Archive » October 25, 2012
Casino liquor license fate awaits
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
The fate of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians’s request to expand the liquor license at its casino hotel and resort rests with an administrative law judge, who will decide in mid-December whether to grant it after hearing closing arguments last week from the tribe’s legal counsel and five protestents.
The four-day hearing began Oct. 16 at Solvang City Hall with testimony from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), which has recommended approval of the expansion.
In May 2010, the tribe informed ABC that it intended to expand the casino liquor license for the Willows Restaurant to cover the Creekside Buffet on the third floor, the 15,000 square-foot Samala Showroom on the second, and the nearby hotel. The tribe plans to drop its “type 70” license that allows the nearby hotel to serve alcohol in two private meeting rooms through room service or mini-bars. There also would be some restrictions in the license, including one that would require the Samala Room to use 80% of the floor for dining purposes when serving alcohol.
The latest application has drawn community outrage, similar to the response evoked by the tribe’s 2003 request for its original license, which was granted two years later. ABC received four letters of support and 98 in protest by the Jan. 23 deadline for comment, according to ABC spokesman John Carr. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department submitted a protest against the license expansion, but withdrew it last year after Sheriff Bill Brown and the tribe agreed to certain license conditions.
One protester of Santa Ynez and formerly of Las Vegas, wrote that she has seen “first-hand the effects of alcoholic beverage service at casinos.”
“Las Vegas is a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people,” she wrote. “The area in the vicinity of the strip is highly urban. That is not the case with the Santa Ynez Valley. Drunk drivers – many of which I have seen exiting the casino – are dangerous to themselves and the community...the scale of the casino in relation to other establishments locally, the location in a rural community, and the documented crime rate all contribute to a finding that the expansion of this license will so concentrate risk of harm in this community that its approval is simply inappropriate.”
ABC’s report recommending approval of the license expansion arrived at the opposite conclusion. Based on investigations by license representatives Rhonda Whittington, Robert Olshaskie and Leslie Pond, the report stated there was no evidence that expanding the license would aggravate law enforcement problems at or around the premises; create unsafe traffic conditions; increase access of alcohol to minors; create a greater threat to the health, welfare, and safety of the public; or create an over-concentration of alcoholic beverage licenses.
During the hearings, the four protesters contended that the report’s conclusions and testimonies by the investigators were based on flawed information.
From Oct. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2010, there were 355 documented incidents or arrest reports, according to the report. “Only 55 were for alcohol-related crimes,” it read. “The frequency of calls for service is directly attributable to the pro-active casino and hotel security staff, which utilizes an extensive surveillance system and is able to observe illegal activity.”
Holding a sizable stack of arrest reports, James Marino argued that many incidents flagged as non-alcohol related were actually attributable to the sale of alcohol.
He had hoped to poke a hole in ABC’s statistical analysis by having Olshaskie “authenticate” police reports in which people drank at the Willows Restaurant but were arrested or cited elsewhere. That was precisely the grounds by which presiding administrative law judge Matthew Ainley rejected Marino’s request. In order for an incident to be accepted as alcohol-related, or more specifically, casino-alcohol-related, the arrest or citation had to occur at the restaurant.
Marino also said he was troubled by testimony by Bill Peters, general manager of the Chumash Casino Resort, who stated that most cases that involved drunkenness or drug intoxication, casino security “manages” the situation by sending people home via shuttle or taxicab, or by having a friend or relative drive them home.
“For every arrest or incident in which the casino had to call in the sheriff, there are at least two additional incidents that were never reported to the sheriff and would not show up in Sheriff Department report statistics,” Marino stated.
The judge dealt the protesters another setback when he dismissed as evidence a summary of DUI arrest statistics obtained by Steve Raftopoulos from the California Highway Patrol. The CHP data indicate that DUI arrests on highways 154, 246 and 101 in and around the Valley exploded by 1,230% from 2010 to 2012, while DUI arrests statewide grew by 8%.
Raftopoulos told the judge that the dramatic increase could only be explained by alcohol sales at the casino, and that the data points to a serious and growing safety issue in the Valley.
