Congress Theater liquor hearings begin with undercover cop's testimony
Separate from the much-publicized Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance proceedings against the Congress Theater, the Chicago Liquor Control Commission began its own disciplinary hearings Tuesday afternoon, and controversial venue owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza could lose his liquor license depending on the outcome.
The first day of the proceedings in the Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection hearing room on the eighth floor of City Hall included riveting testimony from an undercover police officer with the Chicago vice squad who was investigating complaints that theater security guards seize drugs from concertgoers and then resell them. His investigation was cut short before he bought any drugs, the officer said, because he found himself in the middle of a major fight involving more than 15 rival gang members at a Chief Keef show.
Also taking the stand: a concertgoer who said he was beaten by Congress security and had his cell phone stolen by them after he attempted to record their abusive treatment of him and his friends.
Tuesday’s hearing ended without action and with testimony yet to be heard from another seven witnesses. The proceedings will resume on March 5th.
According to the second amended notice of hearing filed by assistant corporation counsel Maggie Shiels, the city’s case will focus on five charges:
- The Congress failed to promptly report the fight to police at the Chief Keef concert last April. The venue did not call 911, as is required by law, but police presence already was heavy in the area during the show, in part because of the undercover investigation, and in part because of the notoriety of Chicago gangsta rapper Chief Keef, who was jailed on Tuesday for violating his probation.
- Venue staffers failed to cooperate with police officers and truthfully answer questions after the officers found seven patrons under age 17 who were illegally admitted to a show by the British dubstep DJ Rusko on May 6.
- Five incidents that “violated a state law regulating narcotics or controlled substances” at the venue between September 3, 2011, and April 15, 2012.
- And that security “caused bodily harm” to concertgoer Marco Garcia and committed theft—seizing and keeping his cell phone—after a concert by trance producer and DJ Armin van Buuren on May 26.
Garcia, who works as a busboy at a local restaurant, testified Tuesday through an interpreter, since he does not speak English. He said that he, his girlfriend and several others friends were hoping to meet van Buuren when the artist left through a back door in an alley behind the theater. But six to eight venue security guards approached them first, using rude language.
When Garcia tried to document his interaction with security on video with his cell phone, the abuse became physical, he said. He was knocked to ground, hit in the face, kicked in the ribs and handcuffed. Released after police responded to a call from his girlfriend, Garcia was treated at a hospital in Berwyn for his injuries. He never recovered his cell phone with the incriminating video.
Deputy Hearings Commissioner Robert Nolan also heard from police officer Robert McCallum, who was working at the Congress undercover with his partner on April 13, during the Chief Keef concert. According to a police report that is part of the background documentation for the case obtained by WBEZ via the Freedom of Information Act, the police had received “information that leads us to believe security personnel [at the venue] confiscate drugs, do not notify police, and then sell the drugs during concerts, shows, etc., particularly under-21 DJ events.”
McCallum repeated that accusation on the stand and told how he and his partner had just begun their surveillance and had not yet bought any drugs when a major fight between members of rival gangs spilled out of the main part of the theater and into the lobby. Security exercised no control over the melee, McCallum said, and after about five minutes, when uniformed police arrived in response to the call of an officer in distress, he and his partner broke cover and assisted in bringing the situation under control.
Carranza hired a new security firm for the Congress, BluCorp Consultants, several months later. Security at the venue now is overseen by one of the firm’s three founding partners, Bill Whelehan, who was fired as a Chicago police officer in June 2011 “for dangerous and offense behavior,” as first reported here.
The first day of testimony ended with a representative of the city 911 Center’s investigative unit detailing that the majority of the many calls logged during the Chief Keef incident came from police radios, with only one telephone call from a woman who was taken to the hospital—and none from venue security.
Carranza and his attorney Thomas Raines plan to vigorously contest the charges in the liquor hearing. But it is far from their only legal battle.
PNC Bank filed a lawsuit in late November seeking to foreclose on the Congress for defaulting on a $4 million loan, as first reported here. Raines told DNAinfo.com in mid-December that the suit had been settled when Carranza paid the principal in full, about $3.7 million. But PNC Bank did not file a motion to dismiss until Friday, according to court records.
In addition to the continuing hearings on liquor violations and the Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance proceedings, the city also has an ongoing case against the Congress first filed in mid-September for 37 building code violations. According to that lawsuit, which is previously unreported, the violations include:
- The failure to maintain the exterior doors, including the “panic bars” that allow quick exit during a fire.
- Failure to maintain a floor “free from holes and cracks and warped, protruding or rotting floor boards.”
- Failure to maintain the exterior walls and interior ceilings.
- Performing work without submitting plans “prepared, signed and sealed by a licensed architect or registered structural engineer.”
- Failure to remove “garbage and debris throughout the interior.”
- Failure to repair or replace defective water and waste pipes.
- Failure to “provide at least three feet of clear space around electrical service and distribution equipment.”
- And the failure to repair or replace defective light fixtures, including emergency exit lighting.
The next hearing for that case is on Jan. 31, and the city lawsuit states that since “the levying of a fine is an inadequate remedy to secure the abatement of the aforementioned municipal code violations and the public nuisance which they constitute,” the city is seeking “a temporary and permanent injunction issue, and if necessary, that a receiver be appointed” to bring the theater into compliance.
The attorney prosecuting the case for the city, Kimberly Roberts, is senior counsel with the Law Department’s Drug and Gang House Enforcement Section.
Meanwhile, Carranza’s lawsuit to evict the current operators of his second major venue, the Portage Theater, also continues. The judge heard a motion for the case on Monday, but results have not yet been posted to the court docket.
Several hundred neighborhood residents turned out in mid-December for a rally to keep the current theater operators in place delivering their eclectic mix of film programming and other events. The operators have vowed to fight the eviction, and Portage Park Ald. John Arena (45th) has said he will block attempts by Carranza to bring the sort of music programming that he is booking at the Congress in Logal Square to the Portage on the Northwest Side.
Carranza has told the media (including DNAinfo.com) that he is negotiating with “a large corporate partner” to “invest money” at both the Congress and the Portage. Sources say the national concert giant Live Nation, which has partnered with Carranza in the past, has discussed leasing the two venues. Midwest reps for the company could not be reached for comment.
Research assistance by Jennifer Grandy.
Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage: