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Why Lap Dances In Nashville Are Illegal But Group Sex Isn’t

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A large, doughy white woman is bent over naked on a bed in the middle of a small, stuffy room. Behind her a tall man with rangy limbs and a neatly trimmed handlebar mustache rams her with firm, staccato thrusts. His arms are covered in sailor tattoos and his hands dig into her full hips.

“Oh God,” the woman cries out, her voice a high, thin tremolo.

The man is naked while she’s wearing only a thin halter-top, pushed up past her small breasts, revealing a mass of white skin beneath. Her head is in the lap of another woman who is clothed and holding a plastic cup. The clothed woman sips out of the cup while laughing and talking with a man who, also fully clothed, is lying next to her.

Amid this act, the half-naked woman narrates, saying that her sexual suitor is “fucking me so hard.”

“I know!” says the clothed woman. “He fucked me hard last week, but not that hard!”

A chuckle goes through the dozen or so men and women who surround the bed.

Then a wail erupts from the woman, her face mashing into her friend’s lap and contorting in beet-red ecstasy. Her body begins to shake as the man continues to pound her relentlessly. The woman’s hand slaps the mattress again and again as her body trembles. Finally she tenses, cries out, and wails, “Oh God, I love this place!” before collapsing onto the mattress.

The crowd lets out a collective laugh.

This isn’t the plot of a Ron Jeremy classic. This is the second floor of the Tennessee Social Club at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. Downstairs, the dance floor is packed and half-naked women are grinding and kissing to T-Pain’s “I’m in Love With a Stripper.” Meanwhile, older couples, some partially naked, sit together with friends, watching the scenery while laughing or fondling each other’s dates under the cocktail tables.

The club has been part of this city’s sex culture for over 20 years. It’s changed location a number of times, though now it can be found just off of Eighth Avenue South, across the street from a discount liquor store. It’s a private club—meaning that you pay a $25 monthly membership fee and an additional door charge—but anyone can join.

There’s a “couples-only” room with half-a-dozen beds draped by sheer, flowing curtains. There are private rooms for those who are a bit more discreet and, of course, a fully equipped dungeon with crucifix and leather cat-o’-nine-tails. And on any given weekend night, the place is packed until at least 2 a.m.

But just down Eighth Avenue at another adult establishment, business isn’t quite as good. While consenting adults engage in a bacchanalian orgy over at the social club or at nearby Ménages, the ladies of Christie’s Cabaret pole dance before an empty room.

“Julie to the main stage puh-leeze!” shouts the DJ over the club’s too-loud PA system. His voice echoes throughout the cavernous, empty room. “And guys, don’t forget to take advantage of our Saturday night two-for-one specials….”

The three or four “guys” in the audience don’t budge, and they hardly seem to notice when Julie takes the stage at the beginning of the next song.

“Look at this,” the club’s manager says, dejectedly. “Saturday night and I’ve got more dancers out here than customers.”

What separates a business like Christie’s from a place like the Tennessee Social Club? Just three letters: SOB.

Under Nashville’s Sexually Oriented Business ordinance—which began being enforced last year—any strip club or cabaret must comply with a rigorous set of guidelines that limit everything from a dancer’s proximity to a client (three feet) to the required height of a stage (at least 18 inches.) The SOB guidelines also require that dancers register with the city, have a criminal background check and get fingerprinted.

While most in the adult entertainment business think that some regulation is a necessity, almost everyone—from club owners to managers and especially dancers—feels that the SOB guidelines and enforcement are overly punitive and have decimated their businesses. In the past year alone, at least three strip clubs have been shut down because—those in the industry say—men don’t want to pay to get into clubs where they can’t have lap dances.

And these business owners become nearly apoplectic when it comes to the issue of equal enforcement—in other words, the strict regulation of strip clubs vs. no regulation of sex clubs who promote and facilitate the kind of behavior that the SOB laws were designed to prevent.

“I thought we were all supposed to be equal before the law,” says Joe Savage, who has worked at a number of Nashville clubs. He teaches the dancers new routines, creates elaborate costumes and consults with club owners on lighting and sound. Savage most recently worked for Club Platinum, which was shut down by a Nashville judge last October for failing to comply with SOB guidelines. “Some businesses get away with murder while others get shut down over meaningless infractions. It’s ridiculous.”

