John and Michael Saridakis
A lot of people are whispering about Pete Case. A successful downtown restaurateur who is also active in politics predicts Case won’t last another year in his position as district administrator of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control — that he's a man who “seems to take delight in exercising power, and I think he thinks everybody is evil” — but the restaurant man won’t be the source of any information about Case.
The owner of a midtown wine shop complains of frustrating difficulties without giving details, then says he’s had no problems. “If you only knew,” he says wistfully. Then, “I can’t help you on this. ’’
“I'll talk to you in generalities, but you can’t use my name,” says an attorney with some experience dealing with the ABC. “He just doesn’t have much accountability to the citizenry or to public officials. ”
Pete Case: “I don’t have any power. This office does."
Pete Case has been on the job here as chief enforcer of state liquor laws for twenty years, and little more than that is widely known about the man. When he came to San Diego in 1963, he was made responsible for enforcing the laws regulating distributors, wholesalers, and all bars, restaurants and liquor stores in both San Diego and Imperial counties. In recent years, Imperial County has fallen under a different office of the ABC, but the total number of San Diego County licenses Case regulates today (4357) is pretty much the same number as it was when his jurisdiction included the other county. He has had enormous authority over potentially and actually lucrative businesses, and yet in those two decades just two articles have appeared in the newspapers here: an innocent little feature in the Union in 1965, two years after his arrival here, and the other in 1980, a damaging Los Angeles Times revelation of an underworld drinking buddy and a division in high law enforcement over Case’s trustworthiness. In a town where the newspapers every three years publish profiles of Shamu, the weather forecaster, the owner of Bazaar del Mundo, the police chief, and many other local figures, Pete
Case is hardly more famous than you or I. He won’t even say how old he is or where he was bom. “You’re not going to do an article on me,’’ he says, stiffening when he’s asked for his birth date. “I don’t have any power. This office does. I don’t set policy. Anything I do is subject to the review of my superiors in Sacramento.’’
But Sacramento is a long way off, and Pete Case is here. His decisions, no matter how odd they seem, are usually upheld by the state. Recently, and over the past several years, they have included:
— Rejection of a beer and wine license for a 7/Eleven to have been located by Southland Corporation in Imperial Beach because. Case decided, Imperial Beach is a high-crime area as defined by state law. Sheriff John Duffy, whose deputies patrol the city, disagrees. And Safeway was allowed by the ABC to establish one of its giant discount liquor stores in the area.
— A small Greek restaurant downtown was forbidden to feature live bouzouki music. But the bar across the street was allowed to offer live
— Downtown’s Ferris & Ferris drugstore, which has a license to sell beer and wine, has been told by ABC investigators twice that the store’s license can’t be moved to a new location — the second time when the owner wanted to relocate two doors away in the same building.
— Go to San Diego Stadium for a Padres or Chargers game and you will eat hot dogs and drink beer sold from the stands there. Go to the San Diego Mercantile food arcade on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter and you will eat hot dogs but you’ll have to skip the beer because the ABC has found that city ordinances don’t consider hot dogs to be food, and without food services, no new on-sale licenses can be issued.
Don and Mary Brassfield own the theater-bar Play Bill's.
Unreasonable, capricious, arbitrary, selective, subjective. Those are the words people use when talking about Pete Case and the ABC. And yet there are laws and regulations — some of them the city’s own ordinances — that can be cited in support of these ABC decisions. A law against live music, a law against transferring a license, against staying open beyond 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., against dancing, against a pool table here, a juke box there.
Applicants who have wanted to sell expensive vintage wines by the bottle have been turned down in the Gaslamp because anti-wino laws have recently been passed by the city. But drunks stumble on the streets and older bars continue to be the scene of bathroom drug deals and hooking. There are laws against serving drunks, against maintaining a disorderly house, against allowing offenses to “the public morals and welfare,” but the bars that police know are used by pros and their pimps, and by dealers and buyers, are not often seriously disciplined by the ABC.
And there is a popular explanation offered by the ABC, the police, and even city planners for this apparent inequity as well. “See, one of the problems the ABC has is, once a license exists, it is hard to take it away,” says Ron Smith, the city planner assigned to the Gaslamp District. The law is the law. Some people suffer under it, some don’t.
Dan Pearson: "Who determines what’s sleazy?"
“They make it almost impossible to do business down here,” says John Saridakis. “I can go to La Jolla Village Square, University Towne Centre, El Cajon, anywhere in the suburbs without going through what I’ve been through here.” John and his father Michael own and operate Greek Town Family Restaurant in the 400 block of E Street, in the heart of the Gaslamp. The restaurant has been open since May, but it took Saridakis and his father seven months to get the beer and wine permit they needed to make their spanakopita and moussaka menu more attractive. Once they got it, it bore the conditions that they not stay open past midnight and not allow live music. Tough conditions for a would-be taverna.
“They say it’s because this is a high-crime area. Hey, it’s high crime everywhere. The whole country’s going to hell. What about National City or Chula Vista or Pacific Beach?
There’s crime there, too; it’s not just downtown. I’m here every day and I’ve never seen anybody out there get shot on the sidewalk.
“High crime,” he snorts. “Money talks. If you make it in this world, it’s not because of justice. There is no justice.”
