Barroom Brawl

Local club owners are feuding with the state liquor commission over drug busts. So far neither side is backing down.

Cafe Iguana. Thursday, August 28, 9:00 p.m. It's surprisingly easy to forget that this nightclub is located in the middle of a suburban mall. The place is packed, all booze and libido and mainstream dance music so loud that a woman has to scream, "It's been like this since seven!" to her friend three feet away.

Bartenders are a blur, flipping glasses in the air, serving several drinks at a time, tripping police sirens and tooting referees' whistles for no reason other than to add to the noise. Men in rumpled suits prowl for younger prey, who drift around in packs of two and three, big haired, well-inflated. An employee dressed as a giant lizard is sidling up to women and drooling, "What's up, babe?"

In Fat Kats, a quieter adjoining bar upstairs, smugness abounds. Here, clustered around a couple of tables, the clubs' owners are toasting a legal victory. More than two months earlier, after a lengthy undercover investigation, the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT) suspended Cafe Iguana's liquor license, alleging that drugs were being sold openly in the two clubs, which operate under the same license. That night state agents also raided the owners' nearby nightclub Marsbar, with similar results.

Unable to sell alcohol while their case was pending, the partners were forced to close the doors of all three businesses. All summer they battled the state to get their licenses back. Finally, on August 25, they succeeded -- after a state administrative judge ruled in their favor and a circuit court judge interceded on their behalf. By suppertime, 3000 invitations to this evening's grand reopening at Iguana were in the mail: open bar from 7:00 to 11:00. It didn't take much more than that to fill the place. Within an hour after opening, patrons couldn't remember why the liquor was free.

Upstairs, though, some aren't likely to forget so soon. "The ABT needs to be dissolved!" erupts Steve Caputi, director of administration for Chameleon Concepts Inc., the Hollywood-based corporation that owns a small empire of South Florida nightspots including Cafe Iguana, Marsbar, Fat Kats, a second Cafe Iguana in Fort Lauderdale, and Bermuda Bar and Grill in North Miami Beach. "When you can turn evidence like $235 worth of cocaine over a three-month period into the need for an emergency suspension order, you need to go back to the statutes and learn what crime really is!" He swigs his bloody mary through a straw and puffs out his chest. "You know what it is? It's the rise of communism into American society. You can't arbitrarily usurp life, liberty, and property without due process. Hey, the only thing they didn't do was kill us."

The arrival of a waitress wearing almost completely cutoff jeans and a T-shirt bunched in a knot at her breasts is enough of an interruption to distract Caputi, and he wanders off. But attorney Louis Terminello, who represented the clubs against the ABT, quickly takes up where his client left off. The issue isn't whether drugs were being sold on the premises, says Terminello, a heavyset man with a penchant for heavy metals: gold watch, gold rings, gold bracelet. During the hearing he didn't dispute allegations that the bathroom attendants were peddling cocaine. But the dealing was taking place without the knowledge of the management and the owners. Had they known, the attorney insists, they would have put an end to it immediately. "It certainly did not constitute a sufficient danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the community to shut the place down!" Terminello rails, making reference to the state's criteria for license revocation. The division made a "garbage case" against the club owners, he adds. "They pursued it against the wrong guys. These guys [Chameleon Concepts] have the money to fight. And we kicked the division's ass."

The mustachioed lawyer's bravado aside, ABT did get clobbered. And the defeat, along with other recent enforcement actions, has highlighted the increasingly controversial and hostile relationship between the agency and the multibillion-dollar industry it regulates. ABT has something of a split personality. On one hand it's responsible for selling licenses and collecting beverage taxes, duties that generate a significant amount of revenue for the state. (Last year alone, licensing fees, taxes, and penalties totalled about $1.3 billion.) On the other hand, ABT agents are officers of the law, licensed to carry weapons and sworn to enforce the state's liquor laws, as well as to ensure that no illegal activity of any sort takes place on licensed premises. Punishment can range from fines to revocation.

Under the best of circumstances, it's a delicate tightrope to walk. And an increasingly vocal constituency of business owners, lawyers, and lobbyists -- especially in South Florida, which boasts the highest concentration of bars and nightclubs in the state -- says that in the past year the ABT has lost its balance. "There's no cooperative relationship for the most minor issues," declares James Greer, a Melbourne-based beverage law consultant. "Clearly the message has been sent down to the district offices: Get tough. From an industry standpoint, no one has ever said the division should not enforce the beverage law and file cases. But no one says there shouldn't be a working relationship."

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