Category: Rack n’ Roll Billiards
A few weeks ago, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit tossed out (pdf) most of the civil rights suit filed by David Ruttenberg, owner of the Rack ‘n’ Roll Pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia. Fortunately, the court did leave one Fourth Amendment claim that could save Ruttenberg’s case.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been reporting on how officials in the tiny town of Manassas Park have been harassing Ruttenberg and attempting to take away his business. The police there have been investigating Rutenberg for several years, for what they’ve recently said are drug crimes. As of yet, they’ve found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Ruttenberg. They’ve arrested him twice on charges unrelated to drugs—once for filing a false police report and once for bouncing a check—and in both cases the charges were eventually dropped.
The police in Manassas Park have hired informants to set up drug deals in Ruttenberg’s bar (which they later cited as evidence that Ruttenberg’s bar was a filled with drug activity). They’ve pulled over Ruttenberg’s former girlfriends, and threatened them with charges unless they provided information against him. They’ve even co-opted security Ruttenberg had hired specifically for the purpose of keeping drugs out of his bar, and had them set up drug transactions in the bar.
The story took a particularly weird twist last year when local politics blogger Greg Letiecq and I revealed that one of the charges levied against Ruttenberg by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control—that he was allowing lewd activity to go on at the bar—was due to photos dozens of photos of women dancing in various stages of undress that were taken by then-Manassas Park Vice Mayor Kevin Brendel. At the time, Brendel was working at Ruttenberg’s bar as a part-time D.J. Current and former Rack ‘n’ Roll staff say Brendel encouraged the women to strip and put on lewd contests when Ruttenberg wasn’t around, despite repeated warnings from Ruttenberg.
I’ve personally witnessed police harassment of Ruttenberg’s customers. And I’ve gone through hours of surveillance video with him showing countless attempts to set him up.
Ruttenberg has shown remarkable resolve through all of this. He records every phone conversation. He keeps meticulous surveillance video that covers every corner of his property. He collects statements and affidavits from staff, friends, and witnesses. He has hired private investigators. He has a formidable collection of evidence of public corruption and police misconduct (I’ve spent hours with him at the bar going through it all). Unfortunately, local prosecutor Paul Ebert (the same prosecutor in the Ryan Frederick case) seems uninterested. As does the FBI. And the Virginia State Police.
The appeals court ruling was pretty dismissive of Ruttenberg’s suit (the ruling also misstates several facts about the case). But the one claim they left intact may turn out to be enough. The appeals court panel reversed the district court’s dismissal of Ruttenberg’s Fourth Amendment claim that the tactics the police used in a 2004 raid on Rack ‘n’ Roll were excessive. And they most certainly were.
The police initially sought a criminal search warrant for the raid. They couldn’t find a judge to grant them one. So instead, they claimed they were conducting a routine alcohol inspection, and raided the place anyway. This "regulatory inspection" was clearly intended to intimidate Ruttenberg and his customers, and to find evidence of criminality—the police brought more than 70 officers from Manassas Park and surrounding jurisdictions, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, and still others in ski-mask hats and camouflage pumping shot guns as the stormed the place (on Ladies’ Night).
If this was a routine alcohol inspection, you have to wonder what an actual drug raid might have looked like. Here’s Ruttenberg’s surveillance video of the raid. Er, "inspection":
The only people arrested in the raid were either undercover cops or people Ruttenberg later learned were working for the police as confidential informants.
The bad news is that while the ruling remands the remaining claim back to the district court for further proceedings, the panel then expresses a good deal of skepticism about whether the remaining claim should ultimately survive. In fact, the ruling nearly instructs the district court on how to dismiss it.
The good news is that Ruttenberg has several state claims that remain intact, which he can now attach to his federal case. That gets him into discovery, where he can demand to see everything the town of Manassas Park has accumulated in its long investigation of him.
Ruttenberg’s other problem right now is that he has run out of money to pursue the case any further. He had kept his bar open at a loss for a couple of years in hopes of selling it. He was finally able to sell it at a steep loss last year, but that and the legal fees he has accumulated have wrecked him. He’s currently looking for legal representation to help him continue the case.
BVBL has a new post on the weird Keven Brendel angle of the Rack ‘n’ Roll pool hall public corruption case. BVBL managed to get hold of some of the photos of nude women the vice mayor snapped in David Ruttenberg’s bar that the city then tried to use to prove Ruttenberg was promoting lewd behavior. The town’s been rather schizophrenic about the photos, alternately admitting they exist, denying they exist, or insisting they exist, depending on the context.
Why this is isn’t a bigger story is beyond me.
I actually talked with Ruttenberg tonight. The city is still trying to set him up. After all of this. I’ll have a post about their latest weak attempt at a frame-up in a couple of weeks. The good news is that Ruttenberg has finally managed to sell his bar. He says once his lawsuit is over, he plans to move as far away from Virginia as possible, and try to start his life again. Can’t say that I blame him.
Today, officials in Chesapeake announced that a special prosecutor will be handling the murder case against Ryan Frederick, they say because the local prosecutor worked too closely with the deceased Det. Shivers on prior drug cases. I find that reasoning odd, unless the DA’s office itself was complicit in the series of bad decisions that led to this raid.
The bad news is that the new prosecutor is Paul Ebert, the Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney for Prince William County. If you read my personal blog regularly, you’ll know Ebert as the prosecutor who has steadfastly refused to investigate the allegations of rampant corruption by public officials and police officers in Manassas Park, Virginia in the Rack ‘n’ Roll Billiards case. He’s also the guy whose constituents were so upset he didn’t have an opponent last election, they started a write-in campaign for a ham sandwich.
BVBL’s conclusion is worth emphasizing: Now that the town has revoked Ruttenberg’s conditional permit, Ruttenberg can no long do business. At the same time, the town his scaring off anyone and everyone who has expressed an interest in buying the bar, so Ruttenberg can sell it and leave town.
Seems they’ll stop at nothing short of completely bankrupting and ruining this man.
BVBL has put up a new post that’s really quite incredible.
Manassas Park officials ought to know by now that people are watching them. They must also think that David Ruttenberg is really, really stupid.
I’m conflicted, though. That they keep trying to set him up after all of this time indicates either that (a) they’re scared to death, or (b) they really do think they can get away with just about anything.
Sadly, thus far there seems to be some reason to think if they do think (b), they may well be right.
BVBL has a new post up today (with video) showing Manassas Park City Attorney either lying or showing an incredible amount of ineptitude.
The background: Well before the June 2004 raid, Manassas Park officials had planned another raid on Rack ‘n’ Roll. In that raid, the city was going to use the informants it had working for it to “import” several drug dealers from nearby towns into the pool hall, then raid the pool hall and charge Ruttenberg with running an “open air drug market.” The city abandoned the raid when it learned that Ruttenberg had gotten wind of it. At the planning commission meeting last month, Crowhurst said he knew nothing about this operation. Yet five days earlier, the city of Manassas Park, whose legal team is headed up by Crowhurst, filed a brief in federal court acknowledging that very operation. You’d think that as city attorney, Crowhurst would be aware of the content in the city’s federal court filings, wouldn’t you?
The key here is that the Manassas Park City Attorney is saying that he hadn’t heard anything about importing drug dealers from Dumfries into Rack n’ Roll in order to conduct drug deals with undercover operatives, and that the ABC hearing commissioner “certainly hadn’t given it any merit, because it wasn’t ruled on.” You’d think that a City Attorney wouldn’t tell the Planning Commission things that he certainly should have known were not true. (For a detailed discussion of this incident, click here.)
On September 5th, the City of Manassas Park filed a brief with the 4th Circuit where not only does it admit that this operation happened, but goes into some detail about how and why it did, although it clearly mis-characterizes the actions of David Ruttenberg. Now how does Dean Crowhurst say he “hasn’t seen anything to support that claim” to the planning commission when the city filed a brief not only supporting that claim but confirming it five days before he made these statements? You can either conclude that City Attorney Dean Crowhurst is either terrifically uninformed about the very recent legal positions the city has taken, or he’s telling the planning commission a deliberate lie.
