly describing citizens as people who express “disdain over development” and “struggle to find meaningful work”.
As Missoula burns, Martin Kidston fiddles with the narrative. Whatever his intention, the actual affect of his yellow-bellied journalism has only been to isolate and alienate his masters from the subjects they seek to rule. As Council Vice President Gwen Jones prophetically observed during the autumn of 2019, “battle lines are being drawn.”
As the City of Missoula marches to war against their own informed and engaged citizenry, the elites are literally calling in the Marines to control the “battleground”. Much of what most people know about the United States Marine Corps comes from movies like Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. And in the City of Missoula’s war on whistleblowers, Martin Kidston distinguishes himself as Missoula’s Gomer Pyle, subjecting his neighbors and peers to the unintended consequences of his own thoughtless bumbling.
But what makes Kidston and Rynearson’s behavior particularly disturbing is the fact that they themselves are both veterans, cheefully betraying and mocking a fellow veteran who continues to struggle with the blood of our imperialist wars on his hands. This brand of social friendly fire is precisely why many potential whistleblowers remain silent despite acknowledging moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries related to the often questionable necessity of America’s continued military adventurism throughout the world.
Semper Fidelis, Kidston. Perhaps you should remain faithful to the facts next time.
Kidston’s articles have consistently shown a clear dereliction of journalistic integrity and impartiality, omitting even the simple fact that Brandon Bryant is merely accused of a crime, declaring him guilty until proven innocent. The desired affect of Martin Kidston’s coverage has been to smear anti-TIF activists, protect and promote the interests of the Mayor and Council Leadership and sway public opinion against Brandon Bryant.
In effect Kidston aimed to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Getting carried away in the current of his own fear narrative, the actual result has further discredited the already shaky reputation of the Missoula Current. Rather than ingratiating himself to his masters in the City government, Kidston has instead spread the taint of his abysmal reputation to those he intended to support. To call Martin Kidston a hack would be an unfair besmirchment to the likes of Kenny Bania.
After an immediate and appalled response by the community, Kidston has edited his article to remove the fabrication about another citizen producing a threatening video directed at the City Council. However, the fact that the correction had to take place to begin with confirms the warnings of many anti-TIF activists that their fears of systematic and predictable political retaliations are absolutely substantiated. Indeed, Kidston’s coverage of the Brandon Bryant case and the anti-TIF movement has led some Missoula residents to call for a boycott of the Missoula Current’s sponsors, as what remains of the article, post correction, maintains its original tone.
Kidston’s fabrications masquerading as news have actually already made news in Missoula when his blunder was reported on by local poet and political blogger William Skink.
Skink broke the story about Kidston’s fabrication and other conspicuous omissions in the Missoula Current’s 25 February article.
In addition to impassioned public comment, the topic of Brandon Bryant’s detention came up again at the end of the 24 February meeting. During this time Ward 3 councilwoman Heather Harp read a letter to Brandon Bryant that she had painstakingly drafted. In the letter she implores the City to practice compassion and foster understanding and additionally she said that she does not consider Brandon Bryant a threat and called for his immediate release and for charges against him to be dismissed.
Councilwoman Harp has an interesting recent history on the City Council. She was one of the first council members to reach out to the growing community of anti-TIF activists. For her part she has spoken frequently in defense of the City’s use of TIF, but she has distinguished herself from some of her Council colleagues in her willingness to reach out and listen to displeased citizens, attempting to set an example for her peers by engaging in active discourse with citizens who oppose the Council’s agenda.
Unfortunately, her contemporaries have followed a different path. In fact, Councilwoman Harp was recently stripped of her position as Chair of the Administration and Finance Committee. As a career fiduciary, Harp is extremely qualified for this position, as mentioned by fellow supporters, but she was replaced by Council Vice President Gwen Jones. In a rare exercise of candor, Council leadership nominated Jones because of her superior “experience, strategic judgement and collaboration”. They also noted that the Administration and Finance committee is the body that largely oversees decisions regarding TIF funds, and that Council desired someone more capable of “heavy lifting” be the only ones managing the complexities of this highly controversial issue.
Despite the Missoula Current’s consistent interest in reporting on the Brandon Bryant case, Councilwoman Harp’s letter received no mention in Kidston’s article on the 24 February meeting, a full third of which dedicated itself to attacking members of the public speaking in favor of Brandon Bryant. But nowhere does Kidston see fit to spill a single word describing the actions of a member of the City Council who stood with those members of the public.
