Cover Story

Bad Karma

by Walter Pierce

Another effort to shutter a downtown mega club is full steam ahead. But is this a black and white issue?

Jean Ouellet has a tough job: defending the indefensible - arguably the most violent bar in downtown Lafayette.

The French-Canadian transplant and past president of Festival International de Louisiane appeared a trifle fidgety on Monday, Sept. 23, in the City-Parish Council auditorium as a hearing before the state Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control was getting under way. It would be a grueling, at-times contentious affair as Ouellet, the attorney representing Karma nightclub on Jefferson Street, squared off against the proverbial Powers That Be - powers that want to rid downtown Lafayette of the bitch called Karma. The shortest route to doing that is to revoke the club's license to sell booze. That's what the hearing was about.

On the other side were reps from the Lafayette Police Department, chevrons resplendent and shoes shined to a sparkle, as well as adversaries representing Lafayette Consolidated Government, the Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, residents and business owners from the CBD. On Ouellet's side, four dudes with an ownership stake in Karma and a couple of foam-board exhibits. It was lonely on his side of the room.

And they came in succession, each bearing a nail for Karma's coffin.

Police Chief Jim Craft: "The venue is hip hop. Any clubs that have the hip hop venue generally we have more problems with than the clubs that don't have that type of venue," he told ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert, the affable former state senator appointed to the post by Gov. Bobby Jindal. "Some of the problems we've had are fights, batteries, we had shootings, we had some stabbings when the club is pushing the people outside [at closing time]; they've openly smoked marijuana in there - there's drug use in there. We've conducted investigations and confirmed that."

Cité des Arts' Dr. Maureen Brennan: "What's really happened to us and most places, theater crowds are mostly older crowds, and we're losing that group. They're afraid to come down."

Past DDA Chairman/attorney Blake David: "Karma has been nothing but trouble for as long as I can remember. In 2010 they got their license revoked, and just this year I think there's been 52 different arrests in that bar. ...Police officers have told us personally they're afraid to go in there and make an arrest because they're not sure what's going to happen. That's the situation."

And so it went, inexorably, for roughly two thirds of the three-hour hearing. Ouellet was reprimanded several times by Hebert for behaving like an attorney - that is, being adversarial toward those testifying against his client. (Hebert had characterized the hearing as a "fact-finding mission.") On a few occasions Ouellet made reference to police calls at other bars, and Hebert admonished him, reminding the attorney that the hearing was about Karma, not the other bars. When it was revealed that the in-house video surveillance system at Karma was malfunctioning last July on the night of an alleged shooting in the club, Hebert quipped with sarcasm, "That conveniently happens from time to time when there's a shooting," and a chuckle rippled through the audience.

Sitting beside Hebert was Jessica Starns, a prosecutor for Hebert's agency. She and the commissioner more or less worked in tandem during the hearing, or it at least appeared that way. But in a month or so - probably mid-November - after ATC has completed its own investigation, the parties to this trouble will be summoned to Baton Rouge for a "trial" over whether Karma should maintain its liquor license, and Hebert will serve as "judge" to hear Starns' case against Karma.

(A bit of back story here: the city revoked Karma's liquor license in 2010 after the club accrued 12 points in a 12-month period. Points are "awarded" for various criminal offenses at establishments that sell liquor, and a dozen points trigger a punitive hearing. The City-Parish Council upheld the revocation, but Karma obtained an injunction from a federal judge and has effectively been operating with its license in limbo ever since. At the same time, Karma and two other downtown clubs filed a federal lawsuit against the city challenging the city's practice of charging bars a levy to help defray the overtime cost for police details downtown on weekend nights. In response to the lawsuit, the council suspended the levy pending the outcome of an October 2014 trial over the policy.)

At the hearing, Hebert questioned the Karma owners who were present: Danny Smith, who serves as the general manager of the club; Dennis Talbot, Chance Delome and Mike Parich. (Co-owner Robert Oja was not present.)

It was all pretty standard government hearing stuff, although in his zeal to get the facts Hebert did seem, at times, to already have made his mind up about Karma.

But co-owner Parich's testimony was striking, not for what he said but for what he intimated: "I believe it's more of an issue of people don't want the clientele around more than it is an issue of what happens. All these issues happen downtown on a nightly basis," Parich said.

Ouch. He went there. Almost.

In a follow-up conversation after the hearing, Ouellet doesn't hesitate to discuss what he calls, with probably an unintentional adjective, "the white elephant in the room."

"I appreciate the testimony of some of the people that came and said that their business had been impacted by the presence of Karma," he says. "The question remains, is their business impacted by the presence of Karma or is their business impacted by the presence of a thousand African-American, 20-year-old, young adults on a Saturday night? That's the question."

Groan. Do we really have to talk about this?

Ouellet thinks we do, and he doesn't buy the argument that Karma and its patrons are negatively impacting businesses in the area, most of which are closed by the time the Karma crowd begins arriving somewhere south of 10:30 p.m.

"If you own a restaurant, at 10:30 it's closed," he argues. "It's over, they're gone - people are gone."