Of course, the city also admitted in its latest brief to the federal appeals court that David Ruttenberg has long been the subject of various drug investigations, a fact the city had to that point denied.
Here’s what I think is happening: I think the city has two sets of facts that it draws upon, depending on its audience and forum. Never mind that the two sets are often contradictory. If the city is attempting to paint David Ruttenberg as a drug fiend, for example, city officials helpfully note that Ruttenberg has over the years been the subject of numerous drug investigations (never mind that they’ve yet to find any evidence to back up these accusations). But if the city is defending accusations that the city was framing Ruttenberg or conspiring against him because it had designs on the property his business occupied, city officials deny they’ve ever subjected Ruttenberg to such set-ups or stings, and instead try to portray Ruttenberg as some sort of paranoid conspiracy theorist.
Another example: When the city was trying to convince city council members, ABC officers, or the town’s planning commission that Ruttenberg was operating a filthy bar, they showed them photos of naked and nude women allegedly snapped at Rack ‘n’ Roll, or at least mentioned the existence of such photos. But when refuting the charge that city officials are corrupt and conniving, the city denies said photos exist, in order to hide the fact that they were staged and taken by the city’s former vice mayor.
I’ll have more on the latter in a bit.
Crowhurst and Manassas Park are counting on Ruttenberg and his lawyers being too stupid, too scared, and/or too overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of information available in this case to be able to recognize when a set of facts the city introduced into evidence in one forum directly contradicts what they’re claiming in another.
I think they’ve miscalculated on Ruttenberg. Whether or not officials on the planning commission, at the Virginia ABC, or the justices in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit allow themselves to be duped remains to be seen.
The town of Manassas Park’s relentless pursuit of an honest businessman achieved a grim victory tonight. The Rack ‘n’ Roll Pool Hall has shut its doors for good. David Ruttenberg’s mounting legal bills caused him to fall behind on his rent, and his landlord initiated eviction proceedings. You can’t really blame the landlord.
In the city’s absolute bullshit response to Ruttenberg’s brief in the appeal of his federal 1983 civil rights suit (I’ll have more on this later), the city claims Ruttenberg has been under investigation since 2001 as a suspected drug dealer. They’re either lying, or they’re grossly incompetent (I vote for both). Because after six years of “investigating,” they’ve yet to find a shred of evidence that Ruttenberg has even ingested an illicit drug, much less bought, sold, or otherwise distributed one.
Ruttenberg, on the other hand, has ample evidence that city officials, the police, and the former vice mayor have framed him; attempted to entrap him; spread lies about him, spent a ridiculous amount of taxpayer money on a futile, should-have-been illegal paramilitary raid on him and his customers; and ruthlessly and maliciously attempted to drive him out of business.
Still nothing on this from the Washington Post. Nothing from the Washington Times. Nothing from the City Paper. I realize this is a complicated story with lots of details, lots of history and lots of documentation. But come on. Isn’t telling complicated stories about public corruption the kind of thing journalists are supposed to do? Why is no one interested in this story?
As I see it, Ruttenberg’s down to his last two strikes. The first of these is the appeal of his federal suit. He needs to get past summary judgment, and the city and city officials’ immunity claims. At that point, he’ll get into discovery, and can potentially uncover all sorts of nastiness. My guess is that the city would settle rather quickly were that to happen. I hope this comes to pass. But it’s a very conservative court. And conservative judges tend to take immunity protections seriously, particularly for police officers. And immunity protections are already very difficult to overcome. That the city’s accusing (wholly without proof, of course) Ruttenberg of running a drug- and sex-laden pool hall probably doesn’t help, either. I hope the Sixth Circuit justices look past the city’s obfuscation, and take a long, hard look at this case.
His other hope is the ongoing FBI investigation. I’m not sure how the law applies in these sorts of situations, but it would be a shame if the FBI investigation did uncover corruption in Manassas Park, but the findings were released too late for Ruttenberg’s lawsuit. Remember, according to Ruttenberg, a Virgina State Police investigation already uncovered evidence of wrongdoing and recommended Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert open an investigation–and Ebert declined, without explanation.
(Note: I haven’t been able to get in touch with the state police investigator to confirm David’s account, here. But he called me the night he spoke with the investigator, and everything David has told me to date has checked out.)
Kudos to David for fighting back, and not allowing the petty people in power in Manassas Park to walk all over him. Unfortunately, it appears that for now, the city has won. David wasn’t able to keep the bar open long enough to find a buyer to help recover some of his losses. Of course, that’s in part because every time he found someone with some interest, the city scared them away.
And so Rack ‘n’ Roll went dark tonight.
More to come.
Incredible. A few weeks ago the BVBL blog and I exposed the fact that the city’s former vice mayor–while he was vice mayor–was encouraging women to take their clothes at David Ruttenberg’s pool hall. He was doing this without Ruttenberg’s permission, in fact in spite of Ruttenberg’s warnings to knock off the creepy behavior. This lewd behavior instigated by the number two man in city government was then used against David Ruttenberg in the city’s own attempt to revoke his liquor license.
The local planning commission was so disturbed by these revelations, they suspended a hearing on the city’s attempts to revoke Ruttenberg’s permit to do business in the city so they could investigate.
So what does the city do? They send an ex-girlfriend of Ruttenberg’s who is now known to have become a police operative against him after getting pulled over for DWI into Ruttenberg’s club in an attempt to frame the club for serving alcohol. Remember, Ruttenberg isn’t allowed to serve alcohol since losing his ABC hearing last year.
More striking is how incredibly lame this attempt really is. Thing is, they know Ruttenberg has a pretty sophisticated security system. And they know he’s been pretty savvy at thwarting their attempts to railroad him.
One reason I’ve come to believe Ruttenberg’s claims that the town of Manassas Park is conspiring against him is that the conspiracy itself is so incredibly lame and inept. Here’s more evidence of that. Much of the public record about this case–the ABC hearing transcripts, the briefs in Ruttenberg’s federal lawsuit–is filled with accusations by Ruttenberg that the city is out to get him, and has repeatedly used former employees and romantic interests against him. These claims have been met with dismissive ridicule from the city.
But here we have a clear example where an-ex paramour of Ruttenberg’s the city admits (but initially denied) was once an undercover informant shows up at Ruttenberg’s bar, specifically asks for him, then repeatedly commits alcohol violations while in the club. Her arrival and departure are captured by Ruttenberg’s security cameras at–not at all coincidentally–the same time a vehicle from the city’s Joint Narcotics Task Force is parked outside. That would be the same JNTF that executed the massively overwrought, ultimately failed raid on Ruttenberg in June 2004.
Here’s my question: What the hell is it going to take to get the Washington media interested in this case?
So I can finally report the news I’ve been teasing for the last few months.
It’s a long post, but well worth your time. Here we go…
Kevin Brendel was the Vice Mayor of Manassas Park from 2002 to 2006. From 2000 until mid-2004, he was also a part-time DJ at David Ruttenberg’s club, Rack ‘n’ Roll Billiards. He’s also married with two kids. If the idea of a middle-aged Vice Mayor moonlighting as a DJ sounds odd to you, well, it did to me too. But on we go.
Let me start by noting that generally speaking, I really don’t care what a guy does in his private life, even if, as in this case, it’s rather sleazy (of course, if the underage stuff is true, it’s more than sleazy. It’s criminal). However, in this case, Mr. Brendel’s ambition to be Manassas Park’s own version of Joe Francis is being used to ruin David Ruttenberg, a guy I believe is getting railroaded. Brendel was once the head of the Republican Party in Manassas Park. And for four years, he was the number two man in Manassas Park politics.
I’ll get to the juicy stuff in a bit. But first, let’s set the story up.
First, this can all be rather confusing. Remember that there are essentially three legal battles going on at once in the Rack ‘n’ Roll case. To review:
(1) The first legal battle is David Ruttenberg’s federal civil rights lawsuit against Manassas Park and its officials, commonly called a Section 1983 suit. He lost a summary judgment motion on this suit in a federal circuit court–mostly due to the immunity granted to public officials–and is now appealing.