The dry description of the procedural non-event that makes up the first two-thirds of the article has been quickly forgotten by readers and seemingly by Kidston himself as the narrative of a sensational fabrication in the Missoula Current’s reporting and its hasty redaction spun beyond Kidston’s control. As reported by William Skink, when asked for comment on the change in question, Kidston replied:
The comment made at City Council was rambling and incoherent at best, moving between first, second and third person points of view. We simply clarified the graph after the gentleman in question called with concerns over how his comments were reflected in the story as a matter of courtesy. His comments were ultimately rebutted by City Council, and we stand by that reporting. Thanks for reaching out.
Skink’s response and the resulting exchange cannot be improved upon, so it is reproduced here:
Seeing this response I wondered why a “rambling, incoherent” public comment was worth including in the story about storage units, while Heather Harp’s letter stating her opinion that charges against Bryant should be dismissed was not included. So I asked Kidston why the rambling comment was more newsworthy than Harp’s letter, and this is his reply:
“We were there to cover the hearing on the storage project. The only reason the issue of the gentleman’s comment was included in the story was because it received sharp criticism from council members and a short dispute over decorum when it came to voting on claims, as it set a negative tone for much of the meeting.”
While Kidston was busy altering his article before the litigious thoughts of the aggrieved commenter got too far, the Missoulian did run an article on this story, and it’s a good article I encourage everyone to read. Here’s an excerpt
Tuesday, Harp shared the reason she wanted to write the letter. She said she was not defending Bryant’s actions but wanted to treat him fairly.
“When we talk about better outcomes for criminal justice reform — especially for a defendant with mental health issues — it requires a paradigm shift in approach,” Harp said. “I advocate for the most vulnerable amongst us to be treated with compassion and fairness.”
At the meeting, Harp said that although Bryant’s actions caused “fear and intimidation,” she does not believe Bryant is a violent person based on time she has spent with him. But she said “there are times when you say violent things, and that scares people. As a City, we have to respond. We have to act to ensure the safety of our citizens. But we must also act with compassion and fairness.”
Heather Harp’s statements seems newsworthy. I hope Martin Kidston can get around to covering this important development in this, a historically significant case that threatens not only to put a well-known whistleblower behind bars for a decade if he is found guilty, but thereby creating dangerous precedent for 1st Amendment rights down the line.
Skink’s eloquence here stretches back to prophetic statements he made back in early December regarding political retaliations, but there was no way to know that local officials would stoop as far as jailing Missoulians who speak out against the interests of the Engen Regime. Perhaps an important detail of the chronology is the fact that four days prior to Bryant’s arrest the Outer Limits published documents leaked by Brandon Bryant which had been given to him as part of a dossier of documents allegedly proving systemic corruption by the Mayor and his cronies. This dossier was given to Brandon by an anonymous source who claimed to be part of the Mayor’s inner circle.
As media coverage of the Brandon Bryant affair becomes ever more nuanced, coverage in the Missoula Current has instead doubled down on the attacks, targeting citizens opposed to the runaway TIF train and to the politically motivated prosecution of a prominent anti-TIF activist, painting them all with a broad brush as criminals and lunatics. While Kidston’s incredulous smears can be described as ludicrous, unethical and dangerous, they are perhaps connected to the wider attitude of fear and mistrust that injected itself into the veins of this once-quiet riverfront community.
Tensions in the Garden City have been on the rise as quickly as income inequality, and many residents cannot help but see the obvious connection. As the community of artists and free-thinkers that made Missoula great see an autocratic mayoral regime attempting to sell their very homes off to the highest bidder, the citizenry is fighting back, attempting to protect the town they built from an invading army of developers and gentrifiers chomping at the bit to exploit Missoula’s pristine mountains and rivers, rubbing their sweaty palms together as the dollar signs rise into their eyes.
One notable victory for the citizens in the ongoing battle for the soul of Missoula comes in the welcome and surprising news that Missoula’s recently-confirmed new director of development services won’t be taking the job after all. Early in January 2020 the Missoula City council confirmed Josh Martin as their new head of Development Services. Martin was set to make his way up to Missoula from sunny Palm Beach Florida where he planned to smear his gospel of “New Urbanism” all over the face of this riverfront community. Amidst Mayor Engen’s glowing praise heaped on his history of accomplishment in gentrification, Martin promised to streamline the process by which developers would seek approval for large construction projects in the City’s planning bureaucracy. Martin’s tone-deaf promise that under his leadership the City Council approval process would “lead with yes” was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response by those who are skeptical of the City’s development fever. In fact the City Council Committee meeting where Martin was confirmed as director of development services received extensive public comment, all of it opposed to Martin’s appointment.
