At Delaney’s Lounge in West Toledo, the bar recently was full of patrons having a good time, including about five of them who were openly smoking — despite Ohio’s law that prohibits lighting up in public places.
Delaney’s is just one of about 37 bars that the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has cited repeatedly for allowing patrons to violate the law.
“If you look at all of our facilities in Lucas County, this is a smidgen of what’s out there — it’s just 37 bars and restaurants out of 3,000 in the county,” said Eric Zgodzinski, director of environmental health services at the county agency.
Mr. Zgodzinski said local and state health officials are working to crack down on the owners of establishments they consider to be some of the worst offenders in Toledo: Rip Cord, Delaney’s Lounge, Mayfly Tavern, Kopper’s Bar, and Platinum Showgirls.
But nearly eight years after Ohio voters approved the statewide smoking ban, officials are still struggling to get these owners to pay thousands of dollars owed for breaking the law.
“When we are talking about the smoking ban, this is a law to protect people’s health but we are required to follow a due process in terms of making these people comply. It’s long and arduous, and people are constantly trying to get out of it, and we are always having to find new ways to get people to comply,” said Mandy Burkett, administrator of the state’s smoke-free work force program for the Ohio Department of Health.
While state and local health officials continue to fine businesses that thwart the law, those same officials have struggled to collect money owed by a small group of recalcitrant proprietors.
Lucas County is owed more than $320,000 in fines by smoking-law violators that have built up over the past seven years. Last year, the department recouped just $3,000 in fine money.
The Ohio Department of Health is owed more $2 million from businesses across the state, and the agency and the Attorney General’s Office have worked together to collect about $1.5 million in smoking fines.
Skirting the law
Bar and restaurant owners across the state, many of whom fought the law from its inception, seemed to have stayed a step ahead of the state’s collection efforts by using a variety of tactics to skirt the law and avoid paying the fines.
Bill Delaney, the former owner of Delaney’s Lounge, openly admits that he sold his bar three years ago, first to his wife and then to new owners, to avoid paying more than $47,000 in fines.
When asked if he allowed people to smoke in the bar after the smoking ban passed, his response was “certainly.”
“If I would have cut that off, I would have lost half my business,” Mr. Delaney said.
Mr. Delaney, who is a candidate for the state Republican Central Committee, said he does not believe the law is legitimate and rather sees it as an infringement on his personal freedom as a citizen.
He said that after he sold the bar, the corporate entity changed from Delaney’s to Still Delaney’s. He asserts that he no longer has any involvement with the business.
“I go there — people see me there. ... I still hang with my friends,” he said.
He believes that by selling the bar, it has shielded him from having to pay back fines that were levied against the business entity Delaney’s LLC.
“[The fines] are gone because it was after my permit. I don’t have that permit any longer. It was sold,” he said.
During the recent trip to Delaney’s, several patrons spoke openly to a reporter about why they felt they could smoke there. There was no attempt to hide the smoking. The new building manager declined to comment.
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A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which acts as a collection agency for the Ohio Department of Health, said the sale of the bar and name change does not get Mr. Delaney off the hook.
“The case is still an active collection,” Dan Tierney said. With additional collection fees added into it, Mr. Tierney said Delaney’s Lounge now owes nearly $80,000 to the state. He admitted, however, “It is very difficult to collect fines from a business entity that is no longer in existence — which has no income or assets.”
“Once the business is closed, we don’t have a lot of ability to go after them,” Ms. Burkett said.
Delaney’s Lounge is not the only Toledo bar that has changed owners after racking up thousands of dollars in smoking fines.
The Rip Cord bar in downtown Toledo owes more than $64,000 in fines for smoking violations. Owners Bryan Vertrees and Terry Hymore have been vocal opponents of the smoking ban and even threatened to walk away from the establishment instead of paying the fines.
It appears they may have done just that.
On a recent visit to the bar, Warren Vess said he is now the owner and that he recently purchased the business from Mr. Hymer. Mr. Vess said he is redecorating the building and changing the name from Rip Cord to Mojo.
