Down By Law

State police, Big Easy owners have clashed before


Just a month before the Idaho State Police notified the Big Easy concert house that they intended to revoke its liquor license, the two entities were clashing at the Statehouse over state alcohol rules.

About four weeks ago, law enforcement leaders tried to get legislators to change Idaho law to prohibit minors from entering a place like the Big Easy.

Lawmakers rejected the proposal, after testimony against it from other business owners and charities who use The Big Easy for fundraisers.

Several weeks later, the State Police handed Big Easy owner Paul Thornton their intent to revoke his liquor license. Thornton has three weeks to appeal the notice.

Dean Hanson, Big Easy's manager, was sputtering mad when he saw the notice March 8.

"We're outraged by this," Hanson told BW. "If there's really a problem here, it would seem like a citation would be in order."

But law-enforcement officers said they were confident in their decision to seek the maximum penalty for the one night's problems.

"We've done our homework," said Rick Ohnsman, a spokesman for the Idaho State Police. "We wouldn't take this on if we didn't feel we were on legal ground."

The Big Easy was the odd man out of a list of eight local bars that received notice last week from the Idaho State Police that, because of violations of the state's liquor laws, their liquor licenses could be revoked in 21 days. The BoDo area venue is what Clements refers to as an "over-under" club, where over-21 individuals occasionally mingle with minors, and a bar is available.

The other establishments targeted for license revocations are more typical "gentleman's clubs," like the Spearmint Rhino and The Torch, where nudity is more of a norm. The Big Easy, which typically showcases musical acts like Big Head Todd and the Monsters, came under state police scrutiny because of a January 5 show by "The Men of Las Vegas," a male revue that was not supposed to show all available skin but, according to undercover police officers who attended the show, did just that (see "True Crime" in this issue, Page 11). Police also allege that a minor, working undercover for the police, was served alcohol.

But before they gave notice to the Big Easy, State Police Lt. Robert Clements, who runs the Alcohol Beverage Control agency, was at the Capitol asking lawmakers to change the way such over-under venues are regulated.

The rules, which ended up getting rejected by lawmakers, would have most directly affected a venue like the Big Easy.

According to hearing minutes from the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, Clements wanted to redefine just what a "multipurpose arena" is. The police wanted such places to be defined as only those that have permanently-attached seating for a minimum capacity of 1,000 people.

Anything with less than that sort of capacity, Clements proposed, would not be a multipurpose arena, and therefore would be off-limits to minors.

The law change, he told lawmakers, was necessary to protect minors and make it easier for law enforcement.

The Big Easy has a capacity of 1,200 people, and has no permanently-attached seating.

"It's a complete witch hunt," Hanson said. "[Clements] is going after any business that doesn't fit his agenda."

At the Senate hearing, lawmakers heard from neighboring business owners like Mike Fitzgerald, the owner of the TableRock Brew Pub, who is also the vice chairman of the Idaho Lodge and Restaurant Association, which supported the rule change. According to the minutes, Fitzgerald told lawmakers that mixed-age events at the Big Easy generate trash and draw "very young, Goth-looking kids" that would, he said, negatively affect the city's image.

But representatives of several charities, including Opera Idaho, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and the Cathedral of the Rockies, told legislators that the Big Easy was a great place to hold fundraisers or, in the case of the church, to hold some worship services.

In the end, lawmakers, including Rep. Lynn Luker, a Boise Republican, concluded that the 1,000-seat figure was too arbitrary. Although they agreed to other rule changes, they rejected Clements's proposal.

The eight bars charged with allowing so-called "prohibited acts" are only the latest in a string of enforcement activities that have affected Boise business operations. Last summer, BW was the first to report that Idaho State Police officers were cracking down on the free wine served at art gallery openings during the monthly "First Thursday" events downtown (BW, News, "Put The Wine Down," July 12, 2006). Local galleries now have to get permits from the city and hire caterers to serve alcohol, or get a liquor license.

State police followed that up with allegations that the Flicks movie theater was running afoul of the law, by serving beer and wine in theaters that were open to minors. In that instance, the Flicks and two other theaters in the state had to go to the Legislature to get the law changed to allow their practice to continue.

Maj. Dave Kane, who ran the Idaho State Police investigation into the clubs, said his agency had no such agenda.

"If you go to the Idaho statutes, you'll see the agenda that Idaho State Police pursues," Kane said. "We do not have an agenda that we pursue with regard to any business. It makes no difference whether it was Big Easy or Club Z."

According to state law, the police has discretion to take a variety of actions against liquor license holders, some more severe than others. Kane said after some review of the situation by staff, the agency decided to go for the option of revoking the Big Easy's license.

"There is discretion, but that's up to the hearing officer," Kane said.

Hanson has made it clear that Thornton intends to appeal the allegations. The bars will get to remain open during the three-week appeal period.