City turns up heat on Whittier bar

The owners of Joe’s Tavern, 109 E. 26th St., are trying to sell, pressured by the city over allegations of ongoing drug problems at their bar and their own interest in getting out of the business after 27 years.

Wally Schwab, one of the bar’s owners, said he and his partner Joyce Bartel have a purchase agreement with someone who wants to turn it into "a nice bar and restaurant." He declined to discuss details until the deal cleared city regulatory hurdles.

The city has pushed to revoke the bar’s 3.2-percent beer license, alleging the owners have failed to stop drug deals on the premises. Investigators say past sanctions have failed to stop illegal drug sales.

Joe’s Tavern attorney Stephen O’Brien said he could not comment on the allegations against his clients. "These are honest, hardworking people, and they are just trying to make a living. There is no allegation that they [personally] are engaged in drug trafficking."

Asked whether drug sales have happened between bar patrons, O’Brien said, "It happens everywhere. It is probably happening in front of your business right now."

City staff said the tavern owners have disputed the city’s allegations and asked an administrative law judge to hear the case. Assistant City Attorney Joel Fussy said the city would not have a difficult time proving the allegations. Still, selling the bar could resolve the matter.

On Dec. 10, the City Council voted 12-0 to approve a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) recommendation that would penalize Joe’s. The TAC report alleges that tavern employees had knowledge of and facilitated on-site drug sales. The 11-point recommendation included a $3,000 stayed fine and a 30-day closure to force out drug dealers.

Joe’s owners also agreed to fire and not rehire certain employees, to screen future employees for criminal backgrounds and to have at least two employees on the premises at all times after reopening, the agreement said.

The city alleges that Joe’s has not cleaned up its act. According to city investigators, the bar has had four violations since its TAC hearing, which had been held Nov. 17. According to a "Joe’s Bar Timeline" posted on the city’s Web site:

– Feb. 9: A reliable confidential informant conducted a controlled crack buy at the bar. Police arrested the dealer, who swallowed the crack. There was only one person working at the time. The drug sale happened 10 feet from the employee. Only five of the 12 people in the bar had proper ID.

– Jan. 13: Officers used a confidential informant to do a controlled crack buy. Police arrested the seller with 2.1 grams of crack. The bar had only one employee working.

The report notes two other occasions when the bar had only one employee working. On one of those occasions, five of nine patrons did not have proper ID. The bartender told police they "looked old enough."

Joe’s Tavern had similar license violations in 1985, and the city suspended the bar’s license for 60 days, according to the city report. A signed agreement at the time said Joe’s staff would check all patrons’ IDs, notify police of suspected drug dealing, keep undesirables out of the bar and hire security.

Schwab said the bar had trouble with a nearby vacant lot at the corner of East 26th Street & Stevens Avenue. People used it for parking. "There was a lot of drug dealing going on and [dealers] slept in their vans," he said. "That is where the trouble started."

The lot is the former home of Despatch dry cleaners and a Superfund site. The county is in the process of cleaning it up. The site eventually will be redeveloped as housing.