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Perry bar faces more scrutiny after complaint

Was a black lawmaker refused service? Federal and state officials join the probe.

By LUCY MORGAN and ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- State and federal authorities are launching investigations into the bar in the North Florida town of Perry where a Maryland legislator says he was refused service earlier this month.

The U.S. attorney for northern Florida and state Attorney General Bob Butterworth said Wednesday that they plan to look into allegations that Talmadge Branch, chairman of the black caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates, was refused service at the Perry Package lounge.

Branch was visiting the area Feb. 3 when he stopped at the bar. He says he was told to go into a back room instead of drinking up front with white patrons. He immediately called police, and he later told his story to the St. Petersburg Times.

U.S. Attorney Mike Patterson said the kind of discrimination that Branch described will not be tolerated in the Northern District of Florida.

"The wonderful thing about this is I think we can do something about it," Patterson said. "The civil rights law of 1964 and subsequent statutes expanding it do not permit discrimination in public accommodations."

Butterworth has also opened an investigation into the incident through his civil rights division.

"We don't have all the facts yet," Butterworth said. "But this type of event cannot be tolerated. This state does not condone discrimination. If this happened, it is very shameful, stupid and insensitive."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said that agency's investigation has found "a possible violation of the law," and agents are completing a report that will go to State Attorney Jerry Blair in Live Oak. Blair will decide whether to prosecute under a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to refuse service to anyone based on race. He could not be reached for comment.

In addition, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco is reviewing the complaint. The state could impose a fine or revoke the bar's license if it determines the bar was in violation of the law.

FDLE Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore briefed the governor on the situation Tuesday.

"It angered the governor," said communications director Katie Baur. "It should not be happening in Florida in the 21st century."

Reached in Maryland on Wednesday, Branch said: "I had absolutely no idea it would gain this much momentum. I wasn't sure in fact that it could even be proven."

Perry Package owner David Holton referred calls to his attorney.

Greg Parker, the Perry lawyer who represents him, said he and Holton have cooperated with FDLE investigators.

When advised that the FDLE apparently had found a violation of the law, Parker said, "If that's true, my client's position is that this is regrettable, and he'll take appropriate action."

Parker said Holton has been "heartsick" over what happened and does not condone or support refusing service to anyone.

However, Parker did say that Holton has occasionally warned some black customers not to go into the lounge area "out of concern for their safety."

Holton has gotten a number of calls from black customers who don't want him to shut down the back room in his bar, Parker said.

"As a practice, it has been used by black customers by choice," Parker added.

Parker said Holton originally thought the incident resulted from a misunderstanding, but now he thinks there may be more to it.

"I think it's a wake-up call to look at yourself and how you're perceived by the community," Parker said. "Hopefully, we can all learn something."

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