(2) The second is his appeal of the revocation of his Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control license, which allows him to serve liquor. He lost his initial hearing, and lost his appeal to the state ABC board. He’s now appealing that ruling in a state circuit court.
(3) The third his his appeal of the revocation of his conditional use permit, which is issued by the town of Manassas Park, and is what allows him to do business. After the city revoked that permit, Ruttenberg won his appeal to the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The town appealed to a state circuit court, which also ruled in Ruttenberg’s favor. Not only that, the court ruled that a conditional use permit is a property right, and that the town’s improper denial of that permit to Rutenberg resulted in actual damages.
What the court did say, though, is that Manassas Park has to show some wrongdoing on Ruttenberg’s part before it can revoke his permit. That hearing, where the city was to show wrongdoing by Ruttenberg’s bar, was last night.
Let’s move on.
If you’ll remember, one of the Alcohol Beverage Control complaints against David Ruttenberg was that he allowed lewd acts to go on his bar. Girls flashing their breasts, lascivious dancing, and so on.
Ruttenberg has always maintained that he did his best to cut out this kind of activity. But he can’t be in his bar every hour it’s open. It’s also a large place (long and narrow), so he obviously also can’t be everywhere at once, even when he is working. On a crowded night back in the bar’s heyday, you couldn’t see from one end of the pool hall to the other. The DJ booth at Rack ‘n’ Roll is in the back. There’s a small stage, about 20 feet behind the last pool table. Meaning that if David Ruttenberg were in his office, or overseeing the bar, or overseeing the front door, he couldn’t possibly see what was going on in the back, around the DJ stage. That’s why he hired security, and asked his DJs to serve a security function as well.
Rutttenberg also concedes that while he didn’t allow nudity in the bar, he did allow girls to dance on the stage, sometimes a little provocatively. This after all, was an 18 and over club. What’s more, other bars in the area allowed considerably raunchier activity to go on, and local authorities basically left them alone. Moreover, a federal court recently threw out the lewd behavior regulations, ruling that the the Virginia ABC doesn’t apply them evenly, resulting in due process violations.
In any case, at some point, as a bar owner, Ruttenberg had to delegate some responsibility to his employes–particularly his bouncers, DJs, and managers–to enforce the rules when he couldn’t. Unfortunately for Ruttenberg, we now know that many of his employees were working for the police and actively undermining the security Ruttenberg had set up to keep his bar safe and in compliance with ABC regulations. We also now know that at least one of his bouncers — Tom Kifer — was a police informant. And of course Ruttenberg’s DJ was the Manassas Park’s vice mayor.
Ruttenberg’s position has never been that women never flashed their breasts at his club. His position has been that he didn’t condone or encourage it, and that he did his best to stop it. And it certainly happened much less frequently at Rack ‘n’ Roll than it did at other night spots around town. Or so he thought.
It now appears that then-Vice Mayor, former GOP chairman, and part-time DJ Kevin Brendel was not only permitting women to expose themselves at David Ruttenberg’s club without David Ruttenberg’s permission, he was encouraging it. In fact, as I’ll lay out in a moment, there now ample evidence that Mr. Brendel was not only encouraging such behavior while working at Rack ‘n’ Roll, he was photographing it for his personal collection. Not only that, he was also soliciting and sometimes paying young women to come home with him for more explicit photo sessions.
Let’s go back to Ruttenberg’s original ABC hearing in June 2005.
Before that hearing, a friend of Ruttenberg’s named Rich Miles, who also happened to be detective in the Prince William County Police Department, told Ruttenberg that the city of Manassas Park had a thick file of dozens of photographs taken in his club showing women dancing on the stage and on the bar, in various stages of undress, and engaged in other lewd behavior. According to Ruttenberg, Miles told Ruttenberg that a far as he was concerned, that file implicated Ruttenberg, and he’d no longer be vouching for Ruttenberg’s credibility.
At about the same time, a waitress of Ruttenberg’s named “Patty” was at the time a friend of a Manassas Park city councilwoman named Cindy Gardner. Patty says Gardner told her she too had seen a file, one that implicated Ruttenberg, but that she was shown the file in secret, because the file also implicated the city in some way.
You can listen to Patty explain what happened here. Gardner stopped talking to Patty shortly after telling her about the file.
So it appears that someone in Manassas Park government was showing a file filled with photos of nude and half-dressed women dancing at Rack ‘n’ Roll to members of the city council, law enforcement officials, and other people who were either credible defenders of Ruttenberg, or had the power to shut down Rack ‘n’ Roll. But for some reason, the file has never been made public. It has never been introduced into evidence in a public court preceding, never shown to the media, and never shown to Ruttenberg.
Now why would that be?
Alarmed at all of this, just before his initial ABC hearing, Ruttenberg’s attorneys filed a discovery request that asked for any photographs the city may have of lewd behavior in the club. According to Ruttenberg, the city not only refused to comply, it denied any such photos existed. Instead, the city made its case about the lewd behavior based only on police officers and customers testifying from memory about a few isolated incidents.
Fast forward now to the town of Manassas Park’s appeal of the zoning board’s ruling in favor David retaining his conditional use permit (remember, he won this appeal). In the days leading up to the appeal–this is around February 2007–Ruttenberg’s lawyer and the city’s lawyers were negotiating a settlement. This is when the city made Ruttenberg an incredible settlement offer that both Black Velvet Bruce Li and I blogged about. The offer was astounding. It essentially blackmailed Ruttenberg, with the city promising that it would “let” Ruttenberg sell his bar if he agreed to drop his federal lawsuit (but only against the individuals named in the suit; his lawsuit against the town, and its taxpayers, could go forward). It also made the astounding promise to give Ruttenberg “peace” in exchange for dropping his suit. The offer was essentially an admission on the city’s part that it was illegally preventing Ruttenberg from selling his bar in the first place (several potential buyers had already been scared off).
Manassas Park officials and their lawyers were furious that Ruttenberg leaked the settlement offer to BVBL and I. When the two of us posted details of the settlement offer, Manassas Park’s lawyers immediately contacted Ruttenberg’s lawyer, and told him that they were now prepared to drag Ruttenberg through the mud for leaking the settlement offer. According to Ruttenberg, it was at this point that the city informed Ruttenberg’s lawyer that it had 160 photographs of women dancing on the bar, exposing themselves, and various other Girls Gone Wild-type shenanigans at Rack ‘n’ Roll. Of course, they didn’t say who actually took those photos, and under what circumstances.
By now, Ruttenberg had been aware of Kevin Brendel’s shenanigans for some time. Several female customers and waitresses had complained to him that Brendel approached them about coming to his home so he could photograph them. Ruttenberg also knew what he had and hadn’t allowed to go on his club. He knew there could be little in that file that would incriminate him personally. He’d also already been through hell. So he welcomed the release of the file.
Quick digression: If Ruttenberg knew that Brendel was propositioning waitresses and customers, holding lewd competitions, and encouraging nudity at the club while Ruttenberg wasn’t around, why did Ruttenberg allow it to go on?
Ruttenberg says he repeatedly asked Brendel to cut it out.
So why didn’t he fire him? Well, put yourself in Ruttenberg’s shoes. He by now knows that the city of Manassas Park is out to get him. He’s busy defending himself against allegations that he’s a drug dealer, he’s trying to sniff out police-instigated drug activity in his bar, and he’s dealing with rumors that he’s a rapist, a child molester, and all sorts of other nasty innuendo perpetuated by Manassas Park city employees. Meanwhile, the number two man in Manassas Park government is working as a DJ at the pool hall. If Ruttenberg fires Brendel, what then? Well, Ruttenberg then makes an enemy of the number two man in Manassas Park city government, not to mention a guy who, as a former employee, the vice mayor, and a member of the city council, could do enormous damage to Ruttenberg’s already (unjustifiably) spiraling reputation.
