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State broadens inquiry into bias beyond Perry

A visiting lawmaker’s complaint touches off a civil rights investigation and loosens a flood of similar claims.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


A civil rights investigation of alleged racial discrimination at a Perry bar has been expanded to other businesses in Perry and several other North Florida towns.

The inquiry was widened on the basis of letters and calls from African-American residents complaining of racial discrimination, said Allison Bethel, head of the civil rights division for state Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

"We're trying to communicate and touch base with key people in the area who might have an idea how businesses in the area operate," Bethel said.

Bethel and other state officials began investigating Perry businesses after a visiting black legislator from Maryland complained earlier this month that he had been refused service at a bar.

Perry Package and Lounge owner David Holton and bartender Patricia Hughes were charged this week with second-degree misdemeanors in the Feb. 3 incident.

They each have agreed to pay a $500 fine and write a letter of apology to Talmadge Branch, the head of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus who had stopped in Perry on his way to a meeting in Tallahassee.

An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement supported the complaint by Branch, who said he was told he could be served only in a back room, not the front lounge.

Officials with the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco are seeking to revoke Holton's liquor license. Holton plans to challenge that before a judge, according to his attorney.

Branch said Thursday he has received calls from newspapers and other media in Florida, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Bethel said her office has received more complaints about businesses in Perry and surrounding areas.

"It's been reported and we've heard that there are other places in Perry that do that," Bethel said.

The St. Petersburg Times visited several businesses that black Perry residents said were off-limits to them.

In each case, the business owner said black customers were welcome at the bar or restaurant, although two said they sometimes warn black customers to stay away from "redneck" white customers who might harm them.

Dawn V. Murray, president and executive director of the Perry/Taylor County Chamber of Commerce, said she couldn't believe what she heard about Perry Package.

African-Americans have been very active on her board of directors, and everyone in the town gets along, she said last week.

"We were just as shocked as everyone else," Murray said.

"I've been here for 13 years and I can honestly say I have never seen any racial discrimination."

But Bethel said too many people are telling her they have seen and experienced racial discrimination. Her office has the authority to file lawsuits seeking injunctive relief and fines of up to $10,000 per violation of Florida's civil rights laws.

Bethel said she didn't know how long it will take to complete the investigation.

"We're going to be there for a while."

Recent coverage

Perry bar faces more scrutiny after complaint (February 15, 2001)

Visiting lawmaker: Bar in Perry drew color line (February 6, 2001)

Bill would ban racial profiling (February 12, 2001)

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