When asked about the past due fines and how he feels about complying with the law, Mr. Vess responded that he didn’t know anything about what happened in the past.
“We are 100 percent for the smoking ban. There will be no smoking allowed,” Mr. Vess said.
Platinum Showgirls, an adult entertainment venue in North Toledo, also changed owners. The club accumulated more than $24,000 in fines before the building was gutted by a fire in August, 2011. The blaze was later ruled an arson by fire officials.
The club originally operated under the corporate name Kuss Consulting LLC and was owned by Philip Frances, Younes Dia, Basem Sayed, and Naqid Hasas.
Greg Flaig, who identified himself as the executive director of a coalition of more than 88 adult clubs in Ohio, including Platinum Showgirls, said he worked for the owners of the club and saw them openly flout the smoking law.
“When the smoking ban went into effect they said they were going to ignore it,” Mr. Flaig said. He said many club owners around the state felt they would lose money if they followed the law. They racked up thousands of dollars in fines because they believed the law was unjust and would eventually be overturned, he said.
Their hopes were dashed in 2011, however, when the owners of a Columbus bar called Zeno lost their court challenge to the smoking ban law on constitutional grounds.
Ms. Burkett said that after the Zeno court case, there was a marked increase in calls from bar and restaurant owners wanting to pay their fines and settle up with the state.
But even after the law was upheld, she said some bar owners dug in their heels and continued to allow smoking in their businesses.
“We have the hard-core people who don’t agree with the law and are not going to stop smoking. Those are the hardest people to bring into compliance,” she said.
Platinum Showgirls reopened in December, 2012, under new ownership, PSG Foods LLC, doing business under the name of Cheetah, which includes several of the prior owners — Philip Frances, Basem Sayed, and Naqid Hasan.
Mr. Flaig said they now run things differently.
“They have an outdoor patio. They run everything by the book. There is no smoking allowed,” he said.
Health officials said they are attempting to get ahead of other bar owners who are changing ownership to elude paying fines.
Larry Vasko, Toledo-Lucas County Health Department deputy commissioner, called the tactics used by owners opposed to the smoking ban a “shell game.”
“I have no doubt that’s where they are at. Delaney’s has been on two or three different names or LLCs. If this is the new game, then we’ve got to stop the game,” he said.
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One of the tools state officials have turned to is to go after the liquor license of establishments that are repeat violators of the law or to deny the transfer of the liquor license to new owners if a bar has accumulated a large amount of fines.
“We have determined that the liquor department has a rule that you have to be in compliance with all other state laws in order to have a liquor license,” Ms. Burkett said.
She said many bar owners who are being denied renewal or transfer of a license suddenly show a new willingness to talk about their back fines. Kopper’s Bar in East Toledo, which has smoking violations dating to 2009, reached a settlement with the state health department to pay some of the $19,000 it owes in smoking fines after a hold was placed on the renewal of its liquor license last year.
Some bar owners are fighting to keep the state from using liquor licenses to extract smoking fines from business owners.
Maurice Thompson, an attorney and longtime opponent of Ohio’s smoking law, is helping a Cleveland bar, Suburban Inn, in a court challenge over the liquor license by state officials.
The state refused to renew Suburban Inn’s license on Sept. 28, 2011, because of repeated violations of the law and more than $71,600 in fines. Suburban Inn filed several appeals and the case is being considered by the 10th District Court of Appeals.
“Basically our argument is that the state smoking ban was passed by an initiative and it speaks specifically on how you can punish a bar and that does not include taking the liquor license away,” Mr. Thompson said.
While health officials are vexed about their lack of ability to collect fines, those opposed to smoking remain frustrated that it continues at all.
Allyson France, executive director of the Toledo chapter of the American Heart Association, said that although Ohio is far ahead of some other states, more needs to done to protect people from secondhand smoke in bars and restaurants.
The fact that businesses can be fined repeatedly indicates a need for better enforcement of the law, she said.
Ms. France applauded the fact that just a few bars and restaurants in Lucas County are ignoring the smoking ban. But she also said “that number needs to be zero.”
Contact Marlene Harris-Taylor firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6091.