Ruttenberg was in quite a predicament. Personally, I find it hard to fault him for not firing Brendel. But I can see how someone might make that criticism.
According mine and Ruttenberg’s sources, most (if not all) the photos in the file had been taken by Vice Mayor Brendel. Manassas Park, then, has been reluctant to use the file to incriminate Ruttenberg in any official capacity. Doing so would also be admitting that, at the very least, its vice mayor was using his part-time DJ gig to watch young women get naked. Worse, the city would have to concede that it had known about Brendel’s behavior for some time, and not only did nothing about it, but had actively hidden evidence of it (I’m not a lawyer, but I would guess that if this file does exist, and the city denied it existed at Ruttenberg’s initial ABC hearing, the city comes pretty darned close to obstruction of justice or contempt of court).
Even worse, as I’ll get to in a moment, there’s also some evidence suggesting that the file includes nude photos of underage women. If that’s the case, the city of Manassas Park may also be sitting on evidence that its former vice mayor committed a crime. Moreover, despite all of this, Brendel continued to vote on public policy matters until voted out of office in 2006.
(Interestingly, from the time of the June 2004 raid on Rack n’ Roll on, Brendel excused himself from votes pertaining to Rack ‘n’ Roll.)
In Ruttenberg’s mind, all of this would look much worse for Manassas Park than it would look for him. I think he’s right. In addition to all the other crap the town was doing to run him out of business, it was also not only attempting to cover up the fact that the vice mayor was using his club as his own personal bordello, and may have committed crimes, the city was also covertly using those pictures to turn members of the city council and others against Ruttenberg. Moreover, Ruttenberg was growing weary of this mysterious file being held over his head, and he wanted to see once and for all what the city had against him.
So shortly after the city made its threat, Ruttenberg instructed his attorney to negotiate with the city to hand over the file. If the file did indeed exist, and the city did indeed intend to use it in court, Ruttenberg was entitled to see it.
At this point, Manassas Park and its attorneys pulled another sleazy move. The town agreed to hand over an unspecified series of files, but on the condition that the files be kept confidential. Since this negotiation clearly arose out of discussions about Brendel and the photographs, Ruttenberg assumed that the city was referring to the photo file, and agreed to a protective order.
When the file arrived, there were no photos. Instead, the city sent over a file of previously public records, stuff that had nothing to do with Brendel, and records that Ruttenberg had already shared with me, BVBL, and any reporter that would listen to him. Each document was marked “confidential.” Remember these were already public documents. This is pretty appalling behavior, not to mention bush-league, first-year-law-school chicanery. The city basically attempted to hornswaggle Ruttenberg into agreeing to classify the public documents he was using to prove that the city was screwing him over. Thing is, BVBL, I, and several others already had copies of all the documents in the file. Not to mention that I can’t see any court actually holding Ruttenberg to the agreement. It was a cheap attempt to intimidate Ruttenberg from continuing to get word out about what’s happening to him.
Let’s return to February 2007, as Ruttenberg was approaching the appeal on his conditional use permit. Remember, in this battle, Ruttenberg won the previous round. The town’s Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that Manassas Park shouldn’t have revoked Ruttenberg’s license to do business. So Manassas Park appealed. If Ruttenberg lost here, it would be game over. He’d have to shut down his bar, eat the estimated $3 million all of this had cost him in legal fees and lost revenues, and start his life over again. His only hope at that point would be the federal lawsuit, where the odds are stacked against him.
When Ruttenberg and his lawyer received the Manassas Park witness list for the hearing, they were surprised to see that on that list was none other than former Vice Mayor Kevin Brendel, who was apparently prepared to testify to the lewd behavior he witnessed while DJing at Rack ‘n’ Roll. Ruttenberg was initially surprised. As the DJ, Brendel was master of ceremonies. If there was lewd behavior going on, Brendel was at least complicit in it. In fact, he was out-and-out encouraging it.
But here’s the thing: Manassas Park city attorneys asked–and were granted–that the deposition of Brendel itself be covered by a protective order. Again, why in the world would they do that if they didn’t believe there was something in Brendel’s testimony that could implicate the city?
I’ve been telling Ruttenberg for months that he ought to try to have that order lifted.
Cut to to last night. At a hearing in front of the planning (read: zoning) board, where the city was attempting to show wrongdoing on the part of Rack ‘n’ Roll, Manassas Park city attorney Dean Crowhurst brought up the photos in an attempt to show violations of ABC regs at Rack ‘n’ Roll. Ruttenberg shot up, and noted that the city attorney’s very mention of the photos violated the protective order from Brendel’s deposition last February. Manassas Park itself violated the order it had requested. So now it’s all fair game.
I can now report that during that deposition last February, the town of Manassas Park and Brendel both admitted to the existence of the dirty picture file. The town has also admitted that Brendel was the one who took most if not all of the photographs. Brendel was asked if he took the pictures at the deposition, but his attorney wouldn’t let him answer, objecting that the question was meant to embarrass him.
According to my sources, this file contains about 160 photos of lascivious dancing, flashing, raunchy games, and various other types of behavior your average government bureaucrat in charge of making such determinations would probably consider “lewd.”
Of those 160, a few apparently do show Ruttenberg in the same frame as what might be considered lewd behavior. Ruttenberg convincingly explains that though he would have to see the photos to be sure (bizarrely, though the city attorney showed the file to Ruttenberg’s attorney last February, Ruttenberg himself still has not seen it–and the city still won’t let him see it), the few in which he’s allegedly in the same frame as lewd behavior likely don’t provide any context–they wouldn’t show, for example, what he did after the picture was snapped. Ruttenberg insists he would have told the women to knock it off or, if they were repeat offenders, he’d have thrown them out. And he has affidavits from former customers and employees stating as much.
I’ve also personally talked to several Rack ‘n’ Roll staff and customers who confirm that while Ruttenberg didn’t forbid suggestive dancing, slightly bawdy promotions, and so on, he did prohibit nudity (the only activity of these that would rise to an ABC violation), and routinely threw women out of the club for exposing themselves.
With the city’s admission that Brendel took all or most of the pictures in this file, the allegations of Brendel’s other seedy behavior, and penchant for what we’ll charitably call “amateur erotic photography,” a convincing picture emerges that the mass of photos the city apparently has on file, and has been using to turn people against David Ruttenberg were largely Brendel’s doing. He, the vice mayor of the town. The same town trying to shut down the bar where he was DJing.
Let’s now walk through the supporting evidence.
First, to this point in the story, everything David Ruttenberg has told me has checked out, at least to the point that it can be checked out. Crazy and twisted as this story is, what can be verified, so far has been verified. Of course, many parts of what he’s told me can’t at this point in time be verified. And the absences of independent corroboration prevents me from publishing those portions of the case. But nothing he has told has turned out to be false. His track record thus far is perfect. So when he tells me someone told him they’d seen this file, I have good reason to believe him.
But there’s more. Let’s run through it.
(1) Remember Tom Kifer? Kifer is the bouncer Ruttenberg hired, and specifically charged with the task of keeping drugs out of the pool hall. Ruttenberg later found out that Kifer was working as a paid informant for the police, and Kifer now says the police instructed him to allow drug deals to transpire in the club, deals that were later used against Ruttenberg in the town’s claim that Ruttenberg was running an “open air drug market.”
Last October, Ruttenberg asked Kifer about all of this, and taped their conversation. You can listen to the audio here.
Here’s the relevant portion of the transcript:
Kifer: …also, there was one night that you weren’t there, that the vice mayor was there. We had three girls stripping, and I’m going to tell you, Dave, it was no Mardis Gras. And the vice mayor was taking pictures of three girls who I can pretty much figure is…if I see them again. One girl was sixteen years old, stark naked. When Rob found out, he told ‘em, “Put your clothes on.” And he kicked all three of them out. But the vice mayor was sitting up there enjoying himself, taking pictures with his own personal digital camera while this sixteen year old girl stripped naked, taking dollar bills. And this happened on the stage.