"The police department is steering clear of badmouthing the Opera House.”
The Saridakis’ restaurant is not opulent, but it does seem authentic — an air-brushed map of Crete, the Saridakis homeland, is on one wall, seascapes of fishermen on the other. Father and son are collectively the SBD Corporation; they outfit restaurants and build their interiors. They had restaurants in Cleveland.
“We want to do it down here,” John says, jamming the table top with his finger. “Downtowns are the real city. People in Europe, all over the world, want to come downtown for fun. That’s where people go. We wanna do it here and no one’s helping.
“I was going to put a lot of money into this place, a lot of improvements, but I’m not going to now because of the ABC. They tell me it’s okay to have live entertainment, but you can’t have amplification. How are you going to have a group play without amplification? I can’t stay open past midnight? If you want to have a Greek nightclub, things start getting good at midnight.
“Another thing, just one thing after another. I put my application in and it’s moving along and they call me up one day and say we just found out your wife is not twenty-one. I had to go through the whole process again, fill out all the papers all over again for the ABC. Her age was on the first set of papers.”
Harry Attisha, the owner of Gaslamp’s Ferris & Ferris drugstore at Fifth and Market, says he first wanted to move the store.
The cook has been hovering over the conversation for a few minutes and now can restrain himself no longer. It turns out to be Michael Saridakis, John’s father, to whom John minutes before had explained in Greek that he was talking to a reporter. The elder Saridakis slides into the banquette and erupts. “You tell me something. What is it here? Soviet Union? Or free country? Why all the time say it’s free country? Why always, ‘No, no, no’?”
Papa Saridakis in his kitchen whites and chef’s cap is tough, insistent. His eyes glitter. He is irate. “Why all the time say it’s a free country? You tell me.”
John takes over for the finale, returning to the question of bouzouki music. “I can play music [records] in here. The speakers in the ceiling they (the ABC] don’t consider amplification. I could turn the music up and have a disco in here and that would be worse. But you put live entertainment over them and you have amplification. Why?
“I play the bouzouki. Look,” he says, pointing to a snapshot of himself standing behind Roger Hedgecock taken at a private party where Saridakis entertained. “I know how to make people feel good. I have a band, we play all over. I play in other people’s restaurants, but I can’t play in my own. I called the ABC and they said no. I talked to my attorney and he says don’t do it, they can take your license away. I’m in my own place and I can’t entertain people here. That’s terrible.”
“Most bars serve drunks."
Immigrant or native-born, no San Diegan without constant study of state and local liquor laws could possibly understand this frenzied body of statutes, policies, and regulations that combine in a Hydra’s head of contradictions and inequities. The principal state regulations are found in the Business and Professions Code and in the California Administrative Code. Along with these state laws are some San Diego ordinances that sometimes, because of their particularity, override the state’s aims. Over all of them are federal rulings of the Supreme Court, which generally attempt to clean the mess up by defining the limits of the state and local laws as they relate to the American way of life encouraged and guaranteed under the Constitution.
No, Mr. Saridakis, it is not a free country when it comes to booze.
Any understanding of the labyrinthine regulations that govern the sale of alcoholic beverages begins with the definition of licenses. Ignoring those for vineyards, distributors, and wholesalers, there are basically four kinds of licenses that dictate where the public can buy alcohol: general, on-premises sale; general, off-premises sale; beer and wine, on-premises sale; and beer and wine, off-premises sale.
The general, on-premise sale license is the one issued the full-service bar, where gin meets vermouth and you can drink anything brewed, fermented, or distilled. Since 1963, when the state decided to encourage imbibing with meals and discourage straight drinking, these licenses have been issued only to “bona-fide eating establishments.” Before 1963, the state did issue a second kind of general, on-premises license called a public premises license at which food service was to be only secondary to the main business of drinking, but any such license in existence today is an old license. New licenses in this category are issued only when population increase justifies their issuance; the law states there can be one new license for every increase of 2000 inhabitants in the county. When there are more applicants applying than new licenses available, the ABC holds a lottery to see who gets them. Case says that since he came here, there have always been more applicants than available new licenses and so there has been a yearly lottery. The applicant plunks down $6000 to get into the lottery and is given back all but fifty dollars of it if he loses. The $6000 is deposited into the state general fund if he wins.
The general, off-premises sales license pertains to liquor stores. The number of new off-premises licenses issued each year is one for every 2500 population increase in the county, and when applicants exceed the number available, a lottery under the same conditions as the on-premises lottery takes place.
If someone wants to open a full-service bar/restaurant or a hard liquor store and his number does not come up in the lottery, he can shop around on the open market trying to buy an existing license. Four or five years ago, these pre-existing licenses in both categories sold for substantially more than they do now. The on-premises have dipped from about $70,000 to about $30,000 and the off-premises from about $55,000 to $18,000. “The market here is about the lowest in the state,” Case says. “Business here hasn’t been all that great. You might have 2000 people move here, but they don’t drink as much as immigrants to other areas.”
Both categories of general licenses may be sold only after they’ve been held for two years, and then only for the $6000 they originally cost — a measure against speculation. But after five years in one ownership, the licenses can bring whatever the market demands.
