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Thursday, September 21, 2017

LEGISLATORS FORCE ABC TO MAKE RULE CHANGES

ABC ADMINISTRATIVE DIRECTOR MARY ROBIN CASTEEL AND TAINITED ABC ENFORCEMENT DIRECTOR BOYCE HAMLET AT AN UNPLEASANT APPEARANCE BEFORE LEGISLATORS EARILER THIS MONTH ARE FORCED TO MAKE RULE CHANGES
 
Legislators  decided today to require the more than 4,000 licensed establishments in the state to self report. 

This is a direct response to the  mass shooting in July at the Power Lounge in Little Rock. 

A previous post detailed how tainted ABC Enforcement Director Boyce Hamlet failed to act upon recommendations of two of his enforcement agents recommending that Power Lounge be shut down. You can read that post by clicking here.
 
Alcoholic Beverage Control is working on new violations and fees after the director found the system remains mostly unchanged from the time of prohibition. 

Maybe while Casteel is making rule changes she will address how the ABC and law enforcement agencies are illegally using underage individuals in enforcement operations. Read one of our previous posts about that by clicking here.

Police chiefs and sheriffs are also on board with the idea.

"It's an opportunity for the people that are being compliant to stay compliant and the bad actors to be caught," says Mike Godfrey, Executive Director of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association.
  
MIKE GODFREY - ARKANSAS SHERIFFS ASSOCIATION

Before any new rules take effect, there will be a 30-day public comment period and further approval from the State Legislature.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

ARKANSAS LEGISLATORS NOT IMPRESSED BY ABC DIRECTORS

TAINTED ABC ENFORCEMENT DIRECTOR BOYCE HAMLET PUTS HIS HANDS UP IN DESPAIR WHEN HE COULD NOT ANSWERS QUESTIONS POSED TO HIM


Last week, the Alcohol Beverage Control Directors met with several state agencies and representatives to get started on a new action plan for problem clubs and bars. They hope a new plan will improve the current system and take action faster.


“We knew there were some issues at that club," said ABC Director Boyce Hamlet. "It's not that we did not know because I had conversations with the Little Rock's Vice Unit and they had some concern with it and we met with them on it but it never rose to the level of where we could pull a permit.”



Hamlet should have listened to his agents and read their reports about the Power Lounge. They contained enough evidence to have the club's permit permanently revoked. 

ABC Administration Director Mary Robin Casteel said that her agency does have problems, but it may not be in communication, but rather with "the tools at our disposal."

ABC ADMINISTRATION DIRECTOR MARY ROBIN CASTEEL - NO SMILES THAT DAY

Casteel said that the maximum fine ABC can impose is $1,000, and $3,000 over an entire year, which she called "completely ineffective" for profitable clubs.

"A $1,000 [fine] is not dissuading them from doing anything," she said.

Casteel said that giving her agency "more teeth" could be a better solution than increasing communication.

But, there is still what Mike Feehan, senior staff attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research, called a "gap in the law" in terms of whether the police are required to talk with state regulators.

MIKE FEEHAN

"As it stands right now there are no laws that require law enforcement agencies to send reports about misconduct of ABC permits to either of the ABC agencies," he said. "[Law enforcement] have to decide from their understanding."



One ption suggested to possibly help was to turn in all police reports from bars and clubs to the ABC but the director of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, Mike Godfrey, said that could bring in an overwhelming amount of information. This is due to law enforcement agencies not having a lot of respect for a liar like Hamlet.

MIKE GODFREY - ARKANSAS SHERIFFS ASSOCIATION
 

“It could be a husband and wife fighting in the parking lot because she danced with an old boyfriend, now true they were drinking in the establishment, and true it spilled out into the parking lot, but there's 550 to 570 law enforcement agencies and if every one of them turns in 2 reports a month, you're going to get an extra thousand reports a month. I don't want to have to crunch that data but it could be a tremendous amount of data,” said Godfrey.