Nashville is not alone in struggling with how to fairly regulate this type of business. Angelina Spencer, who runs the Association of Club Professionals, a national adult business watchdog and trade group, says she’s currently tracking more than 140 bills in statehouses and city councils nationwide that regulate or affect strip clubs, cabarets or adult bookstores.

“We’ve absolutely seen a spike in this kind of local restrictionism,” Spencer says.

Many of these ordinances are not very popular with judges or the communities that they’re meant to enhance. Last fall, a law that would have severely restricted topless clubs from operating in Scottsdale, Ariz., was soundly defeated by a referendum vote. This effort came after the city had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to shut down some of these businesses.

In June, the Detroit City Council had to shell out almost half a million dollars—and may yet have to pay more—to settle a lawsuit brought by a strip club that contested the legality of city licensing laws restricting strip clubs. The Detroit Free Press reports that these laws could end up costing that city millions more if other pending suits are not settled out of court.

Houston, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh all have wrestled with this issue in the past year, at great cost to their taxpayers. In two of these cases, courts ordered that the strip clubs should be allowed to operate with even less regulation than before.

Eventually, Nashville also may find itself having spent a good chunk of taxpayer money fighting for and enforcing a code that may be overturned in court or scrapped by public officials who deem it overly restrictive.

What makes Nashville different from these other cities is the kind of double standard that our adult businesses face in regulation, and the sordid history of sex clubs here.

By the late 1990s, Nashvillians had had enough of businesses masquerading as “massage parlors,” “saunas” and “spas” that were really no more than houses of prostitution.

“In those days, Nashville had a problem with whorehouses,” says at-large Metro Council member Adam Dread.

At Dawn’s Day Spa, Babe’s or any number of spots in those days, a few dollars would get you a half-and-half and some company morning, noon and night.

And then one night in 1996, two 18-year-old women were stabbed to death in a gruesome double homicide at the Exotic Tan Club on Church Street.

“The mother of one of the women who had been killed came to me to see if something could be done to protect other young women from the same fate,” recalls Scene publisher Chris Ferrell, who was a Metro Council member at the time. “I had Metro lawyers look at what other cities were doing to regulate adult establishments and asked them to draft a law that would pass constitutional muster, but would let the city regulate establishments to protect the health and safety of the employees and patrons.”

Within a year, Ferrell helped craft the SOB ordinance that the Metro Council passed. Included in the bill was the creation of a board to enforce and administer the new law. The ordinance defines a sexually oriented business as “any commercial establishment which for a fee or incidentally to another service, regularly presents material or exhibitions distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on matter depicting, describing or relating to ‘specified sexual activities’ or ‘specified anatomical areas.’ ”

When asked how to define hard-core pornography, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, “I know it when I see it.” In creating the Sexually Oriented Business guidelines, the Metro Council was taking no such chances with Nashville strip clubs. “Female breasts,” the ordinance says, must be covered “below a point immediately above the top of the areola.” The same goes for the men. “Human male genitals in a discernibly turgid state, even if opaquely covered,” must be hidden.

The penalties for violating these—or any of the dozens of other provisions of the code—range from a $500 fine to revocation of a business’s license to operate.

Almost immediately, the city was hit with lawsuits regarding the guidelines’ constitutionality. It would be eight years before the matter would be settled and the SOB board would begin its reign over the G-strings and gyrations of Nashville strippers. The litigation would cost the city well over a half-million dollars in payment to strip club owners and their attorneys. And this was before the SOB laws had begun being enforced in earnest. Once the thong police really got down to business, it would cost Nashville taxpayers close to $100,000 annually, according to the Metro Codes Department.

In the meantime, the police vice division went on the offensive, shutting down dozens of houses of prostitution fronting as strip clubs or day spas. As Metro Law director, current mayoral candidate Karl Dean was also a big player in shuttering sex businesses. He used nuisance laws to target and close more than a dozen of them.

So, by 2006, when the SOB ordinance cleared legal hurdles and was ready to be enforced, most of the adult businesses left were on the up and up.

“The mayor, Karl Dean and the police cleaned up all the whorehouses,” says Dread, adding that the closures didn’t stop the SOB board from overregulating Nashville’s remaining legitimate strip clubs.

