Idaho Army Vet Claims Her Questioning of Officials’ Oil Interests Landed Her in Jail
By Philip A. Janquart, Courthouse News Service
BOISE (CN) - An Idaho woman, an Army veteran, was jailed for eight days because she publicly confronted elected officials about their undisclosed business interests with an oil and gas company, she claims in Federal Court.
Alma Plucinski sued the Payette County Board of Commissioners, the Payette County Planning & Zoning Commission, its Chairman Chad Henggeler, its attorney Bert Osborn and Payette City police Officer Gary Toth over events that unfolded during an Oct. 9, 2014 public meeting.
In her April 12 complaint, Plucinski claims that several commissioners signed mineral leases with oil and gas companies and then voted to allow them to develop infrastructure in Payette County.
County code requires the commissioners to publicly disclose their economic interests "prior to participating in any meeting where the matter in which the commissioner has an economic interest is addressed," Plucinski says in the complaint.
"The bulk of the leases were signed with Alta Mesa Holdings, Inc.," Plucinski told Courthouse News on Wednesday. "The leases are actually under AM Idaho LLC and are recorded documents under the Payette County Recorder's website. They are actually already public information — I'm looking at them right now."
Plucinski says the commissioners signed multiple personal and private business leases with the Texas-based company, which has been criticized for its business operations: allegedly forcing homeowners to sign leases allowing Alta Mesa to drill under their properties.
Plucinski says Idaho law allows the company to force private homeowners to sign leases or assess a monetary penalty if they don't. If they sign, homeowners risk having their mortgage companies accelerate their mortgage, Plucinski said.
Alta Mesa has built 15 gas drilling pads in Payette County at last count, two of which are said to be operational.
Plucinski says the commissioners have refused to disclose that they have signed leases. She spoke on the issue during the public comment portion of the Oct. 9, 2014 meeting, and says commissioners refrained from responding until after public comment was closed.
"During the closed portion of the meeting — at a time when the public was not allowed to speak — one of the commissioners referenced the comments that Plucinski made during the public comment portion of the meeting and accused [her] of 'telling whoppers,' and promulgating 'lies,'" according to the complaint.
Plucinski called for a "point of order" in response, asking the commissioner to state the basis of his accusation, and was told she had no right to speak. She was arrested for refusing to leave.
"Plucinski declined to leave the public meeting because, as a member of the public, she had a right to attend the meeting," the complaint states. "Additionally, Plucinski had a right to free and open discourse during the conduct of the public meeting without being subject to ad hominem personal attacks."
Plucinski, an Army veteran, says she was charged with criminal trespass and resisting and obstructing officers, though she turned around and put her hands behind her back without protest.
She was placed in a solitary cell at the Payette County jail for five days before being moved to the facility's general population, where she stayed for another three days.
"During the first five day period, jail officials ... denied Plucinski regular access to a shower, denied her contact with her husband, denied her access to a telephone, denied her access to the commissary, denied her access to clean clothes and forced her to use the toilet in view of a male guard," according to the complaint.
Her criminal case was transferred to three different prosecuting attorneys. It was dropped after several months of litigation, on the condition that Plucinski sign a letter to "apologize for speaking out of turn during a public meeting."
Plucinski says her jailing has made her hesitant to stand up against big oil, which has backing of government officials who have chilled her right to "engage in free speech and public discourse."
"As a result of defendants' wrongful and unlawful conduct, Plucinski became afraid to engage in public discourse regarding oil and gas issues in Payette County for fear of retaliation and retribution from Payette County's public officials, attorneys and law enforcement officers," the complaint states.
"It's fair to say that the way she was treated was outrageous and violated her constitutional rights," said Plucinski's attorney, Nick Warden of Fisher Rainey Hudson in Boise. "It's about identifying corruption among government officials, but being put in prison for it and being subject to deleterious conditions."
Payette city attorney/defendant Bert Osborn could not be reached after business hours Wednesday.
Plucinski seeks punitive damages for false arrest, malicious prosecution, civil rights violations and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
She says the experience has left her questioning whether the Constitution still applies in America.
"There were a lot of things that kept running through my head," she told Courthouse News.
"You get a lot of time to think in the isolation ward, but I kept thinking 'I am a veteran.' I enlisted of my own free will and would have laid down my life for my country if necessary, but I kept thinking this is so wrong, this should not be happening in America.
"It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that these things can happen in our country. These things are supposed to happen in Russia and Communist China and dictatorial countries, but not here."
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