The Plaza Saloon does not stand out on downtown Baltimore's Block. It is sandwiched between the Pleasure Palace and another porn shop. A green awning hangs over a door leading down to its basement quarters.
But it is a path well trod by police officers and liquor inspectors. Since February 2000, none of the Block strip clubs has been fined more by the city liquor board than the Plaza. Its tab: $22,125, according to records.
In that span, the board also briefly pulled its adult entertainment and liquor licenses three times for a total of 25 days. The list of offenses is long, including out-in-the-open sex and attempted pimping.
The Plaza, at 404 E. Baltimore St., had big problems before the liquor board got oversