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Blackfeet woman perseveres in law enforcement battle

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CHOTEAU, Mont. - Rebecca Rosenberger knows that fighting injustice can have its costs, but she didn't expect her livelihood to be threatened in the process.

Rosenberger, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and her non-Indian husband purchased the Circle N Restaurant in this off-reservation town in 1995. Because of her tribal status, the business was given an 8-A, minority-owned listing by the U.S. Small Business Administration. As part of financing the venture, the couple put their home up as collateral.

Rosenberger secured a state license that enables her to sell beer and wine, but not hard liquor. But she later learned that another Choteau business, the Log Cabin Restaurant, was allowing patrons to bring their own beer, wine and liquor when they came in to eat.

Rosenberger knew that the prominent non-Indian family that owns the Log Cabin couldn't get a liquor license because the business sits next to a church. She also knew that under the terms of her license, customers were not allowed to bring any of their own alcoholic beverages into her business. More research revealed that the Log Cabin's actions were likely a violation of state law. She says she complained to city police, who visited the establishment and told them to stop.

In the fall of 2000, however, Rosenberger says a group of hunters tried to bring bottles of wine into her restaurant. When she told them they couldn't because it was illegal, they said they'd been allowed to do so the night before while eating at the Log Cabin. Rosenberger says she immediately contacted the Teton County sheriff, as well as the county attorney, but she never received notice of any enforcement action.

Rosenberger then wrote letters to Montana Gov. Judy Martz, Attorney General Mike McGrath, state legislators and the three members of the state's congressional delegation. In addition, she continued to press city and county officials for action against Log Cabin owner David Maurer.

But questions about terminology and scope in the state's so-called "bottle club" law initially prompted some local officials to contend Maurer's business was doing nothing illegal.

In 2002, documents show Teton County Attorney Joe Coble told Rosenberger that he wasn't going to prosecute Maurer, even though Montana Department of Revenue (DOR) officials agreed that it was illegal to allow alcohol to be consumed in the Log Cabin without having a license. But the DOR's Jason Wood also told Rosenberger in a letter last year that his agency couldn't help her.

"The department is not a criminal law enforcement agency and has no jurisdiction over unlicensed premises," Wood wrote. "Therefore, any criminal violation is a local law enforcement responsibility."

In July 2002, Choteau City Attorney Dennis Tighe wrote a letter to Mayor Dan Clark stating that he believed "there has been no violation" at the Log Cabin, and that he would "not cite the restaurant for violation of the liquor laws." He added that if the Revenue Department wanted "to investigate and do something about the situation, it has that option."

Rosenberger last December filed a discrimination complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau. The complaint alleged that Choteau and Teton County officials were not enforcing the law against Maurer because Rosenberger is an Indian.

"As a result of the failure of the (city and county) to enforce the law, (Rosenberger's) business has suffered dramatically in that former patrons who would have come and eaten dinner and had a few drinks with that meal, can now go to the Log Cabin and bring their own bottle," Attorney Joe McKay wrote in the complaint.

"(Rosenberger's) liquor license has now been devalued by the illegal bottle club being operated by the Log Cabin and by the failure of the (city and county) to enforce the law as their duty."

But bureau officials determined in May that Rosenberger had failed to prove that the city and county's inaction amounted to racial discrimination, and the complaint was dismissed.

In the meantime, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in July unanimously approved a resolution to support Rosenberger in her fight. Chairman Jay St. Goddard also wrote a letter to Gov. Martz asking that she intervene.

"I just don't want them to have alcohol if they not supposed to," Rosenberger said of her efforts to get the law enforced. "It's just not right. I really feel they've discriminated against me. I don't know if it's because I'm an Indian, a woman or what. Whatever you want to call it, it's wrong."

The ongoing dispute has spilled into Choteau's weekly newspaper several times, and Rosenberger contends the Circle N is now being shunned by many locals. She recently received notice that her business is being foreclosed. Her husband is ill, and now she's worried about losing their house.

But in the months since the human rights complaint was dismissed, documents show that local officials now contend that regular customer use of alcohol at unlicensed establishments is indeed a violation.

"The Log Cabin should get a liquor license," City Attorney Tighe wrote to the restaurant's attorney on June 4. "In the absence of a liquor license, the Log Cabin must put a stop to allowing patrons to bring alcohol to the restaurant anytime that the customer wants to drink and have a meal out ... I do not view the special holiday meal or party use as a violation, but that is as far as I will go."

On Sept. 13, however, Rosenberger again filed a complaint with the city after patrons were once more observed consuming alcohol at the Log Cabin. According to his report, Sheriff Deputy Dennis Blauer went to the restaurant and observed "three males at a table with a bottle that looked like a wine bottle, on the table in front of them." That incident prompted another warning letter from Tighe, and a "discussion" with Log Cabin manager Gabrielle McNeil. But no citations were issued.

"At the close of our discussion, I stated that I would defer prosecution and not file a complaint regarding the violation of the statute provided that (McNeil) totally prohibited the consumption of alcohol on the premises until she is properly licensed," Tighe wrote.

Then on Sept. 20, another violation was reported. Still no citation was issued, because McNeil allegedly promised it "was the last time that it would happen," Tighe wrote in an Oct. 3 letter that was forwarded to Rosenberger.

Rosenberger says she's not holding her breath waiting for justice to be served. But by the same token, she's not letting go.

"This is my financial life I'm fighting for," she said. "Why should I give up?"