Ouellet is also quick to make a case - the one Hebert wouldn't let him make at the Sept. 23 hearing - that relative to other bars downtown, the majority of which are much smaller, Karma is comparatively harmless. Let's call it the "per capita" argument. "If you do the math and you think about the fact that there has been one shooting in a club where approximately 250,000 patrons went through the door in the last four years, it's not bad at all," he says. "In fact, it's a tremendous job. There are other clubs in Lafayette that have a way worse record."

According to Ouellet's numbers - figures we vetted with the Lafayette Police Department's Office of Alcohol and Noise Control, or ATAC as it's called - there have been 54 criminal incidents that can be reasonably attributed to Karma going back to the beginning of 2010. (The aggregate number of calls for police service at the addresses the clubs occupy is generally much higher, but the ATAC office studies the police reports and filters out most of the incidents as merely incidental to those addresses.) Karma's capacity is just over 1,300. By contrast, Bootlegger's, a small bar two blocks up Jefferson Street, had 25 criminal incidents going back to the beginning of 2010. But Bootleggers' capacity is 160, and according to Ouellet's reasoning, Bootleggers is much more a per capita or per capacity nuisance, with a police call-per patron rate of 15.63 percent versus Karma's rate of 4.13. In fact, by Ouellet's accounting, Karma is less of a nuisance than City Bar (capacity 274/15.33 percent), Nite Town (826/5.45), Marley's (226/13.27) and Bootlegger's.

"It's amazing," Ouellet says. "It's people [complaining] that have never been to [Karma] that have very strong feelings about it."

However, Tim Melancon, ATAC's manager, says that's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. "I think you can massage statistics in many different ways to give you a picture of how you want someone to perceive something. And certainly he's looking at it in one way," Melancon says of Ouellet. "I think to get a clearer picture of what is happening in there, you would not only want to look at just raw numbers of incidences, but the severity of the type of incident. If you take a look at the number of potential felony-type incidences versus felony-type incidences in those other businesses, you would see that Karma is heavy on those types of violations."

Melancon is correct: Breaking down the numbers by incidents involving firearms, aggravated battery and stabbing since early 2010 suggests Karma is a much more violent club, with 24 such incidents compared to only two for Nite Town, Bootlegger's and City Bar, and zero for Marley's.

We - this newspaper, I mean - aren't defending Karma or arguing that it belongs in downtown Lafayette. We can't say that it does. It is incongruent with its environment - a mega club in a relatively confined, historic business district with narrow streets and inadequate parking.

But it's there. It opened legally. The city's planning department OK'd it. Permits were issued. The owners pay their lease, meet health and fire codes and play by the rules established by the community. (At the request of police, Karma even agreed to shut down 15 minutes early each night - at 1:45 a.m. - to help police get a jump on crowd control.)

Karma, its patrons, the police and downtown Lafayette would no doubt be better served if the club were elsewhere, in an area that can accommodate such a behemoth, surrounded by a sea of concrete for parking and ready access to major traffic arteries. But it isn't. It's in an old furniture store across from a mom-and-pop diner, a hair salon and a yoga studio in a downtown that was wheezing with decrepitude and neglect just 20 years ago. Karma is, perhaps as much as anything, an example of being careful what you wish for. We wanted to revitalize downtown Lafayette, to energize its night life, and now we risk electrocution.

The staff and publishers of this newspaper know virtually everyone involved on the anti-Karma side of this affair. We are friends with many of them. None is racist. Not one. No way.

But the Downtown Development Authority for example, which is the most battle-tested veteran in the war against Karma, represents scores of downtown business owners who get an earful from hundreds if not thousands more customers, clients and patrons. What is filtering up to DDA before it is distilled into color-blind concern? Could part of it possibly be a heretofore white downtown uncomfortable with a thousand young black people partying in the district on a Saturday night? That's a question this community needs to answer. Honestly.

"If Karma closes down, where are these thousand African-American kids going to go?" Ouellet wonders aloud. "Do these people really think that these African-American kids are going to disappear?"

So what to do? There might not be much the city can do because Ouellet has something of enormous value in his hip pocket: Brossette V. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. It's a 20-year-old Louisiana Supreme Court ruling out of Baton Rouge that basically says a city cannot yank a liquor license or shutter a bar where criminal activity occurs if the bar owner can prove he has taken reasonable steps to curb said activity.

Ouellet thinks he can prove that in the case of Karma.

But here's the kicker: Assuming ATC rules against it and its appeals fail at the district court, appellate and supreme court levels, Karma could conceivably surrender its liquor license and stay in business. I would use an exclamation point right there but my editor doesn't allow them.

"We do not sell a lot of alcohol - the numbers are not significant," Ouellet says. "These kids do not go there to get drunk; they go there to dance. And we are running the numbers and wondering if it would not be a more profitable business if that would be the case. We don't know the answer to that.

"If we go to the district court, court of appeal, Supreme Court and then they shut us down, we might just give them the license and say, Here you go. Come on kids, come dance.'"