Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Third Badlands probe heats up


Julius Turman. Photo: Bill Wilson
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A third probe into allegations of racism at a Castro bar heated up last week, with the executive director of a state agency meeting with city officials to discuss their findings in the case. A city panel also will take public comment next week.

Suzanne Ambrose, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointee to head the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, drove down from Sacramento with her deputy director on Friday, July 22 to meet with staff at the city's Human Rights Commission. The meeting covered the HRC's finding that bar owner Les Natali discriminated against patrons and employees based on race at his bar, San Francisco Badlands.

"It was meant for information gathering, to get a copy of the HRC's report and talk about the commission's findings," said Regina Brown, deputy director of communications and legislation at the state agency, who also attended the meeting.

Citing the fact her department has an ongoing investigation into the matter, Brown declined to discuss specifics about the case. Though she did disclose that in November 2004 DFEH received numerous complaints of discrimination at Natali's bar.

"The department has one year to investigate from the last act alleged," said Brown. "The earliest I can find is November 2004. It could be earlier."

Ambrose's agency is the third to launch an investigation into allegations of discriminatory practices at Badlands. The city's Entertainment Commission will also begin its review of the matter when it takes public comment and considers whether to take disciplinary action against Natali at its August 2 meeting. The Entertainment Commission can suspend or revoke the permits for Badlands that allows the bar to play music and have dancing. Tuesday's discussion is not listed as an action item on the agenda, meaning no vote can be taken by commissioners.

After a 10-month investigation, the HRC issued its staff report on April 26 concluding Natali used several practices, including a no-bag policy and asking for two forms of identification, to deny African Americans entry to his bar.

On July 14 the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control concluded its yearlong undercover investigation into the accusations against Natali, finding there was insufficient evidence to revoke his liquor license. Natali, who has denied the charges against him and is appealing the HRC's findings, declared the ABC's decision "vindication."

Natali's attorney, Steve Goldstein, said he is confident that DFEH will come to the same conclusions as the ABC did of his client. While he was unaware of Ambrose's visit last week, Goldstein said he remains confident that Natali will be cleared of all charges against him.

"No. I am not concerned. The charges against Mr. Natali are baseless," said Goldstein of the latest step in DFEH's investigation. "They are based on flimsy evidence and hearsay and trivial and isolated, perceived problems."

'Not out of the woods'

However, Julius Turman, the complainants' lawyer, said he and his clients remain hopeful that they will prevail with DFEH and that the state agency will take action against Natali.

"Mr. Natali is not out of the woods yet," said Turman. "Their investigation that was filed last fall is still ongoing. This tells me the state agency charged with the investigation of discrimination in employment and public accommodation is still looking into the allegations raised despite what the ABC found. They are not simply going to look the other way as the ABC has done in this situation and many, many others."

Under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, Ambrose's department is charged with investigating violations for public accommodations at bars and stores or anywhere the "public is invited to come in," explained Brown, who could not recall the last time the agency had received complaints about a gay bar.

If the DFEH finds that "unlawful practices" occurred, then the agency will refer the matter to what it calls conciliation, where DFEH mediators will try to resolve the matter. If conciliation fails, then the case is referred either to superior court or the agency's commission. DFEH could force Natali to pay damages to the injured party for both out of pocket expenses and emotional distress, as well as force him to change the way he conducts his business.

Larry Brinkin, a compliance officer with the HRC who has overseen the city investigation into Badlands, said it was the first time he had met with the state director to discuss a case. Though Brinkin said he has met with local representatives of DFEH.

"I think it might indicate this is a big case in the sense of how many complainants there are and the period of time the incidents are alleged to have occurred," said Brinkin. "The meeting went well. I think probably since we had already completed our investigation they thought it might be helpful for them to see what our process was and get an idea of the scope of our investigation. If they had completed it first, we would have wanted to do the same thing with them."

Based on the questioning from Ambrose, Brinkin said he suspects the state agency is looking to see if there is a pattern of racism in the city's gay community or if it is specific to one establishment.

"I told her of the cases we have had over the years," said Brinkin, who specifically cited accusations in the 1990s that the Midnight Sun prohibited Asians from entering the bar. "We've had other cases we've handled through a mediator process but never formal complaints. It means someone called because they got hassled at this bar or business, and we call the owner to have conversations with them."

As for the HRC's response to Natali's appeal, Brinkin said it is still being reviewed by the city attorney's office and hoped it would be released soon. He said the commission's findings will not be affected by the ABC's decision in the case, which he had yet to review, because the two agencies' investigations differed in approach.

"My understanding is that they took the complaints, interviewed the complainants, and they went and investigated if discrimination is going on in Badlands. They sent in their testers and were determining the current conditions at Badlands. We didn't do that," said Brinkin. "We investigated to see if the allegations were true and if discrimination had occurred, not what the present conditions are. To me that is apples and oranges."

As both sides wait for the city to release the HRC's response, the two parties are in talks to schedule mediation. Goldstein said he didn't expect the first meeting to be scheduled for several weeks.

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