New beer and wine licenses, both for on-premise and off-premise consumption, can be issued in unlimited numbers by the ABC as long as applicants and their premises pass qualifying tests. A “beer bar” license to a qualified applicant and his establishment costs a fee of $450, which goes into the state general fund. An off-premises, “mom and pop” or convenience store beer and wine license carries a $127.10 fee. This type of license is somewhat tougher to get approved by the ABC than is the on-premises license because. Case says, “booze and street drunks is the problem,” and while the amount of beer and wine poured in a “beer bar” can be controlled, either by a bartender or by ABC or vice squad officers, the amount of beer and wine sold in a package store cannot.
The character of liquor as seen by the U.S. Supreme Court is still evil, irrespective of the lifting of Prohibition. There are some things you just cannot do while holding a margarita in your hand that you may do while empty-handed or otherwise booze-free. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that total nudity on stage is okay for paying customers where no alcohol is served, not okay where it is served. Not too many years ago the ABC slapped charges on the Body Shop near Rosecrans and Sports Arena Boulevard for allowing its dancers to take everything off and thereby violate sections of the state liquor laws having to do with the protection of the public welfare and morals. The Body Shop fought through appeal after losing appeal, showing pictures of Broadway (New York) stage performers in various erotic, undressed attitudes and arguing the Body Shop was showing and doing no more or less than Broadway, but in the end the Body Shop was forced to give up its liquor license. Tonight, because only soft drinks are served there, it is possible to see the same revelry at the Body Shop that was once illegal at that location.
This disposition to view as partners alcohol and immorality, even alcohol and criminality, permeates and trickles through our liquor regulation from the lowest levels of city policy to the law of the highest court in the land. State regulations require that applicants for liquor licenses divulge their personal and financial history. They must state whether they have ever been convicted of a felony, and if they have been, their application might be rejected. All applicants are fingerprinted. Any partners with more than a ten-percent interest in the business are subjected to the same procedures.
Bar owners, perhaps even restaurateurs, are viewed with suspicion. Back in 1965, Pete Case told the Union's Lew Scarr, “I know I’m going to offend a lot of people when I say this, but the typical on-sale [bar or restaurant] licensee has been arrested. Now, I’m saying the typical licensee.” Today Case says that might have been a bit of exaggeration, and that Scarr was wrong for featuring it in the Union article.
But the notion that liquor and crime go hand in bottle still seems to be a guiding light of his. For example, he believes it is bad policy to put a convenience store such as a 7/Eleven selling beer and wine near schools because of something that might be called the Hanging Out Theory. ‘‘There are just some things you know. Dopers will hang around the store and sell to kids. If there’s a convenient parking lot, then they have a reason to be there,” he says. On the other hand, he recognizes that standards of behavior change. ‘‘Twenty years ago, a convenience market with beer and wine across the street from a church wouldn’t go. Today a court would demand us to show cause why it shouldn’t. As the mores change, so do the laws.”
Case’s job is intimately related to community standards. Well before there was an ABC, even before Prohibition, San Diego was more or less a wide-open town, its Stingaree (now the Gaslamp) a blend of bawdy houses, bars, and frontier hustlers. When Case arrived in 1963, it was a city about to emerge from a blue-nosed reaction to those early days — a reaction that is evident from newspaper clippings of the 1950s describing neighborhood zoning battles over whether liquor stores should be allowed in the same blocks as churches. Before that, in 1947, the City of San Diego sued the Board of Equalization, which then controlled alcoholic beverage sales, in an attempt to win the right to prevent any new bars in town on general grounds, but lost the suit when the state supreme court finally ruled it had no such right.
The times don’t change as much as we think. Today, the San Diego Police Department automatically protests all new license applications, no matter who makes the application at whatever location within the city limits. Every year the department provides the ABC with inches-thick computer printouts of crime statistics by tracts within the city. The automatic complaint from the police department has the effect of putting every applicant on the defensive with the ABC. He must establish why his bar or restaurant would meet a public convenience or necessity. He must overcome one of the ABC’s most potent laws under the Business and Professions Code, which reads in part: ‘‘The department [ABC] further may deny an application for a license if issuance of such license would tend to create a law enforcement problem, or if issuance would result in or add to an undue concentration of licenses.”
Quite obviously, the state — and not just Pete Case and the police department — is saying, the more licenses, the more crime. Elsewhere in the state law, in the California Administrative Code, ‘‘undue concentration” is defined to include “but is not limited to ” those areas of a city where reported crimes occur at a rate twenty percent higher than in the city overall and where the ratio of liquor licenses to residents exceeds the ratio of licenses to residents on a citywide average. There’s a lot of room for subjectivity in that law. The police draw the geographical boundaries, or crime tracts, any way they see fit. If the crime tract is mostly commercial, with few residents, it will have a higher crime-to-residents ratio. And ultimately, the law doesn’t limit the definition of ‘‘undue concentration” to those ratios anyway, which means the ABC can, theoretically at least, determine its own definition of what constitutes too many bars.
Now, San Diego is probably no more or less loaded down with bars, liquor stores, and licensed restaurants than is the rest of the state at large. It has one retail license for every 442 residents. The city of Los Angeles is slightly wetter, with one such license for every 427 residents. In Baghdad by the Bay, San Francisco, where drinking is something of a matter of civic pride, there is one license for every 190 residents. So it’s clear that ‘‘undue concentration” is a phrase with a purely local meaning.
