- The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC).
- The Louisiana Department of Public Safety (DPS).
- The Louisiana Fire Marshal’s Office.
From liquor permit rejections, wholesale firings of agents that may have been racially motivated and amateurish investigative tactics at ATC to a multitude of questionable activities at the State Fire Marshal’s Office to attempts to sneak a hefty retirement benefit through the legislature for the state’s top cop, Louisiana’s three major enforcement agencies appear to be riddled with procedural matters bordering on federal EEO violations, investigative cover-ups and back door politics which sometimes blur ethical and legal lines and which reach all the way into the governor’s office.
The latest incident involves an ATC agent who apparently sent a teenage undercover operative into Hook’d Up Bar and Grill in Hammond in an attempt to purchase alcohol. The girl, age 17, was accompanied by a 21-year-old female. The older woman purchased a drink but waitress Ashleigh Burdett refused to comply with the 17-year-old’s repeated requests for another cup so the drink could be divided.
Burdette said she refused the requests, telling the girl, “I can’t do that because you’re a minor.”
Fortunately for Burdette and the establishment’s owners, a video camera captured the entire sequence of events, including the older customer leaving the table to go the restroom just after 10 p.m., whereupon the 17-year-old picked up the older woman’s drink and walked outside with it.
ATC agent Jeff Barthelemy then entered the establishment and wrote a warning to the business and a $500 citation to Burdette, both for serving a minor.
“The fact of watching my staff carding her, telling her no, going as far as to give two checks to each individual showing that the underage person was not served, it’s kind of disheartening,” said Jennifer Mier who co-owns the business with husband Mark Mier.
Mark Mier, interviewed by LouisianaVoice, said he was scheduled to meet with ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert on Wednesday in an attempt to get the matter ironed out but Mier was still upset at the idea of sending a 17-year-old undercover operative in an attempt to purchase alcohol.
“The legal age for purchasing alcohol is 21 so why couldn’t they have sent a 19- or 20-year-old in instead of a 17-year-old. That was a very ill-advised thing to do with someone that young. I would never have done that.”
Hebert, who has been the subject of several stories by LouisianaVoice for the manner in which he arbitrarily fires employees, particularly African-American agents and for his insistence that all employees rise from their desk and offer a cheer “Good morning” when he enters a room, defended the practice of using operatives that young. “We use 16- and 17-year-old operatives to make sure that we’re only catching the worst violators out there.”
Huh? Did he really say that?
“I appreciate people that are there to keep us safe,” Jennifer Mier said, “but when the line gets crossed, when someone with authority chooses to use it just because they decide they’re going to, that’s not acceptable.
As strange as Hebert’s comment about “catching the worst offenders” was, the most curious comment by him was when he said, “ATC goes above and beyond to make sure we don’t use trickery. At ATC, we’d actually like to not write any violations across the state.”
That is odd indeed, given the fact that Hebert keeps a log of how many citations and how much in fines each agent issues and writes up agents who do not produce the number and amounts expected.
By established procedure, two agents are supposed to be involved in each case when underage operatives are used to attempt to purchase alcohol and at least one agent has to witness the sale.
But Hebert has fired so many agents that there are not enough to go around for each bust so ATC contracts with civilians such as the 21-year-old woman who accompanied the teenager into Hook’d Up. The contractors are paid an hourly rate but they are expected to produce an illegal sale or ATC will cease using them for undercover operations. Accordingly, the contractor is under pressure and has the incentive to ensure that an illegal sale will be made in order to continue collecting the hourly fee.
But what Hebert did to the owners and waitress at Hook’d Up pales in comparison to what he has done to a decorated retired Army Reserve major who has been attempting to open a restaurant and bar in the New Orleans French Quarter.
Tracy Riley, you see, is black and as LouisianaVoice has previously reported, Hebert has lost racial discrimination lawsuits and currently has others pending after vowing and then making good on that promise to rid his department of blacks.
So intent on carrying out his denial of her license was he that he even went so far as to file an official complaint with her commander when prior to her retirement that she had the audacity to show up at ATC headquarters to check on her permit—in uniform. In a Sept. 30, 2013, letter to Maj. Gen. Peter Lennon in Belle Chasse, Hebert cited what he called “unbecoming conduct” demonstrated by Riley for appearing at Hebert’s offices in full military uniform.
In a meeting at ATC headquarters, Barthelemy told Riley that being granted a permit was a privilege, not a right. He then admonished Riley and her son, saying that when they were in the ATC building, they were to conduct themselves “respectfully.”
