By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The owners of troubled First Avenue cocktail lounge Visana got a break on Tuesday when an administrative law judge granted an adjournment during a hearing at the State Liquor Authority to give them time to get an attorney. The adjournment for the two owners, David Jaffee and Ross Rachlin, came despite objections from the attorney for the SLA.
Margarita Marsico, associate general counsel for the authority, objected to Judge Ann Cullen’s adjournment because, she argued, Jaffee and Rachlin have had more than enough time to get legal representation. She said that prior to scheduling the hearing, the owners no longer had an attorney but Jaffee had indicated that he would be representing himself.
“We proposed this date ahead of time and he’d had ample time to get a lawyer,” she said. “He’s had an attorney (previously) and said that this date was okay. He had ways of meeting me and getting in touch with me about this.”
Marsico added that, due to the serious nature of the charges over noise, a number of residents had come to testify and they had agreed to appear under the presumption that they would actually get to testify at the Tuesday hearing.
“I have an 83-year-old resident who’s sick who came to testify,” she said. “It’s unusual to have residents testify in a case like this and I have four who came today. I respect everyone’s right to representation but he knew how to hire a liquor lawyer to apply for the license and he acts like he doesn’t know what to do now.”
Prior to the hearing at the SLA, a number of residents have been present at 13th Precinct community council meetings to voice complaints about excessive noise at the pizzeria/speakeasy style cocktail lounge at 321 First Avenue.
While the situation seemed to be improving at the beginning of this year, with no complaints from residents at the February meeting for the first time in months, numerous violations from the SLA and at least one arrest at the end of that month outside the lounge revealed that the problem was not solved. Not long after the council meeting, the Business Affairs and Street Activities committee for Community Board 6 denied Visana’s request to renew its license.
Jaffee and Rachlin were originally attempting to renew the license because there was reportedly a mistake when they originally applied, related to a rule that states there must be a special hearing if a bar wants to open within 500 feet of three other liquor licenses to prevent residential areas from being oversaturated.
One of the charges against the owners is that they submitted false material or suppressed information about how many bars were located within that radius.
The charges against Visana from the SLA include minor violations related to noise and a failure to display the liquor license as required by law, but also includes charges that could result in the cancellation or revocation of the license.
Incidents on December 5 resulted in charges related to a failure to conform with governmental regulations regarding security guards and patrons dancing on the premises, which is not allowed because the business doesn’t have a cabaret license. Numerous incidents on February 28 resulted in charges also related to dancing, in addition to excessive noise, not conforming to building codes regarding occupancy levels and failure to exercise adequate supervision over the conduct of those at the bar. All of the above are cause for revocation, cancellation or suspension of the license.
Police had responded to the corner of East 19th and First Avenue that night to disperse a crowd of more than a hundred people and a 22-year-old man was arrested for disorderly conduct after refusing to get out of the street.
Although Jaffee said that he was inside the bar that night and was not aware of noise out in the street, multiple charges from the SLA are related to noise or misconduct inside the premises but also could be related to noise in front of or next to the lounge outside.
Although no further information was available when Town & Village published the police blotter item about the arrest at East 19th and First concerning why a crowd had gathered on the street, residents have since emailed T&V to note that large groups of people had come out of Visana prior to police arriving at the scene. Other businesses adjacent to Visana include a bank, an H&R Block and a laundromat.
Attorney Robert Bookman previously represented Jaffee and Rachlin but for reasons that aren’t clear, he is no longer their lawyer. When asked what they needed to do to get an attorney, Jaffee said that they would need to allocate the money for a retainer, since as Cullen explained, the state will not provide clients with an attorney for this sort of case.
“In light of the charges and the serious nature of the violations, it would be best to have counsel present,” she said.
Marsico said that she has a total of eight witnesses that will be testifying, which will likely cause the hearing to last two to three days.
Neither Jaffee or Rachlin would comment to Town & Village on the case or why they no longer had an attorney and the SLA did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
The next hearing for Visana will take place on Wednesday, April 12 at 10 a.m. in the SLA’s offices at 317 Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Cullen said that once the hearing is finished, the owners will receive a written decision and if any of the charges are sustained, they will have to go in front of the full board for a decision on whether or not their license is canceled or revoked.