There are many other state laws governing the sale of beer, wine, and hard liquor. They give the ABC the authority to place conditions on both existing and new licenses limiting how many hours an establishment can sell, whether it can have pool tables and juke boxes, and whether it can offer live entertainment — all of them aimed at providing the ABC a spectrum of control to fit the social problems that may be presented by the license. One statewide limitation of note, which since 1963 has been absolute and not discretionary, is that any new license can only be issued to a restaurant. (After two years, the licensee may petition to have the food service requirement lifted, giving his establishment more of the traditional “bar” atmosphere. The goal here, too, is to discourage pure drinking. And finally, the ABC is instructed by the state in the Business and Professions Code to investigate all matters which may affect ‘‘the public welfare and morals.” If applicants present some negative effect on those public values, they can be denied a license or be issued one with severe conditions. Those who already possess licenses can have them revoked or suspended a number of days.
To localize the legal picture, and at the same time get to one of the chief areas in which controversy now surrounds Pete Case, consider the Gaslamp Quarter, one of the city’s leading high-crime areas. The Gaslamp is a special planning area of the City of San Diego, with land-use regulations that apply to it only. This status was won (some say imposed upon the Quarter) during the late 1970s when merchants and developers began buying up the tired buildings housing peep shows and seedy bars with an eye on capturing some of the same prospective commerce the city itself was going to encourage through the nearby Horton Plaza redevelopment area. The Gaslamp people wanted to scrub the buildings and beautify but found the going rough because the old buildings were not up to code electrically or in regard to earthquake safety. The first ordinances for the Gaslamp addressed these physical requirements, waiving some of them so the merchants could sink their money into the buildings and not be vulnerable to condemnation after having done so. Almost at the same time, the merchants began realizing that no matter how hard they scrubbed, or how painstakingly they painted their Victorian trim, people with real money in their pockets were not going to abandon suburban entertainments as long as the downtown streets were still filled with, well, riffraff and worse. It was a bit like putting Disneyland down in the middle of Calcutta.
An ad hoc commission made up of city planners. Case, merchants in the area, and former Council woman Lucy Killea began developing special land-use laws aimed at cleaning up the tenderloin. In 1976 the city council passed the Gaslamp's planned-district ordinance. It outlawed porno palaces. Last year liquor stores and bars were dropped from the list of approved uses in a later document called the Gaslamp Quarter Redevelopment Plan. More recently, another ordinance banned rescue missions within the district.
The liquor laws of the Gaslamp Quarter are very, very particular. According to Ron Smith, the city planner assigned to the Gaslamp district, they state that “beverage sales must be ancillary or secondary to the main purpose of the business.” Also, he says, applicants for liquor licenses cannot simply take out a lease on one of the empty pom houses and open up for business. The applications must be made only after premises have been subjected to “significant improvement and redevelopment.” Another city ordinance requires that sales of liquor, beer, and wine account for not more than fifty percent of the new applicant’s gross revenues. “This,” says Smith,” “is an attempt to avoid anything that’s strictly alcoholic in nature. Anyone putting in a lot of improvements to build a restaurant is not likely to turn it into a porn palace or topless bar in six months. ”
Another limitation imposed under the Gaslamp ordinances is one that states, “Live entertainment with amplification is not permitted in the same room where meals are served. ” This, Smith says, though the reasoning seems less than perfect, “avoids simply making a bar out of a restaurant.” Whatever the rationale, it is this ordinance that forbids John Saridakis to play his bouzouki for his customers, even though Patrick’s II, directly across the street and owned by members of the Matranga family, is a bar and does feature live entertainment. The Matrangas can also stay open later than Saridakis.
The proliferation of laws of the city and the state has apparently led to so much confusion that it is never quite clear to aspiring business people just what is and what isn’t permitted. “The city’s got you with its regulations, and the ABC’s got you with its regulations,” says Ed Murphy, planning consultant to the Gaslamp Quarter Council, the merchants’ organization, “although they have been working together.” For example. Smith says the ABC sends all applicants seeking a Gaslamp liquor license to the city first, telling them to come back with the city sales permit before applying for a state permit. This is so that city restrictions involving food, dancing, and live entertainment can be placed on the operation. “If the city puts conditions on the license, we’ll generally put similar conditions on the ABC license,” Case says. “It’s easier to take action against the licensee if they’re also in violation of the conditional use permit [the city’s own laws].”
With so much cross-jurisdiction, some of the smaller merchants who have been regulated can’t tell you exactly who is doing the regulating. One small restaurant owner who was applying for a beer and wine license is under the false impression it was the ABC that told him he’d have to scrape a sign off his window because it was too large. Another (mistakenly) says the ABC told him he couldn’t offer food on paper plates and get his beer license too because paper plates were too much like a fast food operation. Another person was told no beer and wine license would be granted because the hot dog stand had no hood, and that without a grill hood, the operation would be considered a beer stand and not a food service.
