District Judge Katherine Bidegaray ruled last week that Frank Piocos wasn’t an eligible candidate in the Roosevelt County attorney election held in November.
The ruling came after Northern Plains Independent and Community News publisher Darla Downs filed a complaint against Piocos in Roosevelt County District Court. Downs filed the complaint Friday, Jan. 20, which claimed that Piocos is not qualified to assume the office of county attorney because he falsely registered as an elector of Roosevelt County when he provided a Roosevelt County address that was not his residence in order to register and seek the office.
In her ruling following the hearing, which was held Friday, Feb. 3, Bidegaray noted that qualifications of an elector include being a resident of the county in which a person offers to vote for at least 30 days. Guidance for determining a person’s residence is found in MCA 1-1-215, which states “there may be only one residence. If a person claims a residence within Montana for any purpose, then that location is the person’s residence for all purposes unless there is a specific statutory exemption.”
Bidegaray wrote, “Piocos should not have been recognized as an elector at the time of his election to the office of Roosevelt County attorney because he was not a resident of Roosevelt County, Montana.”
Under MCA 13-36-207, during a hearing of this type contesting the election of a candidate, “no person other than the parties and their attorneys may be heard except by order of the court.” Since Downs filed the complaint pro se without representation of an attorney, only she and Piocos were allowed to testify at the hearing.
During the hearing, Piocos said he had the intent to live in Roosevelt County, but provided various reasons why the move didn’t take place. He noted that he works and shops in Roosevelt County. He said he has rental properties in St. Marie and spends time in Billings with his girlfriend, but considers Roosevelt County his residence.
Following Piocos’ opening statement, Bidegaray asked Piocos several times, ‘Where do you sleep?’ Piocos avoided directly answering the judge’s question and explained his belief that because his intent is that Roosevelt County is his residence that he is a resident of Roosevelt County.
During cross examination, Downs asked Piocos a series of questions regarding the location in Culbertson that Piocos listed on his voter registration form. Downs asked Piocos if he put a desk in the location, visited the location after initially looking at it with the lessor or ever slept at the location. He replied “no” to each of those questions. When Downs asked where he was sleeping at the time of the election, Piocos said Valley County.
After a short recess, Bidegaray announced her ruling and said she sided with Downs because Piocos wasn’t an elector in Roosevelt County at the time of the election. Although he had rented property in Culbertson, it wasn’t where he lived or slept.
A special election will be conducted in not more than 85 days. Roosevelt County Clerk and Recorder Cheryl Hansen will contact the Montana Secretary of State office to determine the best date and method for the election.
The judge told Piocos that he could take steps to become a resident of Roosevelt County and, therefore, be eligible to seek office in the special election when it takes place.
In the first step of the action, Downs filed an affidavit of individual challenging an elector Nov. 15, 2022, with Roosevelt County Clerk and Recorder Cheryl Hansen which claimed that Piocos falsely claimed 202 Broadway Ave. Apartment 300 in Culbertson as his residence. Following an investigation, Hansen canceled Piocos’ voter registration effective Nov. 15.
Following Friday’s hearing, Downs noted, “I believe ‘watchdog journalism’ — journalism that seeks to increase transparency and accountability of our politicians and other public figures and institutions — plays a critical role in democracy. This case was important to maintain election integrity in Roosevelt County. Numerous citizens from one end of the county to the other contacted me as publisher of the newspaper in the county and asked me to ‘do something’ about a county attorney who didn’t actually live in the county he was supposed to serve. I sought legal advice from attorneys across the state, but was unable to find one able to take on the case. After much consideration, I decided to take on the challenge myself, even though I am not an attorney. I am very grateful that Judge Bidegaray ruled in the favor of the citizens of Roosevelt County.”
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