Billings businessman, former state lawmaker jailed for contempt

2012-09-07T00:05:00Z 2012-10-03T15:28:22Z Billings businessman, former state lawmaker jailed for contemptBy GREG TUTTLE gtuttle@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Billings businessman and former lawmaker Dennis Himmelberger is in the Yellowstone County jail, serving a three-day sentence for contempt of court.

Himmelberger, 57, was taken into custody Wednesday afternoon following a hearing in Justice Court, where a judge said Himmelberger failed to follow a court order requiring him to provide financial records in an ongoing landlord-tenant dispute.

The dispute involves what began two years ago as a small claims case filed against Himmelberger by Velda Desmul, a 93-year-old former tenant of a rental property on Clark Avenue owned by Himmelberger.

Desmul's daughters, who attended the hearing Wednesday, said they were "stunned" when Himmelberger was ordered jailed after what they said was a lengthy legal fight. Desmul, in a wheelchair, also attended the hearing.

"The whole thing makes me really sad," said one daughter, Diane Hunter, of Billings. "It didn't have to come this. It's regrettable and avoidable."

Another daughter, Karen Anderson-Miller, who lives in Four Corners, Wyo., said she hopes the jail sentence "will give Mr. Himmelberger time to think about what has transpired here."  

Himmelberger is a former Republican lawmaker from Billings who served four terms in the state House of Representatives through 2010. He left office under the state's term limit law.

Himmelberger also owns Himmelberger Brewing Co., a microbrewery and brew pub under construction on First Avenue North.

The case that landed Himmelberger in jail began in the summer of 2010, when Desmul's family decided to move Desmul from the rental property where she had lived for four years because of her health.

Anderson-Miller and Hunter said they took legal action on behalf of their mother over a disputed $900 security deposit.

After initially agreeing to return the deposit during a walk-through during which he agreed that the rental property was properly cleaned and in good order, Anderson-Miller said, Himmelberger instead sent Desmul a bill for $600. He claimed Desmul had caused damages to the home, it was not thoroughly cleaned and some items were missing.

Anderson-Miller said efforts to work with Himmelberger to resolve the dispute failed, and the small claims court action was filed in an effort to force Himmelberger to return the $900.

"It was wrong," Anderson-Miller said. "I thought, if he's doing it to a 92-year-old woman, he's probably doing it to everyone. It wasn't just about the $900, it was the point that there are people in power who can take advantage of people in weaker situations and get away with it."

In response to the claim, Himmelberger hired an attorney and filed a counterclaim against Desmul for $2,000. The case was moved from small claims court to Justice Court, and a trial set.

Anderson-Miller said the family contacted several attorneys before Billings lawyer Gene Jarussi agreed to take the case. 

A trial before Judge Larry Herman began last January. But before the judge could render a verdict, Himmelberger agreed to settle the case for $2,200. Jarussi said the settlement was reached after it was discovered that the rental agreement contained an illegal provision.

Three days later, Anderson-Miller said, Himmelberger's attorney sent notice that Himmelberger had decided not to pay them.

"My mother is a dear sweet woman, and we are reasonable people," Anderson-Miller said. "Had Mr. Himmelberger ever made any real effort to settle this, we would have been all ears."  

The family returned to court in July, and a judge granted a motion by Jarussi to force Himmelberger to pay the $2,200 amount in the settlement, plus about $900 in additional costs and legal fees.

Jarussi said efforts to collect the judgment failed, and the hearing on Wednesday was held to require Himmelberger to provide his financial records.

Himmelberger arrived at the hearing before Judge Pro Tem Lance Lundvall without an attorney or any of the financial records he had been ordered to bring to court.

According to an audio recording of the proceeding, Himmelberger and Jarussi engaged in a sometimes contentious dialogue. At one point, Jarussi asked Himmelberger for his wallet.

"For what reason?" Himmelberger asked.

"I want to see what's in it," Jarussi replied. "If you have any cash in it, I'm going to collect it."

After being assured by the judge that it was a proper request, Himmelberger turned over his wallet to the judge, who removed $31 in cash.

The hearing lasted about 40 minutes and concluded when Lundvall ordered Himmelberger taken into custody to serve three days in jail for civil contempt of court. The contempt order also requires Himmelberger to post a $500 bond before he is released.

Another hearing will be scheduled for Himmelberger to produce his financial records. Lundvall warned Himmelberger that he would be found in contempt again and serve a longer jail sentence if he does not provide the records.

"It was a sad day," Anderson-Miller said. "Nobody was happy to see him handcuffed and led to jail."  

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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