GONZALES — An Ascension Parish hearing officer on Wednesday upheld denial of a parish strip club license for Suthern Kumfort’s Lounge in Prairieville.
The ruling means the Airline Highway club, shut two days after a fatal beating in the parking lot on May 4, remains closed as other legal troubles flowing from that slaying play out, including criminal and state alcohol control investigations.
Under the parish sexually oriented business ordinance, a so-called SOB license is needed for a strip club to operate in Ascension.
The special administrative hearing was called at the request of alleged owner Steve Duke after Parish Council Chairman Pat Bell denied Suthern Kumfort’s license renewal on May 5.
The day and a half of trial-like proceedings included testimony and documents aimed at unearthing who owned the bar.
A fairly narrow point was at issue: Was the parish justified in its denial of the license because of allegedly untruthful information on a license application?
After both sides presented their arguments, hearing officer John Lieux found that Charles Puckett, 61, of Prairieville, is the actual strip club owner and Duke, 56, of Prairieville, is not.
The 2011 sexually oriented business license application for Suthern Kumfort’s stated that Duke is the owner.
Lieux said all the evidence showed deception and subterfuge in obtaining the license and that both Duke and Puckett violated the strip club licensing law.
“It is the court’s opinion that Mr. Duke did not provide adequate information concerning the ownership of Suthern Kumfort,” Lieux said.
“This is not any one particular thing that has been said but a result of an accumulation of evidence that has been presented.”
Lieux cited testimony of current and former employees Tuesday who said Puckett went inside the club wherever and whenever he wanted, showing he was more than just the owner of the club building.
In upholding the parish, Lieux also rejected club attorney Joe Long’s argument that recognized state business records show Duke to be the owner, not Puckett, and that other documents raised in the hearing are not public records.
Long said in closing Wednesday that the parish failed to present promised testimony that two sheriff’s deputies heard Puckett admit he owned the club.
Long also pointed to employee testimony asserting that Puckett would visit the club to collect rent for the club building lease and from employees who rented housing from Puckett.
Long told Lieux that he saw no evidence Puckett was deriving any profit from the bar other than the rent and heard testimony that Duke ran the club on a day-to-day basis.
“If you’re not getting any money and not controlling the place, how do you own it?” Long asked.
Throughout the proceeding in the Parish Council chambers at the courthouse in Gonzales, information gathered in a criminal case against Puckett and Duke emerged.
On June 8, sheriff’s investigators arrested Duke and Puckett on counts of filing false public records in a scheme to hide Puckett’s ownership, deputies have said.
Puckett is a convicted sex offender on parole and is barred from getting the license.
Parish Council attorney Toni Falterman presented documents that sheriff’s and state investigators seized in Puckett’s house on May 25.
She told Lieux in her closing argument Wednesday documents show Puckett bought a 55 percent stake in the business in 2009 from the widow of a one-time club owner.
Puckett had others to stand in his place for that share but things changed when then-owner Drew Stansell decided to sell his 45 percent stake, Falterman argued.
“But when Drew decided to go sell, there was a big problem because he (Puckett) could not own that 55 percent, so now he finds Duke. He can own the business,” Falterman said.
After the ruling, Falterman said that she was pleased, adding the parish provided its burden of proof and the decision was just.
Long said that he knew it would be an uphill climb for a local court to overrule a Parish Council chairman and political forces united in a move to deny the license.
Duke has the option to appeal in state or federal court, but Long said he does not know what his client wants to do.