The Gaslamp merchants have taken up the cudgels against Case for these restrictions, having recently prevailed upon Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, who was appointed to Lucy Killea’s seat when she won election to the state assembly, to meet with the merchants and Case to find some way to relieve the headaches new applicants are experiencing. Letters attacking Case’s actions have been written to Martinez, with copies sent to Case’s superior in Los Angeles and to state ABC administrator Jay Stroh, and to Killea herself, who as a consequence has met with Stroh in Sacramento. Last Friday (September 16) Stroh or an assistant was scheduled for a visit here to resolve the difficulties.
Ironically, many of the laws that are chafing the merchants are the laws they pushed on the council years ago when bums and winos were threatening their investments. Dan Pearson, active on the Gaslamp Quarter Council, in his letter of complaint to Martinez of August 19, 1983, makes reference to his own “frustration and anger’’ over the enforcement of the city’s restrictive liquor laws — laws he helped draw up as part of the ad hoc commission. He complains about the number of "bad" bars causing restrictions to be placed on “good’’ licenses. It is a delicate matter, this little class war that is building, one that a city planner recognizes but is helpless to alleviate. “What you’ve got,’’ the planner says, “is a set of merchants with middle-class, WASP standards, for want of better terms, who want people to behave in certain ways by law, who want the law to work for them and not for others, and you can’t do that. How do you write an ordinance that defines ‘sleazy’? Who determines what’s sleazy? The Philosopher-King?’’
If there is any single ABC action that brought to the boil this controversy over “good’’ and “bad” bars, it is the licensing fight over Play Bill’s, a theater bar owned by Don and Mary Brassfield now open on Market Street alongside the Crossroads and across the street from Lions Community Manor, a mid-rise that houses well more than one hundred elderly.
Supporters of the Brassfields, led by Gaslamp developer and activist Dan Pearson, say that soon after the Brassfield license application was made, Case and a supervisor began telling Lions Manor residents that another bar offering live entertainment across the street was in the offing. Two letters of protest, from the residents’ council and from Lions Manor management, were filed with the ABC. Pearson says when he called a Lions club officer asking why, he was told, “Dan, we can’t have another honky-tonk across the street.’’ Pearson says he persuaded the Lions officer that the ABC had misrepresented Play Bill’s application as including live entertainment (it wasn’t so) and that the officer agreed to withdraw the protest letters.
Pearson insists he called Case during this period. Case denies it. At any rate, a meeting did take place between the ABC, the police department (which, predictably, had protested the Brassfield application), and a representative of Councilman Uvaldo Martinez. Negotiations seesawed. Pearson claims Case injected a zinger — a statement in the meeting that the proposed license would violate an ABC limitation on bars within one hundred feet of residences. The residents and Lions Manor management formally withdrew their protests, but the ABC produced five new letters of protest from individuals in the building, even though the thirty-day period for protest had expired.
Pearson says Lions Manor residents and management told him that ABC investigators had solicited the new protests and that the ABC investigator who contacted residents had chastised them for the earlier withdrawals of protest. A resident says she received a call from an ABC investigator asking her to supply names and room numbers of people living on the Market Street side of the building, where noise from the street and the Crossroads is loudest, and another resident says that an ABC investigator asked if she would be upset if there were to be another noisy bar across the street. When she said she would be, she was asked by the investigator to appear in a hearing on the matter.
Case says that his department never told residents Play Bill’s would have live entertainment. “We knew there wasn’t going to be any.’’ He denies the ABC actively generated new protests after the two initial letters were withdrawn. “We don’t ask people to protest. But generally, the department supports protests. If we get them, our people are instructed to contact those who protested in order to investigate.’’
Play Bill’s apparently won its battle after Pearson was able to get letters of support from the Gaslamp Quarter Council, the city planning department, and the mayor’s office. Their 2:00 p;.m. license was issued. The twenty-eight-year-old, pepper-and-salt jazz bar, the Crossroads, appears to have been sacrificed. Case says some of the letters in support of the Brassfields allude to the new bar/restaurant’s “salutary” effect on the immediate environs, and that racism has raised its head. “You wouldn’t believe some of the remarks I’ve heard in public meetings, and they always follow them up by saying, ‘Of course, I don’t mean that.’ ” One of Play Bill’s supporters openly suggests to a reporter that the Crossroads “is a black bar, a drug problem.” The ABC has distributed complaint logs to fifteen of the elderly residents of the Lions Manor in which they are to make notations of the date and hour of the disturbances for evidence at an upcoming hearing on the Crossroads’ license, the date of which has not yet been set. Case says that this separate investigation of the Crossroads — over music that has been offered there two decades longer than either Lions Manor or Play Bill’s has existed — may have confused the Lions Manor residents into thinking that the new bar/restaurant was being investigated for a live entertainment application.
Those who criticize Case for being overly zealous — even prejudiced — when he reviews new license applications don’t have to stay within the confines of the Gaslamp for examples. Early this summer in a meeting of neighborhood councils called after University Lanes and promoter Marc Berman announced a deal to convert most of the bowling alley near Sixtieth and University Avenue into a 4000-seat concert hall. Case was strangely biased against the proposal.
The meeting resulted from the neighbors’ growing distaste for the added traffic along University Avenue the conversion might bring, and a fear that 4000 rock and roll fans with alcohol in their systems might cause more than noise disturbances. Representatives of neighborhood councils in the area formed a task force to investigate the Berman-University Lanes deal for possible violations of zoning ordinances, but, according to Joanne Rovinger, chairwoman of the Rolando Community Council, there was little upon which to base a protest of the expansion. “They already had a club there, and a license. The area is zoned for the use.”