As Riley and her son were leaving, Barthelemy asked Riley if she was on active duty and the name of her commanding officer.
This from an enforcement agent whose agency which works closely with State Fire Marshal Butch Browning who drew criticism and even resigned temporarily only to be cleared of wrongdoing over reports that he was wearing military ribbons and medals from World War II and the Korean Conflict on his dress uniform—and Browning never even served in the military.
Something’s a little out of kilter here, folks, and LouisianaVoice will be delving into the Browning Ribbongate issue in the coming days.
“I trust that the unbecoming conduct demonstrated by this military member will be handled accordingly and respectfully request to be notified of any corrective action taken,” Hebert wrote.
Riley was subsequently reprimanded for wearing her uniform while on personal business but the violation certainly didn’t equate to the war crimes offense Hebert made it out to be—especially given the timing of his Sept. 30 letter to Gen. Lennon.
Less than three weeks earlier, on Sept. 12, 2013, the French Quarter Business Association (FQBA) sent its own letter to Hebert complaining about Riley’s establishment, the Rouge House Supper Club, located at 300 Decatur Street.
Jeremy DeBlieux, president of FQBA, said in his letter to Hebert that he understood that a special event permit was granted to Riley to operate during the annual Essence Festival in July of 2013 but that the Rouge House “did not adhere” to provisos set forth in the temporary permit.
“We believe the owner’s blatant disregard to the city’s special event provisos and the unpermitted operations to date has indicated their intent,” DeBlieux said. “The business has clearly operated as a nightclub, rather than a supper club. Nightclub is not a permitted use at this specified location. We believe, with good reason, as a business association in the French Quarter, we should formally oppose the granting of alcoholic beverage permit to The Rouge House.”
So there you have it. Alcohol is strictly taboo in the New Orleans French Quarter.
On Dec. 5, Hebert denied Riley’s permit in a letter that gave as the reasons for denial as:
- Operating without a valid state alcoholic beverage permit;
- Misstatement or suppression of fact in application by failing to report managers and provide verification of suitability, failure to report owner Dale Riley (Riley’s husband) and provide affidavit showing that he meets the qualifications and conditions as set out in statute and failure to provide information on landlord as required.
- Failure to submit fingerprints of members (of) the company.
“If the aforementioned reasons(s) for denial is corrected within 60 days, you may request rescission of this decision,” Hebert wrote.
Riley said she has repeatedly requested meetings with Hebert to discuss her plight and to request a probationary permit but he has refused to meet with her. Moreover, she says she overheard an employee tell an agent that Hebert did not want to talk to her.
She did meet with Barthelemy who told her his only reason for meeting with her was to inform her that when she was in the ATC building she was to be respectful, Riley said. “He would not even discuss my application.”
ATC did conduct surprise inspections of The Rouge House but found the establishment either closed with no activity. In one undated report, agents noted they had conducted “surveillance” for 36 minutes and found the business closed. It is somehow difficult to imagine it taking 36 minutes to determine an establishment is closed. The report said the ATC agent “spoke with owner of Star Steak and Lobster in reference to the target location. Pictures attached.” A sticky note was attached to the report which said, “Pictures show no activity.” The sticky note contained the initials “TAR.”
On another occasion, a “full walk-through” was conducted by the agent from 12:45 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Again, the report, like all the others, was not dated. “Upon arriving at the location I found it open for business,” the agent’s report said. “I completed a full walk-thru of the location and found no alcohol on the premises. There were no customers in the location either. The kitchen was open and food was available to be purchased.”
Despite receiving only two complaints (actually four separate statements from individuals relative to the two complaints) that The Rouge House was operating, ATC spent considerable man-hours and expense in conducting at least 21 separate surveillance and investigative assignments only to find the business closed on each occasion.
One of the complaints was from an individual claiming to be a graduate of Xavier University who also appeared to be not only an authority on permits and licenses but clairvoyant as well in saying the club “will be serving alcohol on Friday, Aug. 16 (2013) with NO alcohol permit or license.”
Riley, unaware of the close association between Gov. Jindal and Hebert (Hebert’s wife is the Jindal children’s pediatrician) and of the fact that Jindal appointed Hebert after his ill-fated attempt to frame former Commissioner Murphy Painter, attempted to obtain help from the governor’s office but we all know how that went.
Now she is seeking justice through the courts. She filed a formal appeal in June in Civil District Court in New Orleans.
And if history is any indication, the administration is well on the way toward yet another in a long line of legal defeats.
LouisianaVoice, in the coming days and weeks, will be taking closer looks at the state’s three major enforcement agencies.