Justice delayed

Backstreet and Metro face the city's wrath, a year later

Folks were doing blow and ecstasy at Backstreet; no one's denying that.

But now that Atlanta's largest and best-known gay club, and its neighborhood rival the Metro, are embroiled in a legal battle with the city to keep their doors open, accusations are flying that the city's license-review process is unfair and that Atlanta police have targeted gay clubs.

Last week, Mayor Shirley Franklin suspended the alcohol licenses of both clubs for 30 days and issued matching fines of $9,000 as a long-awaited response to numerous drug-related citations at each establishment. The two Midtown clubs would have been forced to close down Sunday at midnight, if not for lawsuits challenging the mayor's decision that their respective attorneys filed Friday.

Even Franklin, however, has been concerned about the manner in which the cases against Backstreet and the Metro came about, says Gary Cox, the city's vice chief operating officer.

In October, Metro owner Don Hunnewell was notified to appear before the city's License Review Board to answer charges of drug use and public indecency inside his Peachtree Street club and to "show cause" why his liquor license shouldn't be revoked.

At that hearing, the Metro was hit with accusations that it failed to police its patrons, who were allegedly cited with 21 infractions ranging from snorting coke at the bar to selling drugs to undercover cops in the bathroom to performing oral sex on the dance floor, says Eric Jensen, an attorney with Alan Begner's law firm, which represents the club.

The trouble was, all of the illegal activity had taken place more than a year earlier and many of the arrests by undercover cops had taken place outside the club, meaning club managers were likely unaware of the busts at the time. Atlanta police also didn't bother to tell Hunnewell that his club was racking up a long list of legal blotches on its record.

Even if the club had been in a position to defend itself against the accusations, Jensen says that because the License Review Board is a panel of citizen appointees rather than a court of law, its decisions aren't constrained by the legal standards of evidence and proof. Denying the charges can be interpreted as being argumentative, he says.

"If you 'fess up and beg for forgiveness, that usually works better," Jensen explains.

But not this time. The board recommended to Franklin that the club be permanently stripped of its alcohol license.

Little more than a month later, Backstreet likewise was brought before the board to answer accusations that its patrons had been caught doing coke and ecstasy, as well as that a bar manager had been selling nitrous oxide capsules or "whippets" to customers wanting to get high.

Jackson Cook, attorney for Backstreet, says he wasn't surprised that the club got a knuckle rap in the form of a $9,000 fine, but the board called for a month-long suspension as well.

"The Metro's misconduct was far more egregious than ours but, since we followed them, we got tarred with the same brush," he says. "It's kind of a bad rap."

Last week, Franklin decided to override the board's harsher recommendation for the Metro and give both clubs a 30-day suspension and the fine. The clubs won injunctions Friday to remain open while they appeal the mayor's decision.

"Thirty days to most [nightclubs] is like a death sentence because they don't have enough capital to carry through a month of inactivity," Jensen says. Backstreet has a payroll of more than 90 who would suffer greatly from a month-long layoff, Cook says.

Both clubs are also questioning a license-review process that allows the city to blindside them with accusations of year-old misbehavior that may or may not have resulted in criminal convictions and can be substantiated merely by a cop's say-so.

Hunnewell has told Southern Voice that he believes Atlanta police are intentionally targeting gay clubs such as his.

"The administration was disturbed by the fact that it took so long to bring these cases to the attention of the License Review Board," Cox says. As a result, new Police Chief Richard Pennington met recently with owners of gay bars to assure them that police were not targeting their businesses and that, in the future, he would alert clubs within 30 days of a bust.

Backstreet is already living on borrowed time as far as city attorneys are concerned. It is currently fighting a 2001 city ordinance that would effectively do away with 24-hour nightclubs.