GONZALES — A man who claims to own a strip club where at least two people have been killed outside is challenging in a 10 a.m. hearing Tuesday the denial of a Ascension Parish license that allows the club to operate, attorneys said.
At issue is whether the sexually oriented business license for Suthern Kumfort’s Lounge on U.S. 61 near the East Baton Rouge Parish line was properly denied. Last week, authorities arrested the man contesting the denied license, Steve Duke, 56, of Prairieville, and the man who sheriff’s deputies say really owns the bar, Charles Puckett, 61, of Prairieville, on counts of filing false records.
The Sheriff’s Office has been trying unsuccessfully to close the club since an April 2008 slaying in the bar parking lot when the club was under a different owner, Chief Deputy Tony Bacala said.
“We have had grave concerns about the way it’s been run for a long time now,” Bacala said.
But the club continued to see its license renewed until Council Chairman Pat Bell denied it on May 5, one day after the slaying of Willis Tanner IV, license records show.
Willis Tanner III, 60, said he would like to see Suthern Kumfort’s never reopened.
“It appears to me that this place should have never been allowed to be open, and if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be dealing with my son’s death,” Tanner III said.
Tanner IV, 28, of St. Amant, was beaten to death by Zachary Pusch, 20, of Prairieville, in the club parking lot on May 4, deputies have said.
Deputies arrested Pusch on a second-degree murder count.
Suthern Kumfort’s was shut down the next day and subsequently became the focus of a probe by deputies and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control into the bar’s true ownership.
The investigation led to the arrests of Duke and Puckett and the revelation that Pusch was being paid with alcohol to erase video surveillance images of Duke having sex with a woman in the business office, deputies have said.
The proceeding Tuesday will be the first time a Parish Council appeals process built into Ascension’s sexually oriented business ordinance has been used since the strip club licensing law was adopted in 2003, current and former parish attorneys said.
A hearing officer will mediate the trial-like process in council chambers at 828 S. Irma Blvd., parish attorney Toni Falterman said.
Carla Bourgeois, parish administration executive assistant, said attorneys are researching whether the hearing will be public.
Joe Long, an attorney for the club and Duke, said he plans to argue that Bell failed to deny the bar’s licenses for any of the reasons outlined in the ordinance.
Duke’s license application was submitted on Jan. 28, license records show, and, according to Long, deputies cleared Duke in a background check on March 2.
Long said he plans to call Bell and Mark West, the parish sales and use tax administrator. West claimed in a recent deposition that he misplaced the application for two months before the denial on May 5, Long said.
Long said that in a separate deposition Bell said he denied the license after the slaying until he could learn more about what happened.
“I can respect that he wanted to err on the side of caution, but the ordinance doesn’t provide him that remedy,” Long said.
The sexually oriented business ordinance requires an annual renewal of licenses, and review is a shared responsibility. The Sheriff’s Office does background checks. The parish sales tax office handles review and administration of the licenses. The sitting Parish Council chairman makes the final approval.
Chief Deputy Bacala wrote to West in a letter that West received on Jan. 5, 2009, that the 2008 slaying and two later incidents in 2008 should lead the Parish Council to deny renewal of the club’s license.
In April 2008, a knife and gun fight led to the shooting death of one person and two people being injured. The other 2008 incidents occurred in the summer and involved alleged inappropriate conduct of club dancers.
Bacala wrote that background checks had not turned up anything to disqualify the owners then but that “adequate and responsible management practices would not have allowed such outrageous activity to occur in the first place.”
License records show that the license was renewed another year with Councilman Bell granting the final OK.
But Bacala said the ordinance lays out an “x, y, z formula” on license renewal and he said he does not think it is strong enough to address some issues.
“That’s the problem. I don’t think anybody on council then or now wanted the place to continue to operate, but someone had to make a decision whether the items I am suggesting (in the letter) rose to the occasion,” he said.
Bell did not return a message for comment Monday.
West’s office referred calls to a parish government spokesman.
Falterman, who is representing the parish Tuesday, declined comment.