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Bar 47

Bar 47 sits on Main Street in White Sulphur Springs. Meagher County Attorney Kimberly Deschene took over the business in 2014, leading some to accuse her of conflict of interest.

The Meagher County attorney is fighting a potential liquor license suspension at the bar she owns amid an ongoing dispute with the sheriff's office.

The Montana Department of Revenue filed four violations against Bar 47, a White Sulphur Springs establishment owned by Meagher County Attorney Kimberly Deschene.

The violations, first reported by the Meagher County Sheriff's Office, include transferring ownership of the bar without her partner's final signature and locking the bar during business hours when a deputy was trying to get inside.

The department proposes a suspension of the bar's liquor license for 12 days and a fine of $1,850. A hearing is set for May 10, 2017, before Department of Revenue officials.

While Meagher County Sheriff Jon Lopp said that his office was simply reporting violations to the state, Deschene said she's been unfairly targeted by local law enforcement due to her dual roles as county attorney and bar owner.

Lopp said his deputies haven't put undue focus on Deschene's bar or its patrons.

“Absolutely not," he said. "We treat everybody the same.”

Deschene purchased Bar 47 in 2014, months before she won re-election to a second term. Lopp has been the sheriff since 2009.

The two department heads have been at either end of Meagher County infighting for more than a year. Deschene said the infractions referred to the state were "petty."

“Which is incredible, given the nature of the alleged violations," she said. "The violations were honestly clerical.”

The Department of Revenue gave notice of the four violations on Sept. 1.

First, the department said Deschene finalized the paperwork to take ownership of Bar 47 without the signature of the previous co-owner. While an initial application was submitted with both signatures, a subsequent purchase agreement was signed only by Deschene, according to department documents.

Deschene told the department that the co-owner was unavailable to sign the document. In a later investigation, the co-owner, Katherine Boedecker, said she was available to sign but was not in contact with Deschene.

The second violation was that Deschene locked the bar at 1:50 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2015, when a sheriff's deputy tried to enter. Patrons were still inside the bar, according to documents.

Lopp said the deputy was investigating a fight that happened elsewhere.

“He went down there to talk to a witness, and the doors were locked,” he said.

The two other violations stemmed from two events that Bar 47 catered without first obtaining permits.

To challenge the allegations, Deschene subpoenaed the Meagher County Sheriff's Office for all communications between the sheriff's office and the Department of Revenue.

That request is pending as Lopp consults an outside attorney, which has been common in Meagher County in a number of cases for which a conflict might arise between the public duties and business dealings of officials.

Close calls

Conflict-of-interest allegations against Deschene came to a head earlier this year, when a county resident sought a recall petition to unseat the county attorney.

Lopp said earlier this year that he was concerned about Deschene's DUI prosecution. Court records showed that about one-fifth as many DUI cases were filed in Meagher County Justice Court than in neighboring Judith Basin County, which has a similar population.

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A judge dismissed the recall petition in September, noting that there are narrow legal grounds for a successful recall of an elected official.

Deschene and Meagher County commissioners have denied any inherent conflict in owning a bar and prosecuting crimes.

“It’s very rare that a conflict arises, and when they do I follow the conflict of interest protocols,” Deschene said.

Deschene has called in outside prosecutors for cases, including one DUI case involving a friend and Bar 47 employee. Deschene, who would normally have prosecuted that case, showed up alongside the DUI defendant when she met with law enforcement.

And Deschene isn't the only county official in a similar situation. Meagher County Justice of the Peace Paula Wildman received a citation for serving a minor at a bar she owns in Ringling, just south of White Sulphur Springs.

Lopp said this happened during a compliance check. He said Wildman has paid the fine on the citation.

Normally, Wildman herself would have overseen this type of case, which happened in county jurisdiction.

The spat between Lopp and Deschene spilled into the Meagher County Commission meeting in November, when both sides sat down to explain their grievances. Lopp said his office was just doing its job; Deschene said she received unfair attention.

Commissioner Ben Hurwitz said Dec. 22 that there was no conflict, and the importance lies in keeping a viable business running in the small town.

“They recuse themselves whenever necessary and we need both those people," he said of Deschene and Wildman. "We need their businesses. But of course the cops, it just pisses them off that they’re in the business of selling liquor and food.”

Commissioner Herb Townsend described the situation as a small disagreement Thursday, adding that there wasn't much of a story to tell.

The county will pay for Lopp's legal fees as his colleague fights her violations with the Department of Revenue. He said that he's likely to be summoned as a witness in the eventual hearing.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.