Business is reasonably brisk Friday afternoon at Jolly, LLC, used-car lot, located at the corner of Brooks and Reserve, and until recently known as Car Werks. A salesman opens the door to owner Jack Palmer’s office, where the walls are blanketed with vinyl record covers, to clear a customer deal. Palmer OKs the terms and passes the paperwork back across his cluttered desk. Among the clutter sits a small, kitschy sculpture depicting Jonah and the Whale.
His customers wouldn’t know it, but Palmer needs a whale of his own right now. Jolly/Car Werks is in a boatload of trouble with the state Department of Justice, and on March 21, Motor Vehicle Division regulators took the extraordinary step of denying Palmer’s application for his dealer’s license. It’s only the second time in three years that the department has denied a license, out of roughly 800 applications/renewals annually.
In its letter to Palmer, state Vehicle Services Bureau Chief Joann Koehr cited outstanding tax liens and debts totalling $306,000 against Car Werks and called Car Werks “a continual source of problems in the dealer regulatory environment.” She gave Palmer until April 30 to “wind down” the business.
Shortly after the state sent the letter, an MVD inspector stopped by the lot to conduct an inventory check. As the inspector left, Palmer says, the man told him the state would be cutting off his access to an online portal where dealers can print temporary registration permits for the cars they sell.
“I said, ‘If you turn off my computer, as far as I’m concerned that’s an act of war.’”
Palmer is most recognizable for his tale of wrongful arrest by mistaken identity in 2012, when Missoula police roughed him up and sent him to jail because of a warrant mix-up. He sued for $2 million, saying the ordeal hurt his car business. Most of his claims were dismissed, but the city’s liability insurance pool did pay him a “minor nominal nuisance value amount,” according to city attorney Jim Nugent.
An unpublicized but equally eccentric confrontation between Palmer and the city is still playing out over Palmer’s defiance of a city ordinance that bans roadside “wind signs.” Until he recently “ran out of helium,” Palmer tied balloons printed with smiley faces or American flags to his cars to catch the attention of would-be customers. Palmer sued in federal court, alleging that his free speech rights had been infringed. The case was dismissed last year, but not before the city hired an expert for $425 an hour to testify on the dangers of roadside distractions. (Palmer still faces a May trial in municipal court for ordinance violations).
Days after his access to the dealer portal was suspended, Palmer petitioned Missoula County District Court to have the access restored and his license issued, saying he had been denied due process. He quickly scored a minor victory when Judge Leslie Halligan issued a temporary restraining order against the state.
The story of how Palmer landed in this mess is a long one. Palmer’s version begins with a misunderstanding over the title to a 2010 truck that was sold with three liens on it. In investigating a complaint, Palmer says, a state compliance officer called Car Werks’ financiers, which front the money for inventory, looking for a title. The companies got spooked and dropped Palmer. Car Werks went bankrupt, and Palmer’s relationship with the state became antagonistic.
“They went through and created their own holocaust and burned me down. They thought it killed me, but they didn’t quite git ’er done,” he says.
Palmer, 58, says he’s been selling cars since he was 12 years old. Jolly was originally the name of his wholesale business, which went bankrupt. Palmer moved into retail sales when the recession hit, specializing in cheap cars. That specialization in the “lower end” is one reason he suspects the state has unfairly targeted him. (DOJ spokesperson Eric Sell says MVD’s enforcement actions are justified.) The other, Palmer says, is his unwillingness to roll over in the face of governmental overreach.
Palmer says his niche exposes him to more customer complaints. Old, cheap cars — “orphans,” he calls them — tend to break down. “The $1,000-car people expect a $20,000 car,” he says.
Jolly’s slogan, “Where Miracles Happen,” doesn’t necessarily temper expectations. Nor is Palmer tempering his own.
“I’m not going away,” he says. “I don’t think you see any boxes being loaded up.”