Public comment was, characteristically, ignored. Martin was appointed to the job and the fight seemed lost, but as reported by William Skink on 26 February, Martin apparently changed his mind. Skink posted this quote from 20 February in the Palm Beach Daily News:
“Two weeks ago the town parted ways with Josh Martin, who resigned as zoning director Feb. 7 after accepting a job in Montana. But Martin, it turns out, isn’t leaving town. He declined the job as development director in Missoula, Mont., he said, and will be working as a consultant, mainly to developer Todd Michael Glaser, on projects in Palm Beach, Miami Beach and elsewhere in South Florida”
As mentioned, tensions in Missoula over runaway development have never been higher than they are right now. It seems that New Urbanism apostle Josh Martin would rather stay in South Florida than move up to Montana. Perhaps it’s just too hot for him up here…
Nowhere have the elevated tensions in Missoula been displayed more prominently than in the dramatic downtown lockdown of 12 February 2020. Following a report by a Missoula Police Department officer that his back window had been shot out during a traffic stop on the 400 block of Woody street in the heart of downtown Missoula, the City’s law enforcement infrastructure sprung into action, blocking roads and sealing off the downtown for over 7 hours as they searched for an armed assailant for which they had no physical description and no physical evidence.
Indeed the de-facto state of Marshal Law throughout downtown Missoula fueled intense speculation, generating suspicion about the stated reason for the lockdown from the very start. And the total absence of any kind of evidence that might corroborate the Missoula Police Department’s original story only intensified the scrutiny. Over two weeks after the incident took place, the MPD finally acknowledged this week what has always been the most likely narrative: that the glass in the patrol car’s back window spontaneously shattered. Thorough examinations including two X-rays of the car found no bullets and no bullet fragments. Many Missoula residents, upon hearing the MPD’s active shooter narrative noted that sometimes auto glass shatters with no discernible cause. Research on the topic reveals plentiful anecdotal evidence of the phenomenon, as reflected in this story from ABC affiliate KTRK Houston:
“All of a sudden we heard a big bang and the glass shattered and we stopped. [I] got out to look to see if anything had hit us and nothing. There [were] no marks, no anything, just shattered glass.”
The Missoula Police Department maintain that their investigation is ongoing, declining to state conclusively that there was no shooter. They have not provided any picture or video of the damaged police car. Many Missoula citizens questioned whether the entire episode might have been an elaborate contrivance, an exercise where the Mayor tested the capabilities of his security infrastructure. It is not inaccurate or disparaging to describe this narrative as a conspiracy theory. It is literally a theory about an elaborate conspiracy. In this case the oft-used moniker is accurate. But if we lived in a world completely free of sinister conspiracies we wouldn’t really need whistleblowers. The fact that whistleblowers exist and that they are so often targets for elimination by the powerful is evidence that SOME conspiracy theories can prove accurate. The point is that the City has thus far been exceptionally tight-lipped regarding all of their shifting theories surrounding the Downtown Occupation, and speculation will continue until evidence is provided to lay those rumors to rest.
One Missoula resident has attempted to secure that evidence directly and legally. J. Kevin Hunt is among the Missoulians openly opposing the city’s highly questionable TIF dealings.
Kevin, who grew up in Missoula and attended Rattlesnake Grade School (’72), Hellgate High School (’76) and University of Montana (cum laude, Political Science ’80), was formerly a highly-rated criminal defense and constitutional lawyer who practiced in Oregon for three decades after graduating from law school there in 1984. Hunt’s practice quickly gained a reputation for representing the defenseless and oppressed, devoting much of his career to representing persons facing the death penalty, in both trial and appellate courts including the Supreme Court of the United States. Every death sentence he challenged was vacated and one client was even freed after five years on death row. Having returned to Missoula in 2018, he intends to be admitted to the Montana Bar by motion within the next year, after reinstating active Oregon Bar membership.