At the meeting residents were nevertheless unhappy with the proposal, and so was Case. “He was very adamant that he was going to do everything he could to stop it,” says Rovinger. “I was quite surprised to hear talk like that. He didn’t mention specific grounds of how he was going to reject it and he didn’t give the people there any directions on what they could do, but he did offer hope to people that something could be done.” Rovinger, who is also an aide to Supervisor Paul Fordem, said she was struck so much by Case’s statements that she directed her remarks at him. “I said it was unfortunate he said what he did because all you do is create terrific problems for elected officials who can’t do anything when the application is in compliance.”
Case says he has been to a total of three private and public meetings on University Lanes. “We first read about it in the newspaper [a story that University Lanes’ attorney says was premature] in March and we started getting protest calls about the same time. Our enforcement supervisors went out there and came back with a recommendation that they [Berman and the University Lanes partners] should make an application requesting expansion. They decided they didn’t have to file with us, and in conference with their attorney we agreed, because they weren’t making any external changes, and for other reasons. ”
Case said he asked for police department comments on the proposed club, and the department came back in opposition to the club. “It was a very strong no. We investigated and we reasoned there’s some problems.” Case says certain ABC laws remain that could result in a limitation on the University Lanes license that would prevent the expansion. He says he has made his decision but won’t say what it is until it, like any other Case decision, is approved by the state director in Sacramento. The attorney for the bowling alley is anticipating he will have to take the Case decision to appeal.
It’s tempting to view the inconsistencies of approvals and denials as being the product of some internal logic of Case’s. “I believe he subjectively conditions licenses. I don’t think he considers the quality of the proposed operation, the qualifications of the applicant, or the asset the business might be to the community. He merely considers the location,” says William Winship, formerly a deputy state attorney general who defended ABC decisions and now is in private practice representing bar and restaurant owners. But location can’t wholly explain who gets ABC approvals and who doesn’t.
Harry Attisha, the owner of Gaslamp’s Ferris & Ferris drugstore at Fifth and Market, says he first wanted to move the store, which has a license to sell beer and wine, to a location outside the Gaslamp on Eighth Avenue, and later to another storefront in the same building he now occupies. Attisha says in both cases ABC investigators told him the police department would oppose the move and that the ABC would probably deny the request. “I could have hired an attorney but I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been worth the money.”
On the other hand, the Matrangas were allowed to retain their license several years ago when they moved their bar, Patrick’s II, around the corner from Fourth Avenue to its present location on F Street. A fire in an upstairs apartment had caused some smoke damage to the original Matranga bar, and Case says, “There’s a statute that says you can move your license 500 feet if there’s been a fire.” Besides, he says, “Ferris & Ferris has a different type of license [an off-sales, or package license], and the real problem in that area [Gaslamp] is the street booze. Off-sales contribute to that problem. ”
So, out of the profusion of local and state legislation there comes great confusion. And there is really only one man empowered to sort through the relevant statutes — Pete Case. Case even admits that the law is contradictory. “You can read that something is prohibited in one section, but there’s a “notwithstanding” clause in another section seventeen pages before it. If you don’t know about the ‘notwithstanding, ’ you won’t know it can be done." One such ‘ notwithstanding’ is the one that allows the issuance of licenses to convicted felons. Another is section 23958 of the Business and Professions Code, which reads: “Notwithstanding the above [restrictions on the numbers of licenses in high crime areas], the department may issue a license if the applicant shows that public convenience or necessity would be served by such issuance.” Ultimately, it is Case who rules on these matters. (Commenting on the Play Bill’s case. Winship says, “If it takes just one man to back off for there to be an approval of a reasonable application, doesn’t that tell you that there is no objective standard?”)
People who attack Case’s objectivity often point to the continuing existence of seemingly tough downtown bars that operate without license restrictions while apparently innocent new businesses experience strict regulation. The “bad” bar they most often single out is the Opera House, in the 800 block of Fourth Avenue. This stretch along Fourth in the vicinity of the Balboa Theater is one where even those hardy souls who have been working in the downtown area for a long time don’t like to traverse. It’s dotted with other bars in addition to the Opera House, and Gaslamp merchants would like all these bars to disappear. There have been meetings with the police department as the merchants attempt to win promises of crackdowns. “From my point of view, the steps that had to be taken were, first get the cheap wine off the street, then get rid of the bars where all the trouble is, and then the hotels where these people live,” says a representative of the Gaslamp Quarter Council.
“You go to these meetings with the cops,” says one downtown businessman, “and they take the line that to simply shut the Opera House would be a Gestapo action. For some reason the police department is steering clear of badmouthing the Opera House.”
One cop who isn’t particularly delicate in dealing with the Opera House is Patrolman Dan Hatfield, one of a number of officers who were assigned to the downtown walking patrol when it came into being last December. To get at the less visible offenses — drug dealing — Hatfield and his partners would use a strategy of surveillance in which one partner would be out of sight observing the street action while the other partner would be on the sidewalk in the vicinity. The observing partner would walkie-talkie to Hatfield what he saw going on around the comer, describe the participants, say where the baggie was being stashed, and generally guide Hatfield through the arrest. “Generally we had arrests on the sidewalk most commonly in the 800 block of Fourth, most of it’s there and in the 400 block of E Street. You can see guys doing their deals right on the street. I’ve sat up on roof tops watching the entrance to the Opera House.