Remember, Kifer was the bouncer as all this was happening. He was stationed in the rear of the bar. And note that according to Kifer, Brendel’s the instigator. It’s Ruttenberg’s manager (Rob) who comes back and orders an end to the stripping. It’s the manager who kicked the girls out. That manager has also signed an affidavit confirming Kifer’s version of events that night.
(2) Ruttenberg also taped an interview with former waitress Rachel Fox, who confirms Brendel’s photography habit. Listen here.
I was working at Rack ‘n’ Roll, and I stayed late that night I believe to do the extra cleaning–the floors, vacuuming the floors and everything. And I had asked Kevin for a ride home. And he said yes, and I told him where I live. And on the way home…he asked me if he could take those kind of pictures. Of me in my underwear, and naked, and all that stuff. I told him “no,” and “take me home” and he did.
(3) Here’s another interview with former waitress Angela Hoffman:
David Ruttenberg: Did Kevin Brendel ever ask you to flash him at Rack ‘n’ Roll?
Hoffman: Yes, he did.
Ruttenberg: Did he do it more than once, or just once?
Hoffman: He pretty much did it every time he was working, and I was here.
Ruttenberg: Okay. Did he ever ask you to go back to his house for nude photo shoots?
Hoffman: Yes he did.
Ruttenberg: Did he ever offer you money for doing that?
Ruttenberg: Do you remember how much money he offered you?
Hoffman:: Um, I think the first time he asked me to do it, he had offered to pay me $150. I told him no thanks, I don’t do that kind of stuff. And the second time he asked me, it was anywhere from $225 to $250.
Ruttenberg: Do you know if he asked anyone else to flash at Rack ‘n’ Roll?
Hoffman: Uh yeah. He actually asked a lot of people to flash him.
Ruttenberg: Did he ever touch you in any way?
Ruttenberg: Can you tell me about that?
Hoffman: He used to grab my ass every time he’d see me. And he’s grabbed my boobs a couple of times also.
Ruttenberg: Did he ever do that at the Rack ‘n’ Roll?
Ruttenberg: Now of all of these things I’ve asked you, was I David Ruttenberg ever aware of them? Did I ever see him doing any of them, as far as you know?
[Note: Ruttenberg would become aware of Brendel's exploits a bit later.]
Ruttenberg: Now what was Brendel’s position at the Rack ‘n’ Roll?
Hoffman: DJ, slash–he also had a little bit of security responsibility. So I guess you would say DJ-slash-security.
Ruttenberg: Okay. Would you call him “Master of Ceremonies?” In other words, did he run the entertainment for the night?
Ruttenberg: Okay. So there were contests at Rack ‘n’ Roll, right?
Ruttenberg: And who ran the contests?
Hoffman: He did. Kevin Brendel.
Ruttenberg: And at some point did the contests turn into…did they get dirtier?
Hoffman: Yes they did, actually.
Ruttenberg: Was I David Ruttenberg there when the contests started getting dirty?
Hoffman: No, Dave was really never there in the evenings.
Ruttenberg: Was Dave Ruttenberg aware that these were taking place?
Ruttenberg: Okay. Were you aware of or did you ever see Kevin Brendel give alcohol to an underage person.
Hoffman: Yes I have.
Ruttenberg: Tell me about that.
Hoffman: Well, every time he worked, there was one specific girl that he would constantly serve alcohol to… she I believe was 19? 18 or 19 at the time.
Ruttenberg: Okay–and this is important. Was I David Ruttenberg aware of this, or did I ever see it?
Hoffman: No, ’cause you weren’t here.
I’ll let you listen to the rest of the audio yourselves to hear the details about Vice Mayor Brendel’s renditions of “Deep Throat Banana” and “Boobie Bingo.”
I’ve been sitting on this story for a long time, mostly because I didn’t feel comfortable publishing it based only on those recorded interviews and secondhand info from Ruttenberg. But now the city has admitted to the existence of the file, and now that they’ve broken the protective order, I’ve seen the transcripts of the hearing where Brendel was questioned about all of this.
So after digesting all of this, here are a few questions I have for Manassas Park:
(1) How long have Manassas Park officials known about this file of dirty pictures taken by the then-vice mayor?
(2) How was it obtained? Were the photos taken from Brendel’s home? Off his computer? Did he turn them over voluntarily?
(3) Is Brendel under investigation for child pornography for photos he has taken of underage women? If so, how long has the city known about those photos? Also if so, why hasn’t the investigation been made public?
(4) Have city officials been surreptitiously showing this file to city council members, police, and other officials in an effort to sour them on David Ruttenberg and Rack ‘n’ Roll?
(5) Why didn’t the city turn over the file when Ruttenberg’s lawyers specifically requested during discovery before the initial ABC hearing? Why did the city deny the photos existed?
(6) Was the city of Manassas Park aware that the lewd behavior at David Ruttenberg’s bar–the behavior which comprised one of the ABC complaints against the bar, which led to hearing at which city officials testified, and which led to the revocation of David Ruttenberg’s liquor license–was being instigated by its own vice mayor?
(7) If the city knew that its vice mayor was instigating lewd behavior at a Manassas Park establishment, why did they hide this information? Why did they continue to let him vote? I suppose it’s possible that they did give the information to Manassas Park police, given that the police department was in on the town’s crusade against Ruttenberg. But that still doesn’t explain why they didn’t turn the information over during discovery.
To its credit, the planning commission suspended the hearing so it could investigate the charges against Brendel. Incredibly, city attorney Crowhurst claimed that the fact that the city’s own vice mayor was responsible for the lewd conduct doesn’t matter for purposes of shutting down Rack ‘n’ Roll. All that matters, he argued, is that the conduct took place at the pool hall.
I tried to call Crowhurst this morning for comment. After about 30 rings, I got a recording saying the number is “temporarily unavailable.”
More to come…
In particular, the court found that the Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations prohibiting “lewd” behavior didn’t pass constitutional muster, because they’re unevenly enforced–in this case, they were being enforced on bars in Virginia Beach, but not on outdoor music venues that also serve alcohol.
This could be good news for David Ruttenberg in the Rack ‘n’ Roll case. A significant portion of the state’s case for revoking his liquor license was that he allowed lewd behavior to go on in his bar. But as Gret Letieq has pointed out, the violations cited in the complaint against Rack ‘n’ Roll were pretty tame (a couple of girls flashing their breasts during Mardi Gras), particularly when compared to what goes down (pardon the pun) in other bars in the area, including one just down the road.
If uneven enforcement is the problem, I think Virginia’s ABC has no choice but to toss out the violations related to lewd behavior in its complaint against Ruttenberg.
I know I’ve promised a bombshell in this case for months, now. It’s still coming. Just need to get everything checked out first.
The National Taxpayers’ Union blog has put up a nice post drawing attention to the Rack ‘n’ Roll case.
I know I keep promising a bombshell on this story. And yes, there is one coming. But I have to make sure I’ve everything covered and double-checked before I run with it.
BVBL has updates, including the new, sordid, and incredible details of yet another frame-up of Ruttenberg, which led to an attempted but aborted raid on Rack ‘n’ Roll by the Manassas Park police back in 2003.
I believe the ACLU has filed a brief on his behalf, or at least plans to. It’d be nice if groups like the Institute for Justice, the Virginia Institute, the Rutherford Institute or even Cato would consider filing similar briefs.
Keep your eyes on this site for some explosive, jaw-dropping new revelations in this case. I’ll likely report them sometime in the next week.
Greg L. has also has a good post up this morning about the Rack ‘n’ Roll case. He spoke with one of the people who have recently attempted to buy Ruttenberg’s club. The woman speaks of some strange interactions she had with Manassas Park city officials when they learned of her interest in the pool hall.