While in Oregon, Kevin co-organized a citizen group that exposed corruption and abuse in Oregon City’s misuse of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). With former Oregon City Mayor John Williams, Kevin was co-Chief Petitioner for a city initiative drive vigorously opposed by the town oligarchs as well as their Mayor and City Commission minions. His efforts culminated in amendment of the city charter to prohibit bonded indebtedness for urban renewal without voter approval. An unheard of eclectic right/left coalition of Green Party and Americans for Prosperity activists promoted the ballot measure, which brought socialism for the rich to a halt in Oregon City.
Throughout his career, Kevin has been a frequent target of spurious attacks, false indictment and retribution for his justice-seeking activities. He learned the risks of whistleblowing when less than six months after passing the Oregon Bar, he provided classified information to a Congressman regarding fraud against taxpayers being committed by Kevin’s then-employer, a government contractor. Kevin was promptly fired, followed, wiretapped, and falsely accused, by complaint to the Oregon State Bar, of various ridiculous criminal offenses by the international law firm representing the contractor in an effort to set aside the successful unionization drive Kevin also spearheaded. A few months after Kevin beat the law firm in the National Labor Relations Board and was exonerated by the Oregon Bar of the contractor’s serious allegations (in part due to the Congressman writing to the Bar that Kevin’s provision of the confidential evidence of fraud was consistent with his obligation under federal law to “expose corruption wherever found”) the contractor pled guilty to defrauding the federal government.
Twenty years later, Kevin was a background source for investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who was at the time writing his best-seller “Chain of Command” exposing the U.S. military’s torture of innocent civilians held captive at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; the same government contractor was involved in the torture.
Here in Missoula’s present moment, Kevin has sent a number of letters to high-ranking City officials following Bryant’s arrest. One such letter is addressed to Mayor John Engen, Council President von Lossberg, Council Vice President Jones, and Alderpersons. In the letter, Hunt cites Article II, section 9 of the Montana Constitution. The Montana Constitution asserts the public’s “Right to know”, stating that:
“No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
Hunt argues that:
“[The] inadequately explained show of paramilitary force, the official justification for which contains assertions by Missoula Police contradicted by citizen photographic evidence and contemporaneous reporting of a Missoulian journalist’s personal on-scene observations, have had a chilling affect on the people’s exercise of two other fundamental rights enshrined in Article II of our 1972 state Constitution”
Hunt’s letter clearly and formally requests information from the Mayor, City Council leadership and newly assigned Missoula Police Chief Jaeson White (who will officially take over the job starting on the first of March). He concludes with the following list of actions that are demanded not by Hunt, but by the Montana State Constitution:
1. Mr. Von Lossberg, Mayor Engen and all Alderpersons: disclose the totality of circumstances under which you became aware of You Tube videos featuring edited allocutions by internationally acclaimed drone war crimes whistleblower, PTSD-afflicted veteran and Missoula TIF abuse opponent Ret. Sgt. (USAF) Brandon Bryant. Specifically, publicly disclose and release the entirety of all communications among you, and between any of you and ex-Air Force drone warrior, Ret. Maj. (USAF) Rick Rynearson, producer of You Tube channel “Pick Your Battles,” said to be a weapon of continuous intimidation of Mr. Bryant casting him in a false light, by featuring out-of-context, edited clips cherry-picked from Mr. Bryant’s personal therapeutic vlog.
2. Mayor Engen, Missoula Police Chief White: disclose the full truth and totality of circumstances surrounding the unprecedented 12 February imposition of de facto Martial Law, including any and all communications evidencing planning of a Feb. 12 exercise, execution of such an exercise under pretense, coordination with Lake County officials regard such an exercise, and any allusion therein to a nexus between the aforementioned Brandon Bryant affair and the referenced events of 12 February.
The inclusion of the connection to Brandon Bryant’s situation will prove significant, not only for Bryant who is still incarcerated and undergoing legal proceedings relating to his charge of “threats and undue influence in official and political matters.” Only time will tell if these legal demands will be addressed adequately or at all. Anyone who has given public comment before the City Council knows how easy it seems to be for them to ignore public comment.
The chilling images of police snipers perched atop the courthouse roof and SWAT teams in armored vehicles rolling down the streets give silent testimony to the shock-and-awe power that can and will be brought to bare against those who threaten to expose Engen’s game. Monopoly of force is a reliable, time-tested tactic of the powerful to assert dominance. But TIF activists who now feel vulnerable in Missoula’s tense atmosphere have never fought with the weapons of war that were employed by law enforcement during the February lockdown.