“It’s as if we wrote a law outlawing crack,” Dread says. “And while the law was being passed, the cops eliminated the crack houses so we start using the law to shut down all the Walgreens. It makes that much sense.” Two years ago, Dread introduced a council bill that would have dissolved the SOB board. “It died a miserable death,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, businesses where actual sexual activity is happening—such as Ménages or the Tennessee Social Club—are beyond the purview of the SOB board because they’re private clubs. Jim Todd, a Nashville defense attorney appointed in 2005 by Mayor Bill Purcell to head the SOB board, isn’t a religious zealot with a burning desire to stomp out sins of the flesh.

“I’ve been on lots of boards in the past,” he says. “The mayor asked me to do this, so I did it. I’m civic-minded.”

He says that because nobody is getting paid to get naked or to engage in sexual activity, it isn’t his job to police swingers’ clubs.

“If I pay the clerk at a Super 8 Motel,” he says, “bring a girl there and have sex with her consensually, that’s no different than going to the social club and paying to use their club to have sex.”

Needless to say, this logic is lost on many of Nashville’s strippers.

Stephanie—who asked that we only use her stage name—is a dancer at Christie’s Cabaret. She’s been an exotic dancer for 17 years, though it certainly doesn’t show as she sits wearing a mesh mini skirt with dark thong and no bra. Around her neck is a long string of pearls that she twists with her fingers while venting about the damage that the Metro SOB ordinance has done to her family’s budget.

“I’m a single mom with three kids,” she says. “If you’ve had a job for a long time, you expect a certain level of income and, frankly, my salary has been cut by three quarters since they’ve started enforcing these rules.”

She’s referring primarily to the three-foot rule that makes lap dances illegal. Stephanie says that because of the rule, fewer men come to the club. She adds that the men who do come to Christie’s often don’t spend that much money.

“We don’t get the higher class of customers anymore,” she says. “These guys just want to look without tipping.”

The three-foot rule also has given rise to a kind of game that Nashville’s strippers universally despise.

“Because the customers can’t come near you,” Stephanie explains, “they just wad up the bills and throw them at you like a baseball.” Often, the men are aiming for a certain target below the belt.

“It’s disgusting and disrespectful,” Stephanie says.

“Before all this SOB nonsense, you would pull out your garter, the gentleman would take out his billfold.… It was more proper.”

Todd says that the three feet specified by the rule may be arbitrary, but nevertheless necessary.

He compares the three-foot rule to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which tried to draw a line between a woman’s right to privacy and a fetus’ right to life by defining the point at which a fetus becomes “viable.”

Todd says that the rule does essentially the same thing.

“The three-foot rule is a line,” he says. “Why not [make it] four feet? Why not two feet? Why not 18 inches? Man, I don’t know,” he says. Essentially, the city is trying to “draw a line for something that’s intangible.”

Todd says that the real question is, “What makes you get a hard-on? Does someone have to be rubbing their breasts in your face or just standing in front of you dancing? I don’t know.... The law is just trying to quell the thirst for sex in the establishment.”

He also acknowledges the drawbacks of the rule.

“The three-foot rule has cost the city a lot of money and a lot of time. Whether [it’s] worth it or not is a question that I cannot answer. I’m sure that it was well reasoned and well thought-out when the council put it into effect.”

But the rule is not the only aspect of the SOB guidelines that strippers and their bosses oppose.

The ordinance also requires that dancers and club owners get licenses, a process that requires applicants to undergo a criminal background check. While this may be a good idea in theory, the Metro Police Department—on at least one occasion—made the process itself much more difficult, and degrading, than necessary.

According to court testimony by Stephanie Capps, owner of Stephanie’s Cabaret, in February of last year male police officers sexually harassed a group of strippers when they went to police headquarters for fingerprinting.

Capps claimed in court that a row of uniformed and non-uniformed police lined up and leered at the women as they made their way to the fingerprinting lab, making comments like, “Well, look what we have here,” and, “Nashville’s finest walking right through.” Capps said the women were “herded through like cattle, like a show” and called their treatment “very humiliating and unprofessional.”