At a prior hearing, Peters stated that the casino had stopped checking patrons’ bags, purses, backpacks and other carrying bags in 2003 or 2004, years that saw DUI rates begin to double, Raftopoulos noted.
The tribe’s attorneys objected to Raftopoulos’s summary of CHP data on the basis that it was irrelevant, amounted to “hearsay,” had not been “certified” or corroborated by a CHP officer on the stand.
During the third day of hearings, Steve Ernest, former assistant director for ABC’s northern division, said the arrest rate at a casino resort and hotel that draws 3.5 million visitors each year – according to the general manager – was “insignificant.”
Raftopoulos maintained that the number of casino patrons has been used to “dilute the impact of crimes that occur at the casino.”
“This is a Valley of 20,000 people,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that one would not normally see that type of criminal activity in a setting such as this.”
Ralph Saltsman, the attorney representing the tribe, said there was no law enforcement problem because the license would only allow alcohol to be sold in three stated locations and under conditions agreed upon with the Sheriff’s Department. These conditions include banning sales, service or consumption of alcohol on the gaming floor and at the Chumash Café.
Saltsman said from October 2008 to September 2010, 44 calls for service were made on average per month to the county Sheriff’s Department, according to a separate report by Olshaskie. And 40 calls were made per month from October 2010 to October 2012, during which the casino has operated under the interim, expanded license. The majority of calls came from casino security, “which is more than a demonstration of the casino security’s ability rather than a crime problem,” he added.
Further, he said Ernest’s testimony showed the tribe more than met its burden of proof.
On the third day of hearings, Ernest testified that he had made unannounced visits to the casino on eight different dates, from 9 a.m. until midnight. He said he never observed anything unlawful, anyone with an alcoholic beverage outside the restaurant or anyone who appeared to be under the influence.
He said he tested casino security policing on several occasions: He was prevented from leaving the restaurant and the buffet with a glass of wine, and he was refused when he asked for a glass of wine during a non-banquet concert. He said he found no violations during a level-by-level inspection of the parking structure, where he attracted the attention of casino security personnel for intentionally loitering.
During cross-examination, Ernest said he had not talked to deputy sheriffs who work in and around the casino, nor with any officials about the roads leading to and from the casino. Nor did he check trash cans in the parking structure for empty beer cans or drug paraphernalia. He also said he did not document his investigation in writing and that the scope of his investigation was limited by his contract with the tribe, who paid him an hourly rate of $400, which included time spent testifying.
Raftopoulos told the judge that ABC investigators had “come woefully short of meeting their own standards for public safety.”
“I’m talking about its mission statement, which addresses specifically its basic principles and mission for public safety,” he added. “The paid investigation and testimony of private investigator Steve Ernst, whose presence was known by casino security during his investigation, did little to assuage concerns of traffic safety and crime.”
“I believe this investigation was done by bureaucrats who were checking boxes and crossing t’s and dotting i’s and filling out reports that could be stamped by their bosses,” he added.
David Sakamoto, an ABC attorney, disagreed, stating the department conducted a reasonable and thorough investigation. He also said Sheriff Brown was “satisfied” with conditions he and the tribe agreed to impose on the new license, and he assured the judge that ABC agents do periodic spot checks to ensure compliance. In his closing remarks, Saltsman said the dip in reported crimes at the casino when the interim license was in place showed that an increase in alcohol sales did not lead to an increase in crime.
“The case the protesters presented was a tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he said. “There were lots of words, but no evidence, no facts. There was lots of conjecture, but no evidence, no facts.” Marino said counsel for the tribe failed to make its case, because it refused to prove sales of alcohol increased during the interim license and failed to show there would not be an increase in alcohol-related crimes, because many reported incidents connected to alcohol and drugs were not categorized as “alcohol-related” because the crimes involved trespassing, vandalism, forgery, fraud, theft, disturbance or domestic disturbance.
He also said the tribe’s attorneys refused to admit into the record a report compiled by casino security personnel of “in-house” incidents, in which no call was made to the Sheriff’s Department. Had it done so, “added incidents of intoxication would have been reflected and the total numbers would likely be much greater,” he said. email@example.com