Leaks within Engen’s camp allege that the Mayor provided law enforcement with Matt Wardell’s description during the 12 February siege, deliberately targeting Missoula’s highest profile TIF activist with deadly force. Caddy Kidston sets up the tee with a little character assassination, and Engen drives it home with arrests, prosecutions, raids and snipers.
TIF activists have only ever fought with their words, satire and art. Now that the MPD has essentially acknowledged that their militarized takeover of the downtown was predicated upon an overreaction, since no armed attack on police ever took place, the fact that the whole fiasco was perpetrated ostensibly to protect Missoulians from a non-existent attacker is cold comfort.
Also troubling to attentive Missoula residents is the considerable price tag for this downtown war game. The overwhelming tactical response unfortunately didn’t come cheap, and between the seven-hour lockdown and the citywide increased police presence that followed, the City racked up a bill estimated at a whopping $1.5 million.
Emergency operations of this magnitude can run a minimum of $100,000 for costs associated with the Fire Department alone, and that’s a conservative projection. Estimated cumulatively, the coordinated response by City, County, State and Federal agencies can cost up to $250,000 per agency depending on the many hidden charges associated with these kinds of logistical concentrations, such as the costs associated with mobilizing and maintaining armored personnel carriers including the activation of special and expensive insurance policies; hazard pay for the paramilitary forces deployed; overtime pay for first responders who were called up from their days off and regularly scheduled shift breaks. Adding all these factors together under the uncertain cloud cast by the City’s opaque bookkeeping, we feel confident that a total cost of $1.5 million is a conservative estimate.
Where else have we seen Missoula drop that kind of money on an oppressive downtown eyesore? None other than the income-inequality generating engine that is Stockman Bank! An institution that received $1.5 million in Tax Increment Financing dollars, buying it’s own bonds and charging the City 4% interest; loaning us their own corporate handout at interest. The downtown lockdown of 12 February 2020 spent a Stockman Bank’s worth of City tax dollars in a single day.
Speaking of Stockman Bank, they’ve been grabbing headlines again recently, this time not for their highly irregular $1.5 million dollar TIF handout, but for an unrelated outrage, which is objectively too terrible to be made up. As reported by the Associated Press last month:
“A former commercial loan assistant at Stockman Bank has been sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the accounts of two customers, including a mentally incompetent elderly man.”
Shawn Al Logan, 31, of Shepherd, pleaded guilty to theft, embezzlement, aggravated identity theft and other charges in October. District Judge Susan Watters sentenced him Thursday to four years and nine months in prison, followed by five years of supervised release.
The emperor’s new clothes are on full display for all to see. The rulers are exposed, and look more and more silly with every new attempt to sweep the inconvenient facts under the rug. The MPD in particular have received extensive criticism over the extreme nature of their response, as well as it’s unintended consequences, which are still unfolding. But when questioned if the lockdown was an appropriate reaction to the perceived threat, Missoula interim police chief Mike Colyer said that he had no regrets about deploying fully armed tactical teams downtown.
“It is all about ensuring safety at that point. The safety, first and foremost, of any uninvolved third party in the area; the safety of our officers to have the right people there with the right training and equipment to handle that mission.”
I don’t know about you, but when I think of snipers, the first thing that comes to mind is safety. Consider how this event has triggered many Missoula area veterans. The urban center of our home temporarily resembled horrors witnessed abroad. As a result, many Missoula veterans are reporting increased nightmares, increased anxiety attacks, and increased PTSD symptoms.
What is certain is that all parties involved, both citizen and first responder alike, both civilian and veteran alike, agree this unfortunate overreaction has hurt local morale and regret that circumstances forced this unprecedented mobilization as a necessary procedure. Spontaneous window shatterings are spooky indeed, and could understandably cause a worst-case-scenario reaction in an official trained to deal with such situations.
While Colyer and the MPD have, after long delay, been somewhat forthcoming about the complete lack of evidence to support their active shooter narrative, their positions dictate they play the hand they were dealt. One can hardly expect the interim police chief to state publicly that their armed takeover of the city center violated the civil rights of the public they are sworn to protect, or to throw the Mayor under the bus and pass the blame for such an extreme response.
But Mayor Engen’s role in the management of the downtown occupation should not be ignored. Local media reported in the aftermath of the lockdown that Mayor Engen oversaw the entire response from a fortified command center where he called in City, County, State, and Federal law enforcement agencies, including the MPD, Missoula County Sheriffs, Montana Highway Patrol, FBI, US Marshalls, Department of Interior and even Fish Wildlife and Parks.
