Judge reinstates wrongfully fired Gallatin County deputy

By Whitney Bermes Chronicle Staff Writer Whitney Bermes – March  2, 2016

A judge has reinstated a former Gallatin County sheriff’s deputy and ruled that Sheriff Brian Gootkin wrongfully fired him in 2014.

In her ruling issued Wednesday, District Judge Brenda Gilbert of Park and Sweet Grass counties said that David Johnston can be reinstated as a deputy and be awarded damages for his lost salary and benefits from his July 23, 2014, firing through the end of the case.

While no exact cost of damages has been decided, Johnston’s attorney, Todd Shea, said Johnston’s lost salary and benefits will be at least $126,000.

Johnston was fired in 2014 after sheriff’s office administrators say he refused to turn over a tape recorder after Gootkin ordered him to immediately return it.

On that tape recorder was an interaction Johnston had with Deputy Kelly Munter, his ex-girlfriend. He claimed she became angry with him and berated him while the two responded to a call at Monforton School in July 2014.

Munter later filed a complaint against Johnston that led to Johnston being placed on administrative leave.

Two days after Johnston was put on leave, Lt. Jake Wagner requested that Johnston turn over his tape recorder. Johnston said he wanted to seek advice from an attorney first and make a copy prior to turning it over to Wagner.

That same day, accompanied by an attorney, Johnston returned the recorder to the sheriff’s office after making a copy of the audio for himself.

Later that month, following a disciplinary hearing, Johnston was fired.

During a three-day judge trial in December, Gootkin testified that the recorder was county property that needed to be returned as soon as possible. But Johnston refused to comply with Gootkin’s order, the sheriff said.

Shea, on the other hand, argued that Johnston’s firing was a “punishment (that) simply didn’t fit this crime” and that Johnston was entitled to get a copy of the recorder’s contents. The firing was “cooked up” by the sheriff’s office command staff as a way to get rid of Johnston, who had prior bad incidents with Munter following their breakup, Shea said.

Gilbert sided with Johnston, saying Johnston’s firing was contrary to sheriff’s office policies and state law.