Honolulu Lite


Monday, May 27, 2002

Liquor cops put
squeeze on strip bars

It's one of the island's worst-kept secrets: Hostess bar and strip club owners are subjected to the constant squeeze of corrupt Liquor Commission investigators and anyone else who has the leverage to put their precious liquor licenses in jeopardy.

So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. attorney's office indicted more than half of the Honolulu Liquor Commission's crack investigative staff last week for allegedly taking bribes. I say allegedly, because that's the nice way to refer to people who have been charged with a crime but not yet found guilty. But let's be honest here: Owners of bars operating on the gray side of the law -- those offering stripping, leg-rubbing and lap-dancing -- have a long history of being strong-armed by organized crime and organized crime fighters, both, ironically, offering them "protection."

I've visited a few of these establishments (merely in my role as investigative humorist, you understand), and I can reliably report that they are places where laws are broken on an almost moment-by-moment basis. Not surprising, considering businesses that sell liquor are probably the most heavily regulated businesses on the island. There are rules about how much booze can go into one drink, how many drinks can be put in front of a patron at one time, what kind of pictures can be hung on walls, what kind of furniture can be installed ... and that's just the tip of the legal ice cube.

It's hard enough for mainstream, G-rated watering holes like Moose McGillycuddy's and Gordon Biersch to avoid running afoul of Liquor Commission minutiae. The bar manager takes a break, and suddenly a new waiter inadvertently "stacks" a couple of gin and tonics in front of a customer. Violation!

Bars that offer pleasures of the flesh as well as extra olives face an even greater raft of regulations. Strippers can get ever so close to customers, but they can't be touched. I'd bet the rules regarding the actions of "hostesses" alone read like the Articles of War.

Managers of places with names like "Club Rubadub" and "Club Whoopie" generally aren't real sticklers for rules to begin with. Violations of rules relating to employees who take their clothes off for a living are constant, not to mention profitable. With a propensity to take the path of least resistance, these club owners are easy marks for liquor investigators out to get a cut of the action. The fact that they have the power to close a business down -- at least in a club owner's mind -- means investigators are on the level of gods when they stroll into a strip joint.

This is not to say that the owners and managers who make payoffs are not at fault. But law enforcement agents take an oath to protect Joe Public. Strip club operators are just out to make him feel good and take his money.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. E-mail

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