This of course is directly related to the city of Manassas Park’s strange and secretive “settlement offer” Greg and I reported on several months ago. If you’ll remember, the city offered to “let” Ruttenberg sell his club and to give him “peace,” if he promised to drop the city officials from his federal lawsuit and stop the “Internet and media attacks.” He didn’t have to drop his lawsuit against the city itself, mind you. Manassas Park taxpayers would still be on the hook for the malfeasance of their public servants. No, the settlement offer was an attempt only to save the individuals named in Ruttenberg’s suit.
To his credit, Ruttenberg refused.
I’ve written before that one of several reasons why I’ve come to believe David Ruttenberg is that after all of the entrapment, undercover operations, and harassment he has endured at the hands of the Manassas Park Police Department, the guy to this point has never been charged with a crime (the other reason I believe him is that to this point, everything he’s told me that could be checked out, has checked out).
The never-charged-with-a-crime stuff, though, is not entirely true. Ruttenberg was arrested once, in 2002. But not for drugs, child pornography, or any of the other stuff Manassas Park city officials have accused him of, either officially or via rumor and innuendo. Ruttenberg was actually charged with filing a false police report. The details of that arrest constitute yet another incident of harassment of Ruttenberg at the hands of local authorities. Here’s the story:
On December 28, 2001, David Ruttenberg decided to fire a guy named Rick Potter, a deejay who had been working at Rack ‘n’ Roll. David had noticed that Potter may have been coming to work high. He then began hearing rumors from customers and other employees that Potter was dealing ecstasy from the club. So he fired him.
Potter came into work the next day, on December 29, and learned of his termination. Angry, he ran to the back of the club, yanked a mixing board out of the deejay booth, and darted out of the club with it. It wasn’t his mixing board. It belonged to a another deejay at the club, a guy named Christian Gates.
Ruttenberg immediately called the police to report the theft. Gates signed an affidavit attesting that the mixing board was his property, and that he had never given Potter permission to take it. Potter was arrested, and charged with grand larceny.
At Potter’s trial, his defense attorney approached Ruttenberg, and told him that Potter had a prior criminal record. Actually, a pretty extensive one. He had previously been convicted of stealing computers from a school, and had a 17-year suspended sentence hanging over his head. A conviction on this charge would likely send him back to jail to fulfill the rest of the sentence. Ruttenberg actually liked Potter (Ruttenberg’s biggest flaw, over and over again in all of this, seems to be that he’s too trusting and too willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them), and recognized that the guy was a mess. He didn’t want the theft of a mixing board from his club to ultimately put the guy away for 17 years, effectively ruining his life.
So Ruttenberg approached the prosecutors, and told them that he no longer wanted to press charges. The state dropped its case against Potter.
Ruttenberg would soon find out that Christian Gates changed his story. Despite signing an affidavit for Ruttenberg stating otherwise (see link above), Gates later strangely told police that he had given Potter permission to yank his mixing board out of the deejay booth and flee with it during business hours (sounds oddly like a guy pressured to change his story, doesn’t it? Who would give someone permission to do such a thing?)
This was apparently enough for the police to charge Ruttenberg with willfully misleading them.
On March February 11, 2002, Manassas Park Police Officer Travis Mosher (the same officer who would later release two men Ruttenberg caught doing cocaine in his club without so much as a summons, and who I would personally witness harassing Ruttenberg’s customers, in addition to other odd goings-on) came in to Rack ‘n’ Roll with a warrant for David Ruttenberg’s arrest. Officer Mosher then handcuffed Ruttenberg and frog-marched him out of his own business in handcuffs, in front of his customers and employees. For a misdemeanor.
If you look at the arrest warrant, you’ll also notice that the officer who filed the complaint is named Howard Perry (weird side note: I’m told that Perry is the police officer who found John Wayne Bobbit’s severed penis on the side of the road).
Ruttenberg’s trial was in April 2002. He attended with his father Neil Ruttenberg and his girlfriend at the time, Amber Lucas (I’ve also interviewed Lucas, and she confirmed this account of events). Ruttenberg’s case was toward the end of the day, and the courtroom was nearly empty by the time it was called. But let’s back up a bit. During the proceedings of another trial, Ruttenberg’s then-girlfriend Lucas recognized one of the prosecutors, a woman named Amy Ashworth. Lucas moved up to the front of the courtroom and sat just behind Ashworth, waiting for an opportunity to say hello. A short time later, as Ruttenberg’s trial approached, Lucas says she noticed Officer Perry sitting just to the right of Ashworth. According to Lucas, Perry leaned over, and said to Ashworth, referring to Ruttenberg, “This is a really bad guy. We need to teach him a lesson. We need your help getting this guy.” According to Lucas, Ashworth was surprised, and replied, sternly, “I’ll have no part of that.”
This story comes via Lucas, a former paramour of Ruttenberg’s. So weigh it accordingly. I wasn’t able to get in touch with Ashford. Ruttenberg says she told she has no recollection of the conversation with Perry, though she didn’t deny it happened, either.
Here’s another related harassment anecdote: Ruttenberg and Lucas say that one night at the height of the Rack ‘n’ Roll harassment, the couple was in the car kissing when Officers Perry and Mosher approached them. They knocked on the window, and amused, asked Lucas if she was really “with this guy of your own free will?”
Ruttenberg, his father, and Lucas also say that just before Ruttenberg’s trial was to begin, four Manassas Park police officers entered the courtroom and sat in the back row, with broad smiles on their faces.
Here’s where it gets even stranger. At Ruttenberg’s state Alcoholic Beverage Control hearing (remember, that’s the hearing resulting from the raid on Ruttenberg’s pool hall), Ruttenberg brought up his arrest as evidence that the Manassas Park police and city officials were out to get him. Bizarrely, Officer Mosher testified that he couldn’t remember arresting Ruttenberg. From the transcript:
Q: Now, in March of 2002 [sic], did you go to Rack ‘n’ Roll and arrest David Ruttenberg for a false police report?
Mosher: I’m not sure.
Q: You don’t recall?
Mosher: I do not.
Hearing Officer: You don’t recall arresting him?
Mosher: I don’t recall, ma’am. The reason I don’t recall is that I’m not sure if it was a warrant or something along those natures. I, myself, did not generate a case.
Hearing Officer: Did you actually arrest him?
Mosher: I don’t recall.
Q: Is it your testimony that you did not show up and place David Ruttenberg in handcuffs and…
Counsel: Objection to the characterization.
Hearing Officer: He said he didn’t recall that.
Q: He didn’t recall arresting him, wasn’t sure if it was a warrant. I want to know if he recalled putting him in handcuffs.
Mosher: I do not recall.
This is implausible. Ruttenberg’s name was the talk of Manassas Park at the time, and has been since. It’s a small town. And the police, including Mosher, were clearly fixated on Ruttenberg and Rack ‘n’ Roll. It’s just not feasible that Mosher wouldn’t remember arresting him and escorting him out of the bar.
Thing is, it would also be a weird thing for Mosher to lie about. It isn’t as if there’s any question about who made the arrest. He clearly signed the warrant, and including his badge number, as the officer who executed the arrest. Ruttenberg’s customers and employees also witnessed the whole thing.
The only reason I can figure he’d “forget” about the incident is that doing so might get him out of answering any probing questions about who instructed him to do it, and why.
Now look at this. It’s a statement given by Angie Hoffman, a former waitress at Rack ‘n’ Roll, to a private investigator hired by the Ruttenbergs. Hoffman claims that about 3 1/2 months before the ABC hearing, Officer Mosher told her at a family barbecue that everyone in the Manassas Park police department knows Ruttenberg is a drug dealer (she also says she’s never known Ruttenberg to either use or distribute drugs).
I’ve talked to several people around Manassas Park who tell similar stories. The town’s police made a habit of warning people not to visit David Ruttenberg’s club due, in turn, to Ruttenberg being a drug user, a drug dealer, a rapist, and/or a child pornographer. Of course, there’s no evidence that he’s any of those things.
At the ABC hearing, Officer Mosher testified that he’d never heard of Hoffman.
I realize many people are going to be reluctant to believe that a city would knowingly set up drug deals in a legitimate business in order to seize that business as part of a redevelopment scheme. But that’s what I and several others think is what happened to David Ruttenberg in Manassas Park.