“If there was more information that was provided to the ABC board and allowed them to be more involved in the process then maybe it'd give them the ability to step in and intervene even before they have to shut a club down or may redirect a club in the right direction,” said State Representative Bob Ballinger.

REP. BOB BALLINGER


At the end of the meeting, Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) asked Hamlet directly if he felt his state beverage regulator could have done anything to prevent the shooting.

"I’ve asked myself that question numerous times," Hamlet said. "I don’t have an answer. I don’t have an easy answer for you."

Williams seemed unhappy with this response.

“We know there are some solutions out there," he told Hamlet and legislators, asking that when the committee meets again in two weeks to "please bring solutions to the table."



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Monday, September 4, 2017

CITY OF LITTLE ROCK GOES AFTER ABC OVER INACTION AT PROBLEM CLUBS

The city of Little Rock's review of nightclubs after the July mass shooting at Power Ultra Lounge has refocused the city's attention on another club that has divided local officials and state alcohol regulators for sometime.

Shooters Sports Bar & Grill, on Interstate 30 in southwest Little Rock, has long irritated neighbors, elected officials and investigators, who urged the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency to withhold the club's license and limit its operation with little success.

SHOOTERS SPORTS BAR & GRILL

But the ABC instead permitted the business to expand its entertainment in previously prohibited ways, without alerting the residents and officials who had successfully fought for the restrictions, according to interviews and records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette according to a recent article.

"I probably made a mistake," former beverage control director Michael Langley, who lifted the restrictions, said in an interview. "My estimation would be that's a mistake on my part, and the city could certainly come in and challenge [it now]."
 
FORMER ABC ADMINISTRATION DIRECTOR MICHAEL LANGLEY

Langley has a history of mistakes while at the ABC, not to mention his being outed as a member of the Ashley Madison website.



The July 1st shooting at Power Ultra Lounge left 28 people injured, and has generated state and local attention on alcohol regulations. Police had previously responded to more than three dozen problems reported at the downtown Little Rock nightclub -- which city officials later said was operating outside of zoning regulations -- but the club remained open even despite two ABC Enforcement Agents recommendations to close it down went to tainted ABC Enforcement Director Boyce Hamlet which he ignored.



The back-and-forth with Shooters Sports Bar & Grill -- spanning eight years and outlasting two beverage control directors -- illustrates how challenging it can be for local officials to influence how bars and nightclubs operate.

Fed up with how the state responded to Police Department allegations about Shooters, police stopped reporting some alcohol-related violations at the club and other restaurants to beverage control authorities, said Chris Ringgold, a detective on the department's vice squad. He called it "a waste of time."

LRPD VICE OFFICER CHRIS RINGGOLD

Little Rock's current nightclub review comes at a time when a state legislative committee is studying whether to mandate that police departments report all calls to bars and clubs to state regulators, and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency is considering changes in how places that serve mixed drinks are licensed.

Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore has asked his staff to specifically take another look at Shooters as part of a broader effort to identify bars and nightclubs that are operating outside zoning rules or have been sources of frequent complaints.

BELEAGUERED LR CITY MANAGER BRUCE MOORE

Moore said in an August memo to the Little Rock Board of Directors that the city was scrutinizing Shooters, which he called "an active club that has been previously cited."

"It does bother me that an agreement we thought was in place is no longer in place," Moore said in an interview.

City Hall's issue with Shooters hasn't been so much about violence, criminal behavior or zoning, but about repeated noise complaints from neighbors.

A police log of incident reports shows seven cases of reported violence at the address since 2010, including when police officers were reportedly attacked outside the club in 2015.

"This is starting to be a problem again," Moore said in an April 2016 email forwarding a resident's noise complaint to the police chief.

Shooters, which markets food and entertainment to Hispanic customers, abuts the Town and Country neighborhood. Shooters on its Facebook page describes itself in Spanish as "the best show center in central Arkansas."



It opened in 2010 under the name Hog's Breath but has since changed names, ownership and its menu as the state gradually allowed it to offer live music and dancing.

Langley in July 2009 rejected the original Hog's Breath application for a restaurant mixed-drink license, noting objections from city officials and an area resident. With the building under construction, Langley also said it didn't have the required kitchen facilities, Health Department approval or restrooms to qualify as a restaurant.

In January 2010, the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board -- which can review the director's decisions -- overturned Langley's ruling by a 4-1 vote on appeal.

The board granted the license with several "permanent and continuing" conditions, writing "no loud music will be allowed or tolerated" and that "there will be no dancing of any kind." Conditions also prohibited video games and a disc jockey booth.

"The Board is convinced that this will not be a private club but will be more of a restaurant operation," the decision says.

Eight months later, the business's attorney Charles Singleton mailed a letter to Alcoholic Beverage Control seeking to expand the allowed entertainment to include dancing.

CHARLES SINGLETON - A FORMER ABC ADMINISTRATION DIRECTOR

More than three dozen residents submitted letters of opposition, and several city officials, including Mayor Mark Stodola, testified against the change during an October 2010 board hearing.

LR MAYOR MARK "LAST TERM" STODOLA

"It was quite contentious," Stodola said.

Kenneth Dixon, who lived in the neighborhood, testified that "dancing may increase the crowds in the restaurant which could increase the noise," according to the 2010 ruling.

The beverage control board rejected the application by a 5-0 vote, noting in a written decision that dancing "is not in the public interest" and mentioning that the decision was based on testimony and letters that "requested the Board to adhere to the condition of no dancing" that had been placed on the license.

The permanence of the initial conditions nonetheless began to fade, along with other Alcoholic Beverage Control orders that didn't face the same public scrutiny.

Eight months after the unanimous board vote, in June 2011, Langley approved a name change from Hog's Breath to Shooters Sports Bar & Grill.

In the same letter to Shooters management, he approved the restaurant's request for video games, table games and music, "as long as you are not in violation" of the agency's good neighbor regulation.

Langley said in an interview that he remembers thinking the request was for light music, such as an acoustic guitar set, that would be "proper with a dinner atmosphere."

Five months later, in late 2011, Langley in a letter to Singleton authorized dancing inside the restaurant in response to a request from the attorney.

Langley wrote that he reviewed the October 2010 meeting transcript and didn't see any testimony that indicated dancing would create noise problems for neighbors. In an interview, he said he could not remember making that determination but said it would have followed a conversation with Singleton.

Singleton did not respond to two voice messages or an email seeking comment.

Local officials, despite their opposition to dancing a year earlier, were not informed that the board's 2010 decision was under review, they said. The decision -- like the one allowing live music -- was handed down without a public hearing.

"We were shocked and amazed," said City Director B.J. Wyrick, whose ward includes the club and who testified at the October 2010 meeting. "All of a sudden we get this information that says they can do whatever they want to do there."

An Alcoholic Beverage Control spokesman said the state division has no records showing that local officials were notified or that the beverage control board signed off on Langley's changes. Langley said he does not remember notifying officials or taking the issue back to the board.

Beverage control has since found that Shooters violated the good neighbor regulation on three occasions, each time for being too loud. The orders were issued in April 2013, December 2014 and April 2016, but regulators did not strip the nightclub's permission to play music.

Then-Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Bud Roberts in the 2016 order admonished the restaurant's owner and manager, issued a $1,000 fine, suspended its permit for a week and threatened to revoke it. Roberts' decision was based on an investigation by the agency's enforcement arm, rather than by the Little Rock Police Department.

BUD ROBERTS, FORMER ABC ADMIN. DIRECTOR - HE LEFT AMID QUESTIONABLE CIRCUMSTANCES

His order referred to a November 2015 community meeting that the restaurant's owner and manager attended.

"The gentlemen promised to keep the noise down," Roberts wrote. "They said they would install a special knob -- one that controls volume. A volume knob. Perhaps their intentions were good. For reasons not explained, Shooters employees have failed to maintain control over the loud music -- the bass in particular."

Asked why music was still allowed at Shooters after the three good neighbor violations, current Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Mary Robin Casteel said it appeared that Langley's written condition was not enforced but she considered it a genuine condition.

MARY ROBIN CASTEEL - NAMED DIRECTOR AFTER QUITTING  TO START PRIVATE LAW FIRM

Roberts, who left the agency in May under questionable circumstances, said he "considered all the information that was in the file" but that he wanted to let his order "speak for itself." It was one of three decisions he made about Shooters and the only one against the club.

The Shooters file maintained by beverage control does not include any later violations for any reason, including any accusations that might have been deemed unfounded.

That's at least in part because frustrated Little Rock police had effectively stopped filing formal violations against Shooters and investigating whether other restaurant licensees were operating outside of their licenses' scope, detective Ringgold said.

Police instead funneled most complaints and inspection findings to beverage control's enforcement division for follow-up, he said.

"It was a waste of time," Ringgold said. "I addressed multiple violations in the spring [of 2015] that went nowhere with Director Roberts. It was pretty apparent in my mind that nothing was going to be done."

In February 2015, a Shooters patron punched a Little Rock police officer in the face and bit another officer on the arm while police tried to break up a fight, according to a complaint filed with beverage control.

Roberts in June 2015 signed an order saying the complaint was not severe enough to justify a good neighbor violation. Notes from the hearing point out that the fighting happened outside the restaurant and that an officer who testified "did not indicate" the officers "were hurt at all."

After the altercation but before Roberts' decision, the Little Rock police vice squad showed up to Shooters four times in just more than a month's time. From those visits, police reported 10 alleged violations to beverage control that focused on noise levels, whether the business was properly operating as a restaurant and how patrons were parking.

Roberts signed an Aug. 20, 2015, order that dismissed all 10 complaints.

The order says no neighbor testified that the noise rose to the level to "constitute a disturbance of the public peace" and that Shooters' menu qualified it as a restaurant. It also found that there was no testimony to indicate that "parking on grass or in fire lanes is a violation of any standards established by the State of Arkansas" or the state Board of Health.

Roberts said a beverage control attorney presided over both hearings -- as he authorized two staff attorneys to do when he was busy -- and he merely signed the orders.

"I've been a trial lawyer close to half my life," Roberts said. "I lost plenty of cases, and it didn't stop me from doing my job."

Casteel, a former ABC attorney whom Gov. Asa Hutchinson picked to replace Roberts after she and Roberts resigned, said she does not believe the city of Little Rock has any standing to challenge the currently allowed entertainment at Shooters because too much time has passed.

"The board has had hearings on Shooters since those restrictions were lifted, and they haven't seen fit to go back and reverse that," Casteel said.

But Casteel said she believes Langley's condition on allowing music -- that Shooters not violate the good neighbor regulation -- can be enforced and that she would consider the full case file if reports of violations at the nightclub resurface.

Also, officials are reviewing the broader beverage control rules and regulations that apply to alcohol licensees.

Arkansas bars and nightclubs typically hold one of two state licenses. A restaurant mixed-drink license requires that businesses prepare meals on-site and serve them up to at least two hours before closing, among other requirements.

The alternative, a private club license, requires the operators to incorporate a nonprofit to hold the license, charge membership dues -- often done via cover charges -- and maintain a list of members.

Langley said an option for change is to make a licensing distinction between restaurants that provide music from those that don't.

Casteel, noting that changes would require legislative approval and the next full legislative session is in 2019, said the agency is taking stock of restaurants across the state and how they operate to study what changes could be warranted. She expects the pace of that review to pick up next year.

"We're taking a very thorough look at pretty much everything now," Casteel said.

The same ole same ole shenanigans continue at the ABC.