Once in the lab, Capps said that a male police employee asked if they should “fingerprint those,” indicating one of her employee’s breasts. The police denied that any of this happened, but Capps sticks by her story. (For more details, see “Demeaning Dancers,” March 9, 2006 and “Stripped of Dignity,” March 23, 2006.)

Todd admits that in some instances, application of the ordinance could be smoother. “We’re trying to fix some areas of the statute that are causing problems for the [adult] industry, specifically their ability to register or renew licenses quickly and cheaply vis-à-vis the police department.”

Though Metro police may be getting an eyeful of Nashville strippers down at the station house, they don’t have much cause to visit strip clubs while on the beat. Metro police statistics show that if you’re looking for an evening of safe fun—the kind where you don’t get assaulted or robbed—strip clubs are probably your best bet. According to Metro records, the police were summoned to Ken’s Gold Club, Deja Vu and Christie’s Cabaret a combined total of 82 times in the past year. Many of these visits were because of “disorderly person” incidents, which generally means a heated argument, possibly involving alcohol, that does not include assault, says Metro police spokeswoman Kristen Mumford. But another chunk of these calls were “traffic violations,” meaning that the cops never even had to set foot in the clubs.

Compare that with the more than 80 calls that Metro cops received from Second Avenue’s Club Mystic this year alone. At least one of those calls was in response to a quadruple shooting in May.

“These clubs are clean, safe and regulated within an inch of their lives,” says Joe Savage. “Why doesn’t Coyote Ugly have inspectors crawling all over them? Why not the Tennessee Social Club?”

Metro Law Department director Sue Cain explains flatly, “It’s not a sexually oriented business because it’s not open to the public. If [businesses] don’t meet the definition [of a sexually oriented business], then they’re not under the ordinance.”

On one level, walking into the Tennessee Social Club is like stepping into any other nightclub in town. There’s an expansive hardwood dance floor with a large mirrored pillar growing out of its center. 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” blares from the speakers and people lounge amiably at dozens of low cocktail tables. The club is BYOB, so the only refreshments available at the bar are soda and juice. There’s a table laid out with crudités, fruit that looks as if it’s been out a little too long and some cold chicken wings that nobody’s touched.

On the dance floor there are perhaps a dozen people standing conga-line-style facing a chair. Perched in the chair, facing the line is an obese woman in a miniskirt and tube top.

The line is a study in diversity. There are men, women, whites, blacks and Asians. Some appear to be in their early 20s while others look closer to 60. They sway and dance in place to the music, and all are smiling.

At the head of the line is a skinny older woman with brown, teased hair. She boogies up to the chair and pulls the fat lady’s tube top down, exposing her small white breasts. The older woman flips the breasts around like beanbags, slapping her nipples.

Behind her the line whoops and laughs. Eventually the skinny woman plants a kiss on the obese woman’s lips and then sashays to the end of the line to wild applause.

Next in line is a short, round black man with a shiny bald head. He crawls over to the woman seated in the chair on his hands and knees before burying his face between her legs.

The people standing behind him cheer wildly as the bald man shakes his head back and forth like a coked-up line judge at Wimbledon.

The woman grabs her legs below the knees and spreads them wide, lolling her head back and closing her eyes. Her moans are buried beneath the cacophony of music, cheering and stomping feet on the dance floor.

When the bald man is finished, he wipes his mouth on his sleeve and returns to the end of the line.

At the cocktail tables, some watch the dance floor with interest while others amuse themselves in other ways.

Like any other bar or nightclub, there are regulars in the crowd who seem to know everyone. Unlike any other bar or nightclub, most of these regulars are topless.

This is not to say that they are not discriminating.

Many couples clearly come to the Tennessee Social Club looking for other couples who are of the same age and general description. The soft, graying 60-somethings pair off with other 60-somethings. Meanwhile, the young, attractive couples cut loose and swap spit on the dance floor.

There seems to be an unspoken etiquette for hooking up at the Tennessee Social Club, and many of the stag guys sprinkled among the crowd clearly don’t have much luck. Part of that could be that downstairs, where the bar and dance floor are located, is really just a staging area. The real action goes on upstairs.

There you will find raw, kinky, unprotected, unadulterated, unencumbered and most definitely unregulated sex of almost every description.