And while such occurrences aren’t common, they aren’t unheard of. Here’s one from Seattle that was settled five years ago:
The owner of a Central Area nightclub embroiled in a legal battle with the city and state for the past seven years has settled the last part of his lawsuit with state Liquor Control Board.
The liquor board agreed to pay $525,000 to Oscar’s II. The owner, Oscar McCoy, claimed his constitutional rights were violated when city and state agencies tried to label the East Madison Street club a drug nuisance and deny it a liquor license.
The city settled its half of the suit Feb. 1 for $675,000. The liquor board and McCoy’s lawyers waited until yesterday to make their deal final — the day the case was scheduled to go to trial in King County Superior Court.
“What can I say? I’m glad it’s behind us,” McCoy said. “It was a nightmare.”
Informants for the Seattle Police Department made 18 crack cocaine buys at the club from 1995 to 1997, according to court documents.
The buys resulted in no arrests, but were intended to prove that the club should be closed as a drug magnet. In April 2000, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city had violated McCoy’s right to due process. McCoy sued over his financial losses caused by the revoked liquor license.
What’s funny (and what Ruttenberg can expect, too) is that even after shelling out more than $1 million, the local government refused to admit its overreach:
Representatives of the liquor board likewise said their settlement had nothing to do with the merits of the suit.
“The board believes that its agents acted in a professional and lawful manner,” said Gigi Zenk, spokeswoman for the board. “They didn’t violate any laws. This was a prudent business decision.”
To which the plaintiff’s attorney replied:
“No one will ever apologize in a lawsuit,” said Dave Osgood, McCoy’s lawyer.
“The way you get that is in the size of the settlement. And nothing says I’m sorry like $1.2 million.”
There’s a more thorough accounting of the case here, in the Seattle Times. Note the similarities. The club owner reached out to police and asked them to help him get rid of drug activity. The police asked favors of him, and he obliged. Then they turned on him. The state’s liquor board was a mere formality than any attempt to get at the truth. They took everything the police said at face value, and viewed everything the bar owner said with suspicion.
What’s particularly interesting about the Oscar’s II case is that the city seems to have paid out the settlement in order to keep secret the way it handles its drug policing. The city’s alt weekly The Stranger speculated that this was to save the city embarrassment. If it came out that both the buyers and sellers at Oscar’s II were working for the police, then the police become the source of the very problem for which they were trying to shut down the bar.
That may provide a blueprint for Ruttenberg. If he can get his federal lawsuit far enough along to get a discovery order requiring Manassas Park police to turn over the names of their confidential informants and all documents pertaining to the the town’s campaign against him, my guess is that the town will almost certainly settle. I have a hunch there’s some really embarrassing stuff in there that town officials would rather the public not see.
The Manassas Journal Messenger published a three-part story on the Rack ‘n’ Roll affair. The series started on Thursday and concluded Saturday. See part one here. Part two, here. And part three, here.
Greg L. at BVBL is doing a great job dissecting it.
I found the series generally disappointing. There isn’t much in the way of actual investigative reporting. Instead, it seems to follow a bland formula of printing David Ruttenberg’s accusations, then printing the reaction from town officials. Over and over, that’s the extent of the reporting — accusation, counter. Accusation, counter. Reporter Alexander Grenados does little to try to independently verify whether or not Ruttenberg actually has a case against the town. Ruttenberg has a mountain of videotape, affidavits, witnesses, and paperwork to support his accusations. Grenados reports on very little of this supporting evidence.
This of course doesn’t make Ruttenberg look very good. The end result is a series of articles in which an aggrieved man is levying serious charges against a bunch of people who have the authority and pretenses of public office. Grenados prints an accusation from Ruttenberg, then the response from town officials who, speaking from a position of power, simply answer that he’s “deluded.”
Where’s the context? Here are a few questions Grenados might have asked:
That’s really only scratching the surface. Here’s hoping the FBI investigation digs quite a bit deeper.
My hunch (and it’s only a hunch) is that Grenados’ original series was quite a bit more biting, but was toned down by his editors. That hunch is supported by BVBL sources who seemed to indicate this series was set to run more than a month ago. For some reason, it was held up. I should probably note here that I haven’t talked to Grenados or anyone at the Journal Messenger, and that I’m certain they wouldn’t tell me about the internal editing process if I asked.
It’s great that the local paper decided to cover this story, and that it gave it so much space. But the end result is disappointing. And not necessarily because it doesn’t support my contention that there’s some serious corruption afoot in Manassas Park (a contention I think is well-supported by the reporting done here and at BVBL).
The he said/he said nature of the article at least gets the case out there for public consumption. And that the paper even ran the series suggests that Grenados and his editors at least think there’s some legitimacy to Ruttenberg’s allegations. And as someone who’s spent hours wading through Ruttenerg’s extensive documentation of abuse, I understand that it can be overwhelming, and that it would be extremely difficult for a newspaper to devote the space necessary to laying all of it out.
But there’s far more to Ruttenberg’s case than mere allegations. There are witnesses, sworn affidavits, videotapes, audio recordings, and court documents. Maybe the city has answers for all of that. I’d like to see the mayor explain why he appeared out of nowhere early one morning as Ruttenberg was talking to a television reporter. I’d like the police chief to be shown the video of the guys doing cocaine in Ruttenberg’s bar, then explain why, when Ruttenberg called the cops, the cops took the two men outside, and let them go. Why were Ruttenberg’s permits revoked over a few minor alcohol violations and alleged drug activity (much of it perpetrated by the police) when other bars nearby have committed far more serious infractions, and were allowed to continue operating?
It would have been nice to have seen the city officials actually confronted with Ruttenberg’s evidence, and asked to explain it away. Maybe there are perfectly viable explanations for all of it. I doubt it. But if there are, I’d like to hear them.
Point is, I don’t think a casual reader of the series comes away with the understanding that Ruttenberg’s case is much, much more than just an aggrieved business owner concocting wild conspiracy theories.
More to come.
SLIGHTLY RELATED NOTE: I should add here, that as someone that’s generally skeptical of government and of the competence of people in government, I usually shy away from conspiracy theories. Not that I don’t think there are people in power who have the will to attempt them. It’s more that I don’t think government is capable of pulling them off. I generally abide by the axiom “Never attribute to conspiracy what can be attributed to incompetence.”
However. In addition to Ruttenberg’s extensive documentation (and that everything he has told me has thus far checked out), I tend to buy the conspiracy and corruption in Manassas Park because of the sheer inept and bumbling way it was carried out. No question, they’ve damaged Ruttenberg. But they’ve also made some critical errors, and at times displayed downright comical ineptitude (here’s one example — I’ll have another later).
Greg L. at Black Velvet Bruce Li probably understandably reluctant to raise this point, so I will:
He has posted the cease-and-desist letter sent by a Manassas Park city attorney on his website. The letter references the posts that the attorney considers “false and defamatory.” What’s interesting is that all of the posts concern only the Manassas Park police officers. None of the posts related to off-track betting, the mayor, or other city officials are mentioned.
I’ve also been told by sources close to the case that the attorney that sent the letter isn’t one of the attorney working on the larger lawsuit David Ruttenberg has filed against the city.
This lawyer, working for the city, appears to be only representing the cops. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s interesting.
Also interesting is that one of the posts mentioned in the letter is one where BVBL linked to my firsthand account of police abuse at Rack n’ Roll. I don’t know how they think they can approve the abuse didn’t happen. I saw it with my own eyes. As did about a dozen other people. And this, merely on that particular night.
I haven’t been doing my part on the Rack n’ Roll case, mostly because my time’s been sucked up by other commitments. But Black Velvet Bruce Li has been dutifully running off outrageous post after outrageous post.
