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Late one night in the spring of 2004, downtown D.C. dance club Five’s general manager, Tim Sherman, spied a rather unseasonable scene at his second-floor bar. Sitting at the counter was a man with snowy white powder “all over his shirt,” Sherman recalls. And also, he adds, “on the bar.”
Sherman is no meteorologist, but he was sure this was no hoarfrost. The messy patron appeared to be openly using cocaine. Or at least trying to.
Though his club strives to provide patrons with “a hospitable environment,” according to its Web site, the boorish manager wasted no time in expelling the heavily dusted clubber. At the door, one of the club’s bouncers flagged down a police officer, who promptly arrested and hauled away the offending customer.
“Handled speedily and by the book,” is how Five’s lawyer, Michael Fonseca, later described the incident to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board—just the way proprietors like to portray today’s avowedly anti-drug club scene.
Disco-era impresario Steve Rubell must be sniffing in his grave.
Clubs and drugs just don’t mix the way they did back when Rubell’s notorious Studio 54 went so far as to incorporate its celebration of illicit-chemical intake into the décor: Famously hanging above the dance floor was a man-in-the-moon mobile that lit up each time a magical spoon passed under its nose.
Nowadays, nightclubs often display starkly different drug-related messages, such as the not-so-subtle sign posted around D.C.’s own 9:30 Club: “ILLEGAL DRUG USE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.”
Sure, strongly worded disclaimers and by-the-book exit strategies might be enough to appease local regulators when contraband is found on your premises. But are they enough to ward off the feds?
Facing an increased risk of prosecution following Congress’ passage of the controversial Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003—aka the RAVE Act—some club operators might be willing to adopt more drastic measures.
That’s where Woodbridge, Va., business consultant Patrick Keough is looking to cash in.
A former military intelligence officer, Keough is president and CEO of Corporate Integrity Services LLC, which he describes as “a very high-end boutique [private-investigations] firm that provides specialized litigation support to law firms and corporate entities.” Now serving the highly specialized entertainment industry.
Last week, Keough and an associate, Miami attorney Robert F. Lewis, traveled to Atlantic City, N.J., to pitch their services to scores of East Coast nightlifers at a convention hosted by national trade mag Nightclub & Bar.
Out of hundreds of exhibits showcasing products and services ranging from cryogenic fog machines to computerized beer-tap-monitoring systems and patented shot-luge-table technology, theirs was perhaps the most shocking. Well, with the possible exception of the pump-operated liquor-spewing latex strap-on mammaries called Hooter Shooters.
“The government is on the hunt,” warned the consultants’ pamphlets. “Did you know that your club can be raided and closed, and you can go to jail if the government decides that you’re turning a blind eye to drug trafficking?”
Bar owners may view that pitch as fear-mongering; Keough has a different term. “Part of what I do is education,” explains Keough, whose pseudo-public-awareness campaign targets owners, managers, and any event organizers who might fall prey to the RAVE Act’s broad definition of “knowingly” making a place available “for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”
Club owners who pursue a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy toward employee stoning could earn a visit from the feds. “They don’t have to prove that the nightclub owners intended people to use drugs in their establishment, or that they wanted people to use drugs, or they were hoping people used drugs, or they didn’t care if people used drugs,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs in the D.C. office of the Drug Policy Alliance. “All they have to prove is that people were using drugs and selling drugs in their establishment and that the business owners knew that, and yet they continued to operate their business and continued to make it available to the public.”
“It might be cool with your friends to turn a blind eye in the bathroom when they’re doin’ somethin’,” adds Keough. “But that blind eye…sends your ass to jail.”
Thus part of Keough’s job involves outfitting the jail-wary or downright paranoid operators with their own Big Brother–style narco-surveillance systems.
For an annual fee, ranging from a few grand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the venue’s capacity, workforce, and other variables, Keough’s company helps clients “take affirmative steps to minimize the influence of drugs on your business.”
Make that affirmative and invasive.
The company’s patent-pending program, titled “RAVEguardian,” involves such Orwellian measures as sending in company-paid private eyes, typically former DEA and FBI agents, to spy on your operation during normal business hours, as well as conduct background checks and urine tests of employees—paying particular attention to bartenders, wait staff, and doormen, all of whom Keough refers to as “touch-point employees.” “Those are the people who are in direct contact with the population,” he says, “that normally, in a drug-distribution chain, you would wanna co-opt for your use.” Results of the piss tests and other gathered intelligence get reported to local authorities.
As if lurking peeps, scientific spook techniques, and data-sharing weren’t chilling enough, Keough & Co. will even go so far as to unleash the hounds. “We bring in DEA-certified dogs when the shop’s closed,” he says, “to look for the presence of drugs.”
The implementation of these police-state tactics is strategic: It’s a handy head start on all those court filings, should that trial date ever come. “You’re gonna be able to show that, short of becoming a narc yourself and closing up your own doors, you did all that was humanly reasonable to expect to not allow that activity to happen,” says Keough. “And in a courtroom, under the RAVE Act, that’s all that matters.”
The program, which Keough describes as “relatively new,” came about as a result of the consultants’ efforts to help defend Miami club owner Louis Puig, whose Space34 eventually bounced back from two federal narcotics busts in 2003 and 2004.
Yet aside from those two high-profile raids in Florida and last year’s blitzkrieg that effectively shuttered New York club mogul Richard Grant’s Sound Factory, other examples of aggressive RAVE Act enforcement against clubs are scant.
Piper’s group estimates that between 80 and 100 court cases have materialized since Congress expanded the existing so-called crack-house statute to include anyone who might “profit from” a place where cops find drugs. Piper & Co. are still awaiting the results of an August Freedom of Information Act query for more specific data from the Justice Department.
“Almost all the cases we’ve seen are crack houses or meth labs,” says Piper, who struggles to cite any affected nightclubs beyond Puig’s and Grant’s.
Although a hot-button civil-liberties issue a few years ago, the controversial legislation has all but vanished from local industry-insider chatter. “I haven’t heard anything about the RAVE Act in some time,” says Frederic Harwood, executive director of the D.C. Licensed Beverage Association and former owner of the defunct club 2K9.
Keough acknowledges that the feds so far “haven’t gone nuts” with their expanded club-crackdown capabilities. And that’s made the program a bit of a tough sell. “Our position is, it’s only a matter of time,” he says. “What we’re telling folks is, the only way to beat this thing is to get out in front of it. If you try to react to it after the fact, the chances you’ll be successful are very slight.”
Southeast D.C. dance mecca Nation was successful enough to stay open after a joint federal and local “buy/bust operation” resulted in six Ecstasy arrests in September 2002—just a few months prior to the RAVE Act’s passage. The club’s Friday-night Buzz parties, at which the busts were made, eventually re-emerged under a new name: Cubik.
Despite Nation’s past narc infiltration, manager James Boyle isn’t exactly clamoring for help from outside consultants. “I think anyone in this business needs to be on top of their staff, and if they don’t know what’s going on, they shouldn’t be in business,” he says. “To hire outside people to tell ya what’s going on in your own place, that just doesn’t make sense to me.”—Chris Shott
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Gus D’Angelo.