It’s dimly lit up there with a low ceiling. There are no outside windows, so the humid air is cloying and stagnant. Surprisingly, it doesn’t smell like sex, though a musty, old carpet scent is pervasive. A room for lounging is painted Titans blue with molded plastic booths. Just off of this room is the dungeon, which has a single window that faces the hallway so that everybody can watch the discipline being meted out within.

As dungeons go, this one is pretty small, though apparently well equipped. On a recent Saturday night, a couple enters with a large, boxy, suitcase and unpacks some leather gear from home, including a black mask and ball gag.

The couple appear to be in their mid-50s. As the woman zips up the mask and selects from a variety of whips hanging on the wall, the man strips naked and then waits patiently before a large cross.

Before long he’s chained to the cross with a ball gag in his mouth while the woman gently applies a leather cat-o’-nine-tails to his bare buttocks.

In the darkened hallway outside, a man sits alone before a computer monitor looking at extremely graphic pornography while masturbating. A fully clothed couple, who’ve clearly come to the Tennessee Social Club just to watch, walk past. “That’s just nasty,” the woman remarks.

A few feet away is the “couples only” room.

It’s dark in there with a kind of low, bluish lighting throughout. Small, cubby-like beds line each wall and gauzy, see-through curtains hang over them. On one bed, a couple is having sex while a pair of couples undress in the middle of the room, taking turns fellating one another in the stuffy heat of this small, unventilated space.

In just this brief tour of the Tennessee Social Club, every single part of the Prohibitions and Unlawful Sexual Acts portion of the SOB ordinance is violated. This includes the prohibition against “sexual intercourse or anal copulation or other contact stimulation of the genitalia on the premises” and even the part that says, “only one individual shall occupy a booth at a time.”

The scenes within speak to the absurdity of a law that prohibits lap dances by licensed professionals while allowing blowjobs and naked butt-whippings at a for-profit enterprise.

But it’s not just private clubs that violate the letter, and the spirit, of the SOB ordinance.

Many of Nashville’s most lively bars and nightclubs regularly violate the code, but because they are not required to be licensed as sexually oriented businesses, they operate as freely as the market allows. Indeed, Hooters’ very name seems to indict it as a “commercial establishment” that “regularly presents material or exhibitions…characterized by an emphasis depicting, describing or relating to…specified anatomical areas.”

The SOB board’s Todd calls such comparisons “nonsensical.”

“A Coyote Ugly girl doesn’t take her clothes off and doesn’t get paid to take her clothes off,” he says. “At some point you have to let the laws do what they’re designed to do. You could make the same argument about a waitress at Morton’s. If she’s good looking and she unbuttons a couple of buttons on her blouse, is she committing a crime?”

Todd concludes this explanation with a statement that follows many of his defenses of the SOB ordinance. “I don’t write these laws. I just enforce them.”

PLAY on Church Street may be Nashville’s best bar and nightclub. With a cast of drag queen “playmates” and pulsing techno soundtrack, it’s a slice of South Beach, Miami, just off of I-40.

The crowd is young, good-looking and largely affluent. While it’s known in town as a gay and lesbian scene, there are plenty of straight girls and their boyfriends or packs of young women on bachelorette party missions.

And then there’s the show.

 Twice a night, the club’s revolving cast of drag performers strut onto PLAY’s stage costumed in dazzling regalia that—aside from hundreds of rhinestones, feathers and very high heels—often leaves little to the imagination.

The girls lip-synch and booty shake their way through up-tempo, girl-power favorites like “I Will Survive” and “Vogue.” The performances are high-energy, and the crowd reciprocates with whistles, catcalls and best of all for the dancers: tips.

Grateful PLAY patrons, male and female, form lines—often 20 deep—at either end of the stage. They wait expectantly, chins uplifted, grinning as the fit, colorful divas whirl and dance before them. They clutch dollar bills in their hands, waiting for their turn at the head of the line.

When the patrons get to the edge of the stage, the divas bow gracefully, pausing either in mid-performance or after executing a stunning finish, to accept the cash tribute from this member of their adoring public.

If the performer is wearing a thong—sequined or otherwise—she might lift one of the strings alluringly, making room for the folded tip. Other PLAY performers will push their surgically—or tissue-paper-enhanced—breasts together to pluck the bills from the expectant hand before them. Still others will grab the gift between clenched teeth, while smiling a mile-wide grin.