“I made a number of arrests in the Opera House. I was trying to put together a packet on that place. I caught people smoking marijuana in there, people with syringes — there were four arrests I made inside there. On two occasions it was the same individual — a minor — he was smoking marijuana inside the place. Sometimes you could smell it in the air just walking in. Another guy I caught asleep, he’d passed out, and the syringe was sticking out of his shirt pocket. ” Hatfield says other cops have made arrests inside the bar, and there have been a number on the sidewalk that could be connected to the bar. For example, Hatfield recalls, “Minto [his partner at the time) and I were driving by one day and we saw a guy leaving the Opera House with a baggie he was tucking into his pants and we just told him, “You want to stop right there?’ He was just so shocked, he froze. He admitted he'd just bought it.”
Hatfield assembled his reports on these incidents. “I gave the ABC the packet. I called them, and sent them the reports. They told me if I had any more arrests to contact them again.” He never heard if any of his arrests led to ABC action against the bar. “I can’t tell them what their business is, what steps they have to take.” Since sending those reports to the ABC, Hatfield has been taken off the foot patrol and given a desk job recruiting prospective patrolmen — a move some see as a promotion, others see as something else.
Case apparently has acted on one of the incidents Hatfield documented, filing an accusation against the bar for serving a minor. He recognizes that state statutes seem to give the ABC authority to suspend or revoke liquor licenses “when the continuation of a license would be contrary to public morals.” But he denies that the statute is the only legal authority needed. “All you need?” he asks rhetorically. “What’s ‘public welfare and morals’ mean?”
He concedes that a continuation of that law reads that if a retail licensee knowingly permits a drug sale, “successive sales or negotiations for sales shall be deemed evidence” which can lead to suspension or revocation of the license. “We can’t go beyond that unless the place becomes a ‘disorderly premise.’ And I can tell you from bitter experience it takes a whole lot of evidence to prove a disorderly house. The court will ask how a patron with hash in his pocket pertains to the licensee.”
With regard to the Opera House specifically. Case’s file shows at least eight disciplinary actions against the bar in the last ten years, most of them either fines below $2000 or suspensions of fifteen days or less for offenses ranging from a drunk doorman to serving minors to lewd conduct of a female employee. Two of the eight accusations were dismissed when witnesses became unavailable. “None of them by themselves warrant revocation of the license,” says Case. “Those kinds of offenses one, two, or three years apart scarcely warrant revocation. But if you don’t think we’ve taken action against Papitto, ask Papitto.”
Papitto is Joseph Papitto, owner of record of Joey’s Hideaway on Broadway in La Mesa and partner with two others in the oddly acronymed FEAASTN, which owns the Opera House. “If you think long enough, you can figure out what it means,’’ Case says of the acronym. When he’s greeted with a look of bewilderment. Case volunteers the answer. “Fuck ’em all and sleep till noon. ’’
How did Pete Case come to know that? Some law enforcement people over the years have come to believe Case gets too close to the wrong kind of people. The focal point of that belief is an early 1975 brawl in a downtown bar in which Case was involved, along with Adolph “Fito’’ Vindiola — an incident brought to light in a critical 1980 Los Angeles Times story by Robert Welkos. According to the Times, Case and Vindiola were drinking together when two undercover sheriff’s deputies recognized the pair and moved closer to hear the conversation. Words ensued and a fight erupted in which one of the two intelligence deputies was hit over the head with a wine bottle. By the time uniformed police arrived, the bar was torn apart, state and local enforcement badges were being flashed by the participants, and it was clear that the ABC was about to be embarrassed. Vindiola two years before had been convicted of bookmaking in an investigation in which the ABC took part. (He subsequently faced similar charges stemming from a 1981 bookmaking operation cracked by sheriff’s officers and the San Diego police that was operating out of Eric’s Rib Place in Old Town.
Sheriff John Duffy had to discipline his two undercover people. “Our guys had been drinking, and drinking too much. They weren’t too cool about what they were trying to do, but they were trying to do the right thing,’’ Duffy said recently. “They tried to move closer to the two [Vindiola and Case] to hear the conversation. They knew who Case was. That’s why they tried to move closer.’’
The upshot of the brawl was aninternal ABC investigation and a transfer of Case to the Downey office that lasted about a year, after which he was sent back down to San Diego to resume his old job. But the Vindiola brawl — and perhaps an earlier Case decision to license Frank I. Matranga even though he had been involved in the little-understood La Mesa Bowl bribery scandal of the mid-1960s — left law enforcement members of the high-level countywide intelligence unit with no love for Case. The informal county group is made up of intelligence officers from San Diego Police Department, the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s investigators, state department of justice, and the suburban police departments who share information on organized crime. In 1977 the group voted to ban Case and his representatives from their meetings and from otherwise sharing in information generated by the various departments.
