Minority Bar Owners in Racine, Wisconsin Say City Leaders Discriminated

By | February 28, 2014

Eight former bar owners in Racine, Wis., filed a lawsuit accusing the mayor and other city officials of racially discriminating against them and forcing their businesses to close.

The federal lawsuit filed against Mayor John Dickert, the city of Racine and others accuses top city officials of preventing minority bar owners from acquiring or renewing their liquor licenses. It also accuses Dickert of accepting illegal financial contributions from the local trade group, the Racine Tavern League, and rewarding its white members with the newly surrendered liquor licenses or high-level city positions.

Dickert didn’t respond to a request for comment left at his office.

Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney said the city hadn’t been served with the complaint.

“The City of Racine denies that it illegally discriminated against any person or business,” he said in a statement. “The City of Racine has no further comment at this time.”

The plaintiffs, who are black, Hispanic and Thai, said the pattern of abuse began under former Mayor Gary Becker, who resigned in 2009. Dickert ran in the special mayoral election to replace him and promised to “clean up” the downtown area by focusing on certain “bad businesses” with “undesirable patrons,” the lawsuit said.

Tavern league members donated to Dickert’s campaign in amounts that exceeded individual donation limits, and the amounts were fraudulently reported in campaign finance reports, the plaintiffs allege.

The lawsuit doesn’t provide evidence of the claims. But Kohler & Hart, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, said it was confident in the accuracy of the allegations.

“We have spent the better part of a year investigating this case and believe in our clients and the merits of the lawsuit,” attorney Marty Kohler said in a statement.

The plaintiffs accuse Dickert of having accepted bribes from Tavern League members after he took office. In return, Dickert conspired with police officials, members of the Common Council and others to take liquor licenses away from minority tavern owners and make them available to white tavern league members, the lawsuit says.

The tavern league’s president, Lou Larson, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message left at his bar seeking comment. A call to a home number listed in his name rang unanswered.

The plaintiffs also said that all bar owners have to appear before the city’s licensing committee regularly to address any police or community complaints. They said those hearings often resulted in their liquor licenses being suspended or taken away, even though committee members were more lenient with white owners.

The former bar owners say that to avoid the hearings, they sometimes entered unwillingly into expensive “side agreements” with the city in which they had to hire off-duty police officers, install or update surveillance systems and impose dress and music restrictions.

“Between 2006 and June 2013, it was almost exclusively minority bar owners and/or white bar owners with minority patrons who were forced to sign side agreements with the City,” the lawsuit said.

The court filing also accused police of routinely videotaping patrons coming and going from minority-owned bars and then reporting their on-duty hours to the city’s licensing committee to claim an excessive amount of police resources were being used to maintain peace around those businesses.

The lawsuit cites a number of instances in which altercations – including fatal shootings – occurred in and around white-owned taverns patronized mostly by whites. In those cases the licensing committee allegedly took little to no action against the owners. But the suit says the plaintiffs had to answer to the committee for trifling complaints that involved minor nonviolent incidents.

The plaintiffs are requesting a jury trial. They seek unspecified compensatory damages.

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