Now, the city of Manassas Park has sent him sent him a cease and desist letter, claiming he’s publishing “false and defamatory” information about city officials and employees. He writes:
I’m actually somewhat surprised by this, as everything I’ve said is true is backed up by video, audio, transcripts of testimony under oath, sworn statements, and/or multiple sources. Everything I’ve said on this matter is not only true to the best of my knowledge, but the evidence that supports this perspective on Manassas Park’s current regime is truly massive. If the City of Manassas Park decided to pursue a defamation case against me and put themselves in the position of being subjected to the degree of discovery a case like this would likely permit, it would give me all of the evidence now held by the city which has so far been denied David Ruttenberg, and would allow him to conclusively prevail in his five million dollar lawsuit against the city and many of it’s officers. That would be a positive outcome for justice, which has been denied for far too long.
A lawsuit like this would also give tremendous visibility to this scandal. I’ve become a somewhat notable website for local politics, but my readership is nothing close to the daily circulation of the media outlets which cover the area and I harbor no illusions about my significance outside of the political junkies and the occasionally curious. Having a locality file a lawsuit against a political blogger would probably be a pretty significant story and splash the Rack & Roll Scandal into the public consciousness in a way that I could never do. That would be a positive outcome for the citizens of Manassas Park, who deserve better government which such publicity might help to cause.
He’s exactly right. Which is why I think they’re bluffing. Manassas Park is governed by fools, but they can’t possibly be this foolish.
He plans to neither cease nor desist. Good for him. I plan to get back to covering the case, too. Though with less valiance than BVBL — no one has yet sent me any fun letters.
I’ll have a couple of Rack n’ Roll posts of my own next week.
But in the meantime, there’s a must-read post over at Black Velvet Bruce Li.
If you’ve had any doubts about this case, or if you’ve reluctant to follow along, go over to BVBL, read the post, and listen to the audio clips.
The Cliff’s Notes version: David Ruttenberg hires a guy named Tom Kifer to head up security for his bar. Kifer is specifically charged with keeping drug activity out of Rack n’ Roll. Ruttenberg later finds out that Kifer is working for the police, who have instructed him to set up drug deals in the bar, which they then plan use against Ruttenberg, who would later lose his license for — wait for it — failing to stop drug activity in his pool hall.
Note that in the audio clips, Kifer tells Ruttenberg he realizes Ruttenberg’s getting screwed, but that the police are holding his probation over his head. There’s a bit more to this story, too. Kifer went to jail in part because of a bad check he wrote to Ruttenberg. Ruttenberg didn’t want to turn him in. But when he cashed the check and it bounced, he had no choice. When Kifer got out, he begged Ruttenberg for his job back. Ruttenberg gave it to him, mostly out of pity, and out of regret for in part being the reason Kifer went to prison in the first place.
The whole thing was a ruse, of course. Kifer was working for the local police. Not to catch Ruttenberg doing anything wrong, but to help the police establish a pattern of drug activity at Rack n’ Roll — activity that took place despite Ruttenberg’s best efforts to stop it.
What do you do when you continue to report drug activity to the police, only to have them ignore it, in all likelihood because they instigated much of it? What do you do when you hire security to hunt down drug dealers, only to find out that the very same security personnel you hired are setting up drug deals on behalf of the police — sometimes deals where the only parties are undercover cops and paid informants?
I can’t believe Ruttenberg hasn’t gone completely nuts by now. Imagine watching helplessly as you learn, slowly, that the people who hold power where you live have decided to take you down, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
Over at BVBL, Ruttenberg advocate Ahnke Cheney makes a great point in the comments section. She writes:
The Ruttenbergs may have seemed like easy marks in the past because they believed so faithfully in the system and in the judicial process, not because they were dishonest or stupidÃ¢â?¬Â¦quite the opposite. Their disullusionment is now virtually complete…
Many of Ruttenberg’s problems stem from the fact that he was too trusting and too cooperative with Manassas Park police. David’s father and brother are lawyers. This is a family that has for a long time had nothing but trust in the political and criminal justice systems. They regularly turned in drug dealers. When the police asked if they could use Rack n’ Roll for undercover operations, the Ruttenbergs obliged, thinking that cooperating with the police is a sound, civic-minded thing to do. Little did they know that their very cooperation would later be what doomed them.
Are you listening Paul Ebert? What kind of message are you sending to the residents of Virginia about cooperating with authorities if you allow this to stand?
Many of the drug deals Kifer set up were later used against Ruttenberg at his hearing before the ABC board (Virginia’s liquor board). Ruttenberg, who had hired staff to root out drug activity, who had installed an expensive security system to catch drug activity, and who had asked the police to cooperate with him to find and eliminate drug activity, eventually lost his liquor license because he wasn’t being vigilant enough about keeping drug activity out of his business — drug activity set up and executed by the police. And of course, he was barred from subpoenaing police records to prove the informants were in fact informants because police grant (and courts uphold) informants complete confidentiality.
Ruttenberg’s taped conversations with Kifer are important because they prove that the police were instigating drug activity in the bar. One other thing: Note the way the police threaten Kifer with revocation of his parole if he spills the beans about their illegal smearing of Ruttenberg. This unfortunately isn’t unusual in this case. Ruttenberg has affidavits from other witnesses who express similar fears. In one affidavit that I’ll post later, the affiant includes in her statement a plea that Ruttenberg not ask her to testify in court because, she writes, “this is already scary enough.”
As Cheney indicates, both David and his father now know what anyone who reads this site regularly knows: They know that the criminal justice system, the civil justice system, and the political system can be corrupt, crooked, and can produce an end result that resembles nothing close to “justice.” All sometimes need prodding, sunlight, and a bit of shame to get things right.
The FBI and/or Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert need to correct this. The rotten public employees in Manassas Park need to lose their jobs and, if necessary, their freedom. And the Ruttenbergs need to be compensated for the loss of their business and reputations.
Barring some drastic action to right these wrongs, why would anyone in Manassas Park ever cooperate with the police again?
Black Velvet Bruce Li has several updates of the shenanigans going down in Manassas Park, Virginia.
Pay particular attention to the “settlement offer” town officials offered David Ruttenberg.
This is a very recent development, and it’s really pretty outrageous. In exchange for dropping his lawsuit, the city officials named in the lawsuit promised they would not stand in the way of Ruttenberg selling his bar — at a significant loss, of course (as BVBL notes, the statement to Ruttenberg from the city lawyer that he also gets “peace” in the deal is also striking).
Isn’t this illegal? Aren’t they basically conceding in that offer that they currently are standing in the way of Ruttenberg selling his bar? As I understand it, they are. Ruttenberg has found people interested in buying his business who were then rebuffed by city officials who would hint to them that, for example, they have a difficult time obtaining permits.
But here’s where it gets really crazy. The offer the city made only requires that Ruttenberg drop his suit against the individuals named in it. In other words, the Manassas Park mayor, chief of police, and individual police officers David Ruttenberg is suing were prepared not only to blackmail Ruttenberg into dropping his suit by removing the illegal obstacles they’d put in front of his selling the bar, they were doing all of this only to save their own asses. Though they’re employees of Manassas Park, they were negotiating as public employees to save themselves, not for the benefit of the town.
That ought to say something to the citizens of Manassas Park about what their public officials are capable of.
I still have quite a bit more to report on what I’ve found in the Rack n’ Roll saga.
But it looks like the local newspaper is set to move on a multi-part story looking into the persecution of David Ruttenberg. If the story pans out as I’m hearing it might, perhaps it’ll lead to a full-scale investigation of what’s going on over there.
I’ve been trying since last March to get the Washington Post to cover all of this. So far, they’ve passed. Maybe the local paper’s coverage will spur the big guys into giving it some space, too.
Black Velvet Bruce Li has the latest chapter in the ongoing Rack n’ Roll saga.
This one goes back to 1994. I realize that if Mr. Ruttenberg’s battles with local officials go back 12 years, it sort of undercuts the theory about off-track betting being behind all of this.
But I as I wrote in my post last month, I don’t think the motivators need to be mutually exclusive. It’s possible that Manassas Park officials had petty longstanding grudges against David Ruttenberg and that they were prepared to tap those grudges to push him out of his lease.