Missoula County Prosecutor Fred Van Valkenburg filed charges last week against AmVets manager Mike Might for running an illegal gaming operation at the popular downtown bar.
Van Valkenburg alleges Might illegally operated 11 video gaming machines for nearly 20 months. If convicted on all 12 counts, including one felony charge for unlawfully obtaining money by gambling, Might could face 10 years in prison and a $55,000 fine.
When contacted by the Independent, Might said he disputes the charges, but refused additional comment.
"Until I see paperwork, I don't have a lot of things to say," he said.
Over the years, AmVets has been a destination spot for Missoula's local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Independent readers consistently vote the underground Ryman Street bar a favorite queer hangout in the annual Best of Missoula poll, with victories every year since 2007.
According to charging documents, Might, who's managed AmVets for decades, told state gaming officials that he simply put off renewing his licenses. "He said that it was really stupid on his part," the records state, "but between health problems and running two businesses it just didn't get done."
The charges are the latest in a string of allegations for the popular establishment. Between 2001 and 2008 the Montana Department of Labor (DOL) filed four Workers' Compensation liens against the bar totaling approximately $13,000. The DOL files such liens when an employer is penalized for failing to provide workers' compensation coverage and doesn't pay the penalty.
In 2008, the DOL took Might to court for not providing AmVets' payroll records at the agency's request for approximately six months. Might eventually provided DOL with the payroll documentation and paid the state claims. Three of the four cases were paid and subsequently closed, according to DOL spokesperson Casey Kyler-West.
Meanwhile, in January, a woman confined to a wheelchair alleged that Might and his staff discriminated against her based on her disability. Might disputed the allegation in an interview with the Independent, and claimed the charge was an attack fueled by the local gay community, which is, he said, unsatisfied with its tenuous claims to the Ryman Street watering hole.
"We are not a gay bar," Might said last winter. "They want it as theirs exclusively."
But members of Missoula's LGBT community say their allegations of discrimination and criminal activity—then and now—are about far more than just a turf war. The local post falls under the national AmVets service organization's charter, and is therefore tax exempt. That status doesn't sit well with some, including Tim Adams, who serves on the Western Montana Gay & Lesbian Community Center Board of Directors.
"I definitely find it offensive and misleading that when you have a sign above your establishment that says that you're part of a national service organization, people are going to assume that the money and the profits that are being spent there are going to help out veterans," Adams says.
Adams says that's largely why he contacted state officials in March to inquire about AmVets' business affairs. According to charging documents, it was Adams' inquiry that triggered the criminal investigation by the Montana Department of Justice into Might's gambling licenses.
Generally, tax records for nonprofit entities like AmVets are public information. But according to Internal Revenue Service records, because the operation claimed less than $25,000 in annual earnings between 2005 and 2008, AmVets was not required to file a tax return. In turn, it's impossible through a public records search to document exactly how much the organization has contributed to veterans of the armed forces. But Might says he's held his own, donating money to construction of local war veteran memorials and service groups.
"We give to the Salvation Army, food bank, schools, supplies for Honduras," he says.
Without documentation, Adams doesn't buy it. He also bristles at Might's contention that AmVets, which has for years profited off of the local LGBT community, isn't a gay establishment.
"Being part of a gay community in such an isolated and rural place—this is history going back several decades—the importance of a physical space that's supportive of gay people really just can't be understated in Montana, because there are so few of them," says Adams. "That's why it's also particularly upsetting to me, is to know that people go down there and think they're participating in a safe space. And then they have the owner of the establishment, or the manager, just basically slap them in the face and say, 'Oh, we're a veteran's organization.'"
The latest charges against Might are prompting leaders from the national AmVets headquarters in Maryland to scrutinize the local chapter, says Jay Agg, national communications director for AmVets.
"Should the Montana Fourth Judicial District Court, Missoula County, determine Post 3 did in fact violate any laws or ordinances, AmVets National Headquarters will take immediate and appropriate action at that time, possibly including the revocation of Post 3's AmVets charter," Agg said in a written statement.
Might is scheduled to appear in court June 15 for his arraignment.