According to a member of the unit, only the district attorney’s representatives and those of the San Diego police voted to retain Case’s participation. The member of the unit, who insists his department and own identity remain unnamed, says that about four months ago another vote was taken on the Case matter, a vote initiated by the district attorney’s office and the San Diego Police Department, and this time several departments were persuaded to switch their positions. The reasoning that effected the switch was that Case’s alleged familiarity with certain disreputable figures makes him a valuable source of information on organized activities here. None of the representatives of the departments that switched their votes would comment or even confirm that the vote took place, nor will Case.
The ABC maintains a very close working relationship with San Diego police, particularly the vice squad. Case’s staff, never very large to begin with, has shrunk dramatically in the aftermath of Proposition 13 cutbacks, and there is no alternative other than to rely on vice squad surveillance for much of the information on activities in the bars. The ABC has just four enforcement officers to supervise more than 4000 bars and licensed restaurants throughout San Diego County, half of which are within the city limits and the jurisdiction of the police department. So, whom the vice squad chooses to investigate is very often whom the ABC chooses to discipline.
A man with intimate knowledge of the closeness of the two departments is Mike Kozel, a former deputy sheriff in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland), a former Ohio state policeman, and former private investigator here in San Diego. Back in 1977 Kozel entered into an agreement to buy a downtown bar on Broadway, where the Wells Fargo Bank now stands, and received a temporary permit from the ABC for the transfer of the license to Kozel’s ownership. When Kozel took over the bar’s operation, it was during the period when Ernest Hahn and other redevelopment figures were pressing the city to clean up the streets in order that Hahn could present a more favorable environment to department stores and other prospective lessees of space in the proposed -redevelopment area. The vice squad and uniformed police instituted sweeps of downtown. It was easy to hear stories from bartenders and bar owners about patrons being taken from bar stools to sidewalks outside for checks of identification. People were arrested for intoxication.
Kozel’s bar was among those swept, and he was eventually told by the ABC that his license was going to be suspended on the basis of some twenty-five separate charges, most of which had to do with serving inebriates. Kozel hired a lawyer to fight the suspension, and in fact Kozel was acquitted of more than one half of the charges. “Serving drunks were their best allegations,” says Kozel’s attorney Clyde Munsell. “Most bars serve drunks. I don’t particularly sympathize with bars, but the point is, you can go into any bar and make an arrest of this nature. Obviously, the bars that vice squad officers frequent are the ones that get prosecuted. ”
But in its attack on Kozel’s license, the vice squad did not limit itself to allegations that drunks or minors were being served. A letter dated July 21, 1978, was sent to Pete Case by then-chief of the vice squad. Lieutenant D.M. Worden. It reads: “The San Diego Police Department wishes to protest the issuance of an on-sale beer and wine public premises license for the location at 133 West Broadway.
“The applicant, Michael Kozel, was the subject of a recent Police Department investigation into prostitution activities occurring in downtown massage and rap parlors. The investigation resulted in the conviction of Mr. Kozel's brother [emphasis mine] for maintaining a house of prostitution. While a criminal complaint was never obtained for Michael Kozel, as a result of plea bargaining with the
City Attorney, our investigation clearly showed his involvement in this illegal operation.”
The Kozel hearing lasted several days, according to Kozel’s attorney, “during which no allegations of prostitution were ever made, none whatever. Police apparently had nothing to prove any connection of Kozel to his brother. There were no connections,” Munsell says. “He was a straight arrow who made you wonder why he’d own a bar in the first place. I recall that under direct questioning the police admitted that. ”
Kozel, now a private investigator back in the Cleveland area, says he had nothing to do with his brother’s problems with the police department and that “the plea-bargaining business in the letter was a complete fabrication. I’ve never been called in by the city attorney in my life.”
Kozel and Munsell managed to appeal the ABC charges long enough to keep the bar open and making money for Kozel, and the whole prosecution became moot when the city decided to condemn and buy the building to make way for the Wells Fargo Bank. Whether or not the Worden letter was crucial, the ABC did suspend Kozel’s license for ten days, but Kozel did not suffer from the suspension. “The crane was tearing down the back half of the building the day they posted the suspension notice on my door,’’ Kozel says.
Kozel believes the vice squad was motivated to select his bar for prosecution for reasons other than protection of the public welfare. “I was also working as an investigator for Defender’s Services [a then-publicly funded group of attorneys who represented indigent criminal defendants]. The department didn’t appreciate that office, and that made me a target,” Kozel says.
If anything, it’s the plethora and confusion of liquor laws, combined with the city’s own political structure, that can explain why some businesses suffer and others do not. In the absence of clear understanding and objective standards, power begets power.
For twenty years, Pete Case has been expected to sit as judge of who will profit from liquor licenses and who will not, and it looks like time might be running out for him. ‘‘I kind of like the guy,” says one attorney. ‘‘He’s tough and he sometimes is a tyrant, but he lets you know what he’s going to try to do. It’s just that he’s been around an awfully long time, and any time a man is in office that long, he picks up a lot of wounds.” Says the downtown restaurateur who doesn’t think Case will last the year, ‘‘He was appointed by a Democratic governor. There’s a new administration in office now.”
Case, after a two-and-one-half-hour interview, looked out his window and, with a sigh, volunteered just a little personal information. “I’ve been with the ABC since January 1, 1949. I’m an old guy.”