Ownership scandal threatens to make Riggins a two-bar town; hearing today

Seven Devils liquor license pulled; Belton seeks solution in time to serve race-day crowds

— Depending how things go at a hearing today in Meridian, last month may prove the last of the good ol’ days, back when this town of 400 boasted three different places to buy liquor by the drink.

Late last month, Idaho State Police rocked the Riggins bar scene, shutting down liquor sales out of the Seven Devils Steakhouse and Saloon and stopping the Salmon River Inn from moving its liquor sales to a back room at Summerville’s. Seven Devils operator John Belton has kept the restaurant open but stopped selling alcohol after the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) authorities delivered an order to cease and desist amid an ownership scandal.

Belton told the Free Press that while he hopes to resolve the trouble and get the liquor license back at the Wednesday hearing, he has a plan for selling alcohol while the jet boat race crowd is around town.

“We put in for a catering license, and we’re going to be open,” Belton said. “Our attorneys say that’s 100 percent legal. When we go down there Wednesday, we’re going to make sure the ABC is aware we’re going to be open and selling alcohol and not to come in and pull a raid on us.”

A spokesperson for the ABC, Nichole Harvey, told the Free Press there are presently two locations with valid liquor licenses in Riggins: there is no question about Summerville’s, and while the Salmon River Inn was denied relocation and remains under investigation, the Salmon River Inn’s liquor license remains valid at its previous location.

If it turns out to be permanent, the Seven Devils’ loss would be a loss for the town. Riggins has kept up three bars under the grandfathering permitted in state law, which limits most small towns to two liquor licenses. The timing of the potential hit to the local night life is doubly unfortunate as the demand for alcohol surges along with the tourism season. While salmon and steelhead runs bring many anglers to the area, the town’s boom time really starts to warm up during the jet boat races each April, followed in quick succession by the Riggins Rodeo and the summer rafting season.

It’s not unusual for a bar to be owned and licensed under the umbrella of a limited liability company that consists of a single member. According to the ABC’s order, that’s how Michael Blimka holds the Salmon River Inn and Melissa Blimka holds Summerville’s.

Yet an ownership scandal looms over the Seven Devils. Seven years ago, Camarie Thomas, daughter of Melissa Blimka and step-daughter of Michael Blimka signed off on a lease agreement to buy the bar in 2009 through the Seven Devils Bar LLC, which public records say Thomas formed at about the same time. Three years later, Belton bought the LLC from the Blimkas, but on the day the ABC order says the deal was finalized, the Blimkas restored the LLC to Thomas and left Belton out of it.

The Secretary of State’s public records show Belton was only recently named in the Seven Devils Bar LLC paperwork. The corporate paperwork to add him to the LLC and remove Thomas was filed on March 24 – a month after the ABC’s investigators interviewed Belton and Thomas and one week before the ABC revoked the Seven Devils license.

The ABC order says the authorities talked to Thomas and Belton in separate interviews on Feb. 16, in which they both told ABC investigators that Thomas’ role in the company was, in effect, as a front concealing Michael Blimka’s interest in the Seven Devils liquor license from the ABC. It’s not yet clear what if any effect the alleged deception may have on the lease deal under which Thomas agreed to acquire the bar through a 20-year lease with the prior owners.

According to the ABC’s cease-and-desist order – which the Free Press obtained from ABC in response to an April 1 public records request – Thomas “purports to have acquired the license” by transfer from the previous owners. This transfer application marked the first time the ABC identified only Thomas as having an interest in the Seven Devils Bar LLC. According to the ABC, the licensing paperwork Thomas submitted every year from 2009-2011 each December identified her as “the only member of Seven Devils Bar LLC” and sole proprietor of the business.

Yet according to the ABC, in August 2012, on the day Belton bought the bar, each of the Blimkas held 50 percent of the membership in the Seven Devils Bar LLC. According to the ABC, that September, the Blimkas executed a “bill of sale” through which they told Belton they owned the company “free and clear of all liens and encumbrances of any kind whatsoever,” and through which they conveyed to Belton all the membership shares in the company. Yet the Secretary of State’s public records from that time show the Blimkas subsequently replaced themselves with Thomas – not Belton – in the Seven Devils Bar LLC.

According to the ABC, in December 2012, and in every December since, Thomas again filed the annual licensing paperwork. This paperwork continued to identify her as “the only member of the Seven Devils Bar LLC” and “sole proprietor of the business.”

This past February, when an ABC investigator asked to Belton to clarify who owns the Seven Devils Bar, Belton told the investigator Thomas has no role in the operation or ownership of the Seven Devils Bar – that she is “only on the liquor license because the Blimkas can’t hold three separate liquor licenses.” Belton told the investigator that he reimburses the Blimkas for the liquor license fees and the Blimkas make the actual renewal payment to the ABC.

Separately, another ABC investigator talked to Thomas the same day. According to the ABC’s cease-and-desist order, “she stated that she filled in the information in the application and signed it in front of a notary in Clarkston.” According to the ABC order, she said Michael Blimka “pays the renewal on the license and simply lets her know.” According to the ABC order, Thomas told the investigator the license was put in her name because her step-father “could only have one license in the city.”

On Feb. 23, a week after the ABC talked to Thomas and Belton, an ABC investigator interviewed the prior owners, who said the contract for the purchase of the building and liquor license is covered by a 20-year lease agreement between their company and Thomas’ Seven Devils Bar LLC, which is to conclude with the prior owners handing over the liquor license to Thomas when the final payments are made.

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