No matter how these hard-working divas accept their tips, almost all of them would be in violation of the SOB ordinance’s three-foot rule if the club were subject to the same guidelines as Nashville’s strip clubs.

“This just isn’t fair,” Joe Savage fumes as he watches one performer work the crowd. “My dancers could never have gotten away with that!” He groans as a fair-haired young man slips a few dollars into the thong of the grinning dancer. Savage becomes nearly enraged when the young man pats the dancer on her bare bottom.

“You gotta be kidding me!” he spits, before turning and storming away from the lurid injustice before him. “I thought we lived in a nation of laws.”

Jim Todd—who Savage has said is a fair and honest broker for the SOB board—thinks that this attitude misses the point.

“This ordinance,” he says, “was designed to protect entertainers. [Before this ordinance] these girls could be working for Jack the Ripper and they wouldn’t know it.”

He also thinks that the SOB guidelines won’t be weakened anytime soon.

“Any wholesale change would of course create a tidal wave of litigation that would cost the city a bunch of money…. So until some court tells me that this is unconstitutional, then I’m going to continue enforcing this ordinance.”

Before the recently completed renovation of the new Howard School building, the Sexually Oriented Business Licensing Board met in a large, gray box of a room in the old one. There the board sat at a half-moon-shaped table, meeting in deliberation over Nashville’s strippers and their increasingly beleaguered employers.

The board itself has five members and is often assisted by legal counsel from the Metro Law Department. The board employs an inspector—at a cost of $42,700 annually—to go to strip clubs and make sure that the SOB codes are being obeyed. Last spring it hired Christine Gruen to fill the post after the last inspector, Tommye Sutton, resigned. The inspector is present at the board’s twice-monthly public meetings, and when anyone refers to a stripper, it is by license number only.

The meetings are usually low-key affairs consisting of fines being handed out after strippers or bouncers testify politely. It’s a little strange to see the “adult entertainers” in this quasi-official setting. The strippers wear skirt suits and sensible shoes while the bouncers cram their biceps and shoulders into sport jackets that don’t cover neck tattoos or face piercings.

“It’s a fucking kangaroo court anyway,” Savage mutters at a meeting.

As Savage stews in the back of the room, John Herbison, one of Nashville’s best-known defense attorneys, hurls loud objections at the board. Herbison has artfully represented strip clubs and other adult businesses for years, often to the frustration of those who have tried to regulate the industry.

SOB inspector Sutton is giving testimony about an illegal lap dance that he witnessed and surreptitiously videotaped. With every statement that he makes (“I witnessed Entertainer 275 in violation of the code by being too close to a customer”), Herbison shoots up his hand like the smartest kid in class and yells, “Objection!”

SOB board chief Todd overrules him every time.

“If the witness is going to testify,” Herbison says finally, exasperated, “could we at least swear him in?”

“Overruled,” says Todd, raising his eyebrows, “but noted.”

When Herbison gets a chance to question the inspector, he does so with an energy and flair more consistent with the defense of a capital case than with picking apart a local business ordinance.

“How do you even know that this was a customer?” he asks Sutton, referring to the lap dance recipient. “What exactly do you mean by characterizing this as a thong?” Herbison holds up a dental-floss-thin, black-and-neon garment that Entertainer 275 was wearing when she gave the illicit lap dance.

The inspector, who may not have been expecting such a grilling, shifts uncomfortably in his seat and answers the questions in a barely audible growl.

“Now let’s talk about the bikini bottom,” Herbison says, his Mickey Mouse tie flapping as he turns from his table to face Sutton. “Did it cover her genitalia?”

“I was able to see the cleft of her butt.”

“Did you see her anus?”

“I did not see her anus.”

“Did you see any part of [the customer’s body] enter her sphincter?

“No.”

“Are you familiar with the term dry humping?”

So it went, with Herbison arguing that it was only the stripper’s clothes touching the customer, while the inspector answered the lawyer’s questions with as few words as possible.

Finally, the board began its deliberations and found that the stripper and the club had violated the SOB ordinance. When it came time to decide on a penalty, the board concluded that it would be a waste of time to issue one. The club had gone out of business a month before the hearing, a victim of previous violations.

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