With very few exceptions, most movie buffs loudly decry sequels as inherently inferior to originals. One prominent exception is the classic second installment of the Star Wars Trilogy: The Empire Strikes Back. Just over eight years after the October 2011 citizen movement of Occupy Missoula created an enduring presence on the courthouse lawn in protest of systemic income inequality, Missoula has finally debuted a blockbuster sequel: Occupy Missoula II: The Engen Regime Strikes Back.
As discussed in a previous Outer Limits article, it seems naïve to believe that the Brandon Bryant affair played no role in the intensity of this response, taking place as it did less than 24 hours after Bryant’s arrest. Most Missoulians, including many City officials were unaware that Bryant was already in custody at the Missoula County Detention Facility, allowing speculation to run wild among both citizens and City officials alike that it was Brandon responsible for the “shooting”. The few people in a position to refute these rumors did what they could to quell runaway conjecture, but such a tense and dramatic situation added fuel to the fire that had already been kindled by Council President Bryan von Lossberg and others in their statements about the threatening nature of Bryant’s presence at City Council meetings.
The line between rumors and deliberate obfuscation of the facts became even cloudier when The Hellgate Lance actually put into print that Bryant was indeed the assailant responsible for shooting out the rear window of a police squad car:
“Brandon Bryant, the cause of all of the chaos this past Wed. was arrested and taken into custody on Thurs., Feb. 13… Bryant reportedly shot out the back glass of a police patrol car, fired shots outside of City Hall, and posted a video where he said that he would, “hunt people and exterminate them.”
This piece’s author, Maggie Vann, is still a high school student at Hellgate High. She’s young and inexperienced as a journalist, but already picking up bad habits from the wrong crowd. How any editorial board – even at a high school newspaper – could make such damning and egregious errors is already astonishing. But Martin Kidston, a grown man, intentionally fueling the fires of misinformation and adding to the confusion with deliberate propaganda, seems to be the real offender in all of this.
The connection between Bryant and the downtown lockdown persists only in the minds of lazy thinkers. The parallel may have seemed apropos since the events happened more or less simultaneously; Bryant was arrested on 11 FEB and the city went on lockdown on 12 FEB. Even those in the MPD aware of the facts of Bryant’s arrest and detention seemed rather quick to preemptively assume that Wednesday’s apparent “attack” on the Missoula Police Department was armed retribution against Bryant’s arrest, possibly by one of his friends or supporters, possibly even by some of the other anti-TIF activists who spoke alongside him at City Council meetings.
As reported by Montana Public Radio, “Interim Police Chief Mike Colyer said he erred on the side of public safety, even if that meant inconveniencing the public for a while”.
For Missoula’s countless residents who value freedom and safety (or who are simply wary of jumpy soldiers with assault rifles searching door-to-door for an armed assailant for whom they have no physical description) the downtown lockdown likely felt like something more than a mere “inconvenience”. And for those citizens who enthusiastically exercise their right to participate in local government and spoke out against the City’s pro-development agenda, the armed occupation of downtown Missoula felt anything but safe to them.
Part of the City Council’s justification for banning Brandon Bryant from Council meetings in the first place was that angry outbursts like the one he displayed on 18 November 2019 could have the effect of making citizens afraid to come down to Council meetings to voice their opinions. In the wake of Bryant’s arrest and vigorous prosecution, the fear many citizens now have of continuing to raise their voices is more than just a theory. They’ve looked on as public comment regulars stopped showing up to meetings. And on top of it all, Council leadership have been explicitly informed that the citizens feel afraid of them.
Council President Bryan von Lossberg broke protocol during public comment, decrying a clear communication of the fear they have inspired in the public, as a “personal attack”. Where is Councilman von Lossberg’s outrage over the violation of the public trust inherent in an armed occupation of downtown? Where is Councilman von Lossberg’s outrage over the silencing of a decorated veteran who dedicated himself to “eliminating” the grim specter of cronyism from his hometown’s local government? Where is Councilman von Lossberg’s outrage over the dramatic erosion of public trust in the democratic process? One can hardly expect Bryan von Lossberg to feel the sting of these oh-so-personal attacks on the citizenry. After all, he is one of the cadre of despots behind those attacks on the community.