Suthern Kumfort to remain closed

Charlotte Guedry

After two days of testimony, administrative hearing official John Lieux has officially ended the run of Suthern Kumfort within the parish.

Lieux stated that Parish Council attorney Toni Falterman had proven her case before him.

“My opinion is that Mr. Duke and Mr. Puckett were in violation by failing to provide accurate information. For that reason, and that reason only, the license was properly denied by the Parish of Ascension,” he said.

Steve Duke, 56, of Prairieville was on an official document from the Secretary of State’s office listing him as the owner of Suthern Kumfort since January of this year. However, evidence presented during the two day proceeding indicated that another man, Charles Puckett, 61, of Prairieville, may have been the actual owner, with Duke acting as owner on paper only.

“It appears to me that they (Duke and Puckett) acted in concert. I’d have to say that based on the evidence, Mr. Puckett is the owner,” said Lieux.

Joe Long, the attorney for Suthern Kumfort Lounge, was hoping the judge would see the licensing process in his client’s favor.

He stated that Duke had been the owner of the lounge since January 2011, and that the legal Secretary of State document reiterated this.

Opposing council Falterman presented evidence, taken from the home of Puckett during the execution of a search warrant, that cast doubt on whether Duke was in fact the owner, or simply had been asked by Puckett to stand in for him.

Puckett, who is the building owner, could not be the license owner, as he is a convicted sex offender and currently on parole.

The parish’s sexually oriented business ordinance is clear on who can and cannot own a sexually oriented business license.

“Legally, the proper procedures were not followed,” said Falterman. “The documents presented and the testimony heard proved that the information on the sexually oriented business license was not true.”

Long was disappointed, but not surprised by the Wednesday ruling.

“It was not unexpected, as this issue was a political hot potato,” he said. “They (the prosecution) had purported evidence which, I believe, some of the employees who testified refuted, but the court didn’t see it that way.”

When asked what would be next for his client after hearing the news, Long said, “I will need to speak with my client as to see where we go next.”

Councilman Pat Bell was called to testify early in the proceedings, as he was the one who denied the petition. Much speculation was made regarding his denial, as he stated  his reasons were “Based on hearing about the homicide at the establishment.”

On May 3, Willis Tanner IV, 28, of St. Amant was beaten to death outside of the venue by a man who was allegedly at the lounge on the request of Duke to do some work for him.

The license application had remained on the desk of Ascension Parish sales and tax administrator Mark West for nearly two months due to a “clerical error” before it found it’s way to Bell’s office.

Falterman did not dispute that the time was long to have waited; however, she did point out that the issue was not about the length of time, but the fact that the license application had indeed been filled out with misleading information.

A majority of the information for the prosecution was found when a search warrant was executed for both Suthern Kumfort and the residence of Charles Puckett. During the search of Puckett’s home, numerous documents relating to sales, stocks, and the running of the lounge were found.

Lieux found this an important part of his ruling, “During a search warrant executed for Charles Puckett at his house, a number of documents reported to have some legal ethicacy, or not, were found. If he had nothing to do with owning or running the business, why would they be there?” he said.    

Long had called Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tony Bacala to testify regarding a letter he had sent to the office of Mark Webb in late December 2008. The letter, sent after a previous stabbing and shooting at the lounge ended in a fatality, stated that although the managers and owners of the bar were cleared on their background checks, that the Sheriff’s department felt they had “Failed to maintain standards of operations”, and made reference to the sales and tax administration “looking for a legal way to shut down a nuisance.”

Long argued that solely by the lounge being deemed a nuisance, that was not valid reasoning to attempt to deny a license.

Bacala then stated that there had been a number of issues with the lounge, and that licenses can always be revoked.

Bacala stated after the ruling, “I’m glad, and happy to see them gone.”