LINCOLN — The owner of four private strip clubs said Monday that there’s no need for the state to regulate his businesses. If state officials try, Shane Harrington said, he’ll go to court and win.
“I’m operating well within the constitution,” Harrington said. “Even if a law is passed, I’m not closing my clubs ... and I’m filing a lawsuit.”
He spoke after a 90-minute public hearing in which a state senator, the state liquor commission, the Omaha City Council and representatives of Catholic and children’s organizations called for a return to a time when private bottle clubs — which allow club members to bring in their own liquor — are required to obtain state liquor licenses, like bars and restaurants.
Most of those testifying in favor of Legislative Bill 747 said the proposal wasn’t about the totally nude dancing allowed at Harrington’s bottle clubs (including one near 72nd and Dodge Streets in Omaha), but about making such operations adhere to the same rules as places that sell alcohol.
Hobert Rupe of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission said bars and restaurants with liquor licenses must allow police to enter and inspect their operations, are required to shut down at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and face fines and suspensions if they serve underage or drunk patrons. Not so with private bottle clubs, he said.
“That oversight is not there,” Rupe said. “The concern is if you’re going to be a nightclub serving alcohol, you should be licensed like a nightclub.”
Harrington’s clubs aren’t the only private bottle clubs, he said, mentioning a “Viking combat” club in Lincoln that operates as a bottle club.
Representatives of the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Nebraska Family Alliance expressed concern about sexual “exploitation” and “immoral sexual activity” at bottle clubs and raised the specter of sex trafficking associated with such places. They said Harrington, by operating bottle clubs, was making an end run around local ordinances that prohibit totally nude dancing at licensed liquor establishments. Harrington also has clubs in Hastings and Grand Island and one along Interstate 80 near Kearney.
But Harrington and his club manager, Joe Evans, both said they strongly monitor their dancers to make sure they are independent contractors and not working for a pimp or boyfriend. They said that while about 10 percent of their clubs’ 25,000 members are ages 18 to 20, they are watched to ensure that they do not consume alcohol. Harrington and Evans described their clubs as safe places to enjoy adult entertainment, and sober up, after regular bars close.
Harrington, who has filed a handful of lawsuits in recent years against attempts to regulate his clubs, said he would gladly apply for licenses and begin selling drinks but expressed doubt that the state liquor board would grant him permission.
In 2011, the Liquor Control Commission rejected a liquor license in Lincoln for Harrington. He said the rejection was based on “character flaws” because he was running adult entertainment websites.
“They can deny you for any reason,” Harrington said.
State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, whose central Omaha district includes Harrington’s Omaha club, said that before 2004, bottle clubs were required to obtain state liquor licenses. Given the potential for underage and excessive drinking in such unregulated clubs, Thibodeau said licenses should again be required.
Thibodeau’s sister, Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton, also testified in favor of LB 747, citing an inability to monitor private clubs. She said she first became aware of bottle clubs when she was told of a club in South Omaha for people wanting to engage in consensual sex.
After the hearing, the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee took no action on the bill, which appears to be a long shot to pass this year. The committee’s chairman, O’Neill Sen. Tyson Larson, scheduled the hearing a day before the end of such hearings for the year, a time slot typically reserved for bills destined to die. LB 747 was also not picked as a priority bill, a designation that usually guarantees that a measure will be debated.
But at least five members of the eight-member committee are co-sponsors of LB 747 or voiced support for the bill Monday, which would be enough to advance it to the full Legislature.