by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A Channel 2 Action News investigation has exposed illegal night clubs with police officers on the payroll.
Inside the clubs are dangerously large crowds, blaring music and late-night chaos just feet from DeKalb County neighborhoods. Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer received a tip from local officers fed up with lax laws and little oversight.
The area is littered with nightclubs which identify as restaurants to get around strict county rules. Channel 2 Action News sent cameras in and found blatant violations with police officers standing at the door.
One of the offenders is Mint Ultra Lounge, which calls itself a nightclub online, but not so on its county paperwork.
"It's loud enough for me to hear it over here, and that is pretty loud," said Stephen Bount, who lives in a subdivision across the street. "I didn't think that this was legal. I've thought about complaining."
One of his neighbors did complain, writing, "Loud booming music at 2 a.m." He added, "Bass can be felt in my pillow."
In 2008, DeKalb County required nightclubs to get special permits but grandfathered in existing ones. The county grandfathered in Mint Ultra Lounge as a late night establishment, with no public hearing, but interim planning director Gary Cornell said it is not supposed to be a dance club.
"We will follow up with an inspection and if necessary, issue a citation," said Cornell.
The fire marshal’s inspectors already did that, for change of use and overcrowding, which could be dangerous.
"That is my issue: exiting, alarms, fire alarms, sprinkler systems," Fire marshal Jerry Wainright told Fleischer.
Wainright’s inspectors also cited El Trebol, a billiard hall, twice for overcrowding. It has no nightclub permit either, but Channel 2 cameras captured dancing well into the morning, violating DeKalb County code.
A restaurant can fit far fewer people at its tables than a nightclub packed with a standing-room only dance floor.
"We look for different things than a code officer looks for. They don't look for anything we look for," said Wainright.
The same is true for DeKalb County police. At four of the locations Channel 2 visited, there were undercover officers working off-duty.
"We don't enforce land use to my knowledge at all. That is strictly another department's job to handle," said DeKalb Public Safety Director William Miller.
Miller said his officers are there for parking lot and crowd control and might not even know if the nightclub they are standing in front is doing anything illegal.
At The Mansion, the alcohol license is as a restaurant, but records show it has no kitchen. It was also grandfathered into DeKalb’s late night establishment clause even though it did not open until 2010, two years after the grandfathering deadline.
"It is their responsibility to understand exactly what the law is in a place. They need to know it like police officers and make sure that the law is being obeyed," said DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader.
Rader told Fleischer that the fire inspectors, code enforcement and police officers should all be working together and communicating what they see and where.
"Sometimes, the communication isn't what it should be on that," DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan told Fleischer.
El Trebol received two fire citations, time stamped after 1 a.m., though it is supposed to close at 12:30 a.m. The same is true for El Colorado, licensed as a Mexican restaurant, so there should be no dancing.
Fire inspectors cited El Colorado for change of use. When code inspectors work, primarily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., it is a restaurant, but Cornell said he might consider staffing a code inspector late at night.
"Anything is on the table and that is a possibility," he said.
Neighbors such as Blount said their quality of life depends on it.
"Somebody needs to be providing the oversight, that is the county government's responsibility," said Blount.
Another venue under scrutiny is the DeKalb Event Center. It has a dance floor, but has been referred to as an auditorium and a music hall. A nearby hotel touted it for corporate use, sports, concerts and theater. It can be rented for special events like weddings and job fairs.
"We are going to follow up and see if there are clear violations. We think that there could be some and so, we will go looking for some of those,” said Cornell.
Four days after Fleischer interviewed Cornell, code inspectors noted The Mansion should be identified as a restaurant, even though its alcohol license said it is. Fleischer asked if their alcohol license is invalid.
"It would come into question and that would go before the alcohol and beverage review board," said Cornell.
Fire inspectors eventually decided Mint Ultra Lounge was overcrowded and changed its use to a nightclub, but Mint has delayed its hearing three times.
"Basically, we are looking for life-safety violations of overcrowding. You know, just how they use the space, locked doors, blocked exits," said Wainright.
Channel 2 cameras captured crowds dancing several nights, and only then, did code enforcement officers warn the club to cease and desist.
"I'm not surprised to hear it because I've heard it constantly from my constituents," said Rader.
Rader told Fleischer with no punishment, club owners think they can do what they want. In fact, Channel 2's investigation uncovered dozens of off-duty job requests from DeKalb Police officers to work at questionable clubs.
"They said that they are also being paid for these details by the owners of these businesses by the owners of these businesses, so there is an inherent conflict," said Rader.
Miller told Fleischer the officers probably do not know the clubs are operating illegally.
"Parking lot security, exterior security, crowd control: those are the three main priorities," said Miller.
Last year, LuLu's Billiards was grandfathered in to stay open late with “no moving of tables to create a dance floor,” according to the paperwork. The paperwork said it is not a nightclub, but now the club is trying to argue for that too.
"We can't disprove that until the zoning board of appeals takes their action," said Cornell.
No citations or inspections will be issued until then.
"We perhaps do not pull these licenses often enough. I think if they are not following the law, they ought to be closed," said Rader.
Channel 2's investigation required county leaders to work together to gather the records. Brennan told Fleischer that they are now forming a task force to meet regularly and discuss what they have seen in each place.