City Council committee votes to strip Champions’ liquor license

A City Council committee has voted to revoke Champions’ liquor license at Lake & Blaisdell, ruling the license is not in the public interest.

The Feb. 25 decision of the Community Development and Regulatory Services Committee was based on the findings of an administrative law judge that said Champions, the site of a homicide last summer, has failed to provide adequate security. The judge’s report said security staff admitted drug dealers on the bar’s “Trespass List” and allowed fights, drug dealing and open marijuana smoking.

Champions’ attorney Ed Matthews said he anticipates an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The bus stop outside the bar’s door is the root cause of trouble, Matthews said. He said owner Rick Nelson contacted his council member in the summer of 2011 with concerns about drug dealing and gang activity at the corner. The bus stop should be moved a block east to Lake & Nicollet, he said.

“If it had been moved back in 2011, we probably would not be here right now,” Matthews said.

At the hearing, Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said the city does not have the power to move the bus stop. She said many other businesses operate near bus stops without generating a similar number of complaints.

“I’m a little bit distraught to hear you describe this as a dangerous corner and a terrible part of town, but you had nothing to do with that,” she said. “I cannot imagine being a neighbor to this, and not think that this is not in the public interest.”

Matthews said Champions’ security was weakened in March 2012 when former Precinct Inspector Matt Clark ordered officers to stop working off-duty shifts for the bar.

“The bar has been targeted and set up for failure,” Matthews said.

According to a report by Administrative Law Judge Jeanne Cochran, those officers worked Champions’ three busiest nights and thought their presence enhanced security.

Matthews said two off-duty officers would have been working outside the bar on the August night a customer was shot and killed. The incident was caught on one of Champions’ 14 security cameras, he said, which led to the suspect’s arrest.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.

According to the judge’s report: One of the off-duty officers told the media in March 2012 that much of Champions’ trouble was related to the nearby bus stop. Clark then decided the officers could no longer work off-duty at Champions, because the comments could have impacted ongoing investigations. Clark said the off-duty officers were not effective in stopping the drug dealing, they provided non-public police data for Champions, and ran background checks for Champions security.

An undercover team worked for several months to address drug dealing at Champions and the surrounding area. The administrative law judge’s report included the following details:

The undercover work was prompted by a shooting at Champions’ parking lot in the summer of 2011, in which two drug dealers exchanged fire across Lake Street during an afternoon rush hour.

Undercover work lasted about four months in late 2011, with officers purchasing drugs in and near Champions.

In some of the instances, dealers moved the transactions away from Champions’ property, pointing out surveillance cameras.

In one instance in December 2011, an undercover officer purchased crack cocaine in Champions’ patio area, and saw the dealer carrying 20-25 bundled rocks of crack. The dealer reportedly told the officer “security ain’t gonna do nothing, I’m here all the time.”

A different dealer told an undercover officer to hurry up during a narcotics transaction in January 2012, because the security was “tight” at the bar.

In December 2012, the head of Champions’ security allegedly solicited prostitution from a female officer working undercover. The man said he was only trying to figure out if the unknown woman was a prostitute, and never intended to pay her for sex.

The homicide at Champions occurred at 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2013. A metal detection wand activated when the shooter entered the bar, but Nelson said staff attributed it to his prosthetic leg. Video shows the man being punched several times, falling to the floor, pulling the gun and shooting. A customer who died was not involved in the fight.

At the February hearing, Matthews said Champions employs 25 people and generates $100,000 in sales tax revenue.

Goodman estimated that the city has spent more than 10 times that amount to regulate and control the behavior at Champions.

“If the business were to go out of business, we would be a net winner,” she said.

The committee recommended that Champions should not retain its license while the case is appealed, although that decision would be determined by the appeals court.