Former Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco staffers help bars stay in business

Indianapolis bars and clubs with histories of violence and other problems can remain open for months or years even when authorities try to close them.

Much of it has to do with lax enforcement by state regulators and an unusual Indiana law that prohibits local police and city officials from regulating alcohol businesses, produced in partnership with Fox59. A survey by IndyStar revealed.

But bars and clubs have also found ways to influence Indiana’s alcohol licensing process.

Bars, often afraid that their liquor licenses are being threatened, turn to the people who once regulated the industry: former officials at the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.

Not only do these former officials understand Indiana’s Byzantine alcohol laws, they often have deep political ties. Some of them lobbied in the state capitol to help create the very laws they used to protect their clients.

Mark Webb, former executive director of the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, is now an attorney representing Club Kalakuta. A woman has been killed and a man injured in multiple shootings at Club Kalakuta since 2020.

Former ATC chairman Bart Herriman, an attorney who now represents Tiki Bob’s Cantina, a downtown bar that IMPD says has been responsible for more than 400 police calls since 2019 (Herriman disputes number). His legal partner, N. Davey Neal, was the head of his staff at ATC under former Governor Mitch Daniels.

And then there’s attorney David Rosenberg, who was the agency’s top staffer under Gov. Mike Pence. Until recently, he worked at the McKean law firm. The company represents El Chila Sports Bar, where police shot an underage patron in 2020 after pointing a handgun at a group of people standing outside the bar.

The arrangement has sparked consternation among police, residents and government watchdogs worried that the cozy relationship between the industry and ATC will undermine efforts to close problematic bars. .

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t we break up?” “In my opinion, these connections can conflict.”

Lawyers Defend Jobs

Webb said he had no problem with the former ATC attorney representing him. He likened it to a prosecutor leaving public service to become a criminal defense attorney.

“I don’t think it’s too close to ATC,” he said. “I don’t think it should be looked down upon. In fact, if anything, we tend to bring a bit of expertise and a very balanced perspective.”

In addition to Kalakutah, Webb represented Taps & Dolls, a downtown bar. The bar remained open for several months after ATC voted to refuse to renew its license, largely thanks to Webb’s use of an administrative appeals process.

Webb has also served as outside counsel for the brewers of the Indiana Guild, the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association, and the Indiana Night Club Association. These groups were effective in undoing bar restrictions.

For example, in 2015, the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association, which represents the state’s bars and taverns, successfully lobbied legislators to pass a bill that relaxed some restrictions on alcohol licensing.

“This law ensures that pending ATC violations will not disrupt the permit renewal process for bar owners,” the association boasted on its website. You will no longer lose your permit automatically, and the same applies to your employees and potential tax-paying employees.”

Neal, who also served as former Secretary of State Connie Lawson’s deputy chief of staff, said it was not surprising that a former ATC employee would represent alcohol customers given the highly specialized area of ​​law. Stated.

“I understand the revolving door argument. But very few people do this on a regular basis…there is vocabulary and jargon for this kind of practice…it’s a beast in itself .”

He said he and other former ATC employees have been away from their time at the institution for years. Additionally, it only requires a one-year “cooling-off” period.

“I am happy to assert that I do not have undue influence,” Neil said. It’s a distant memory for me.”

However, his law firm’s website describes Neil as an influential person.

“His body of work includes significant involvement in some of the most controversial legislation in the past few legislative sessions,” it says. We have guided Quinn’s clients to maximize positive exposure to elected officials and foster positive relationships with government agencies.”

McKean Law Firm, where Rosenberg worked as general counsel for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission until he returned to the state government, said on its website, “Leveraging our ongoing relationships with Indiana legislators and regulators, You can advocate for your interests with key influencers.”

In fact, this law firm has been effective for our clients.

For example, the ATC continues to grant license renewals and extensions in El Chira, despite a police shooting and two other shootings, one fatal.

El Chira remains in business after prosecutors indicted owner Marvin Betancourt for influence over corrupt businesses and non-payment of taxes on the bar’s income. (Betancourt has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.)

Influence extends to Indianapolis city officials

Industry influence can also extend to city officials.

Last year, the Marion County Alcoholic Beverage Board voted to renew the license of an east-side club called the Hookah Pyramid, even after police painted a terrible picture of the club routinely flaunting the state’s alcohol laws. bottom.

In 2019, one person was shot at an after-hours lingerie party, according to police. The club also held at least eight illegal events involving gambling and strippers, police said. Then there were concerns about drugs.

During the hearing, IMPD presented Facebook Live videos of club promoters rolling and smoking what they believed to be marijuana on at least seven different occasions. The video also showed people drinking inside a club where only beer and wine were allowed.


‘Weed’, ‘Liquor’ Advertised at Indianapolis Hookah Pyramid

In these social media videos from April 2021, promoters encourage people to patronize Hookah Pyramid, a club on the east side of the city.

indianapolis star

Members of the Alcohol Board, whose job it is to make licensing recommendations to ATC, could hardly believe what they were seeing.

“What is it?” Board member Barbara Howard asked while watching the video.

“Fool, Mr. Howard,” said President Tyler Graves. “Honestly, who’s taking the video?”

IMPD also informed board members that an undercover agent purchased illegal alcohol at the club.

Near the end of the meeting, excise officer Ami Sunye, who is on the board, said the owner had “flat disregard for many alcohol laws.”

But it all came crashing down when city and county councilor Keith Graves showed up with the club’s owner and asked the board to give him another chance.

“It’s very important to us that business thrives in our community. It’s the lifeblood of our area,” Graves said. “What we observed here today is that this young entrepreneur may have additional educational opportunities to improve his business.

Ultimately, the Board of Directors unanimously decided to recommend ATC renewal of the club’s license to serve beer and wine.

“To be honest, if he wasn’t there, I probably would have voted the opposite way,” board member Peter Luster said of the council. “Because it doesn’t look good.”

This decision angered the police.

“This is another slap in the face of IMPD and the East Side community,” a deputy secretary said in an email to Top Brass.

According to IMPD, the bar has since changed owners, but the problem persists.

“It bothers me to hear that one elected official can come in and shake everything up,” said Julia Vaughn, executive director of government accountability group Common Cause Indiana.

Steakhouse meeting, then decline

The 2022 Taps & Dolls incident also raised eyebrows.

ATC Chairman Jessica Allen, the state’s premier alcohol regulator, has just allowed troubled clubs to remain open while she appeals the board’s decision to refuse to renew its license. , he withdrew from the incident.

The denial came after attending lunch with Sherry Seiwert, then president of Downtown Indy Inc., at McCormick & Schmick’s, a downtown steak and seafood restaurant. Seiwert recently testified against Taps & Dolls and Tiki Bob’s at a local board hearing.

Lunch was arranged by J. Murray Clark, an influential attorney and lobbyist, former state congressman, and former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. He has represented many alcohol industry clients, including bars and clubs.

Allen declined to discuss lunch with Indystar, but ATC issued an emailed statement saying he was there for the purpose of educating the president of Downtown Indy about the alcohol licensing process. Her participants understood that her pending case could not be discussed, and Allen paid for her own meals.

Clark, a former Downtown Indy company executive, said he knew Seiwert was concerned about crime in Downtown and suggested he meet Allen, who he also knew.

“I thought it would be a good idea for them to meet up and have Jessica hear directly from Sherry,” he said.

Clark, who represented Tiki Bobs about a decade ago, said he doesn’t do much alcohol-related work.

IMPD’s “double-edged sword”

Another potential conflict of interest involves local police officers.

Many bars are paying off-duty security guards, and some are even being closed by the department. For example, Tiki Bob’s Cantina hires his IMPD officer off duty every night the bar is open and pays him $250 a night. Excise Police report from last year.

At about the same time, IMPD’s Commercial Crime Division officials, along with representatives from Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office, were testifying against the bar’s license renewal.

IMPD assistant chief Chris Bailey said IndyStar’s departmental policy allows off-duty officers to work in bars, but is obliged to comply with all IMPD policies.

“Your primary responsibility is to IMPD and the people of Indianapolis,” he said.

In some cases, authorities have banned officers from working in bars either because it violates IMPD policy or because police are actively searching for the owner.

For example, at Club Caracta in the Lafayette Square area, IMPD chief Randall Taylor banned off-duty work in 2021 after a police officer witnessed a partially naked woman in a bar. IMPD policy prohibits officers from working in striptease clubs.

Since then, several shootings have been reported at the club, including one in which a woman has died.

“It’s a double-edged sword for us,” Bailey said.

Please contact Indystar reporter Tony Cook at 317-444-6081 or Follow him on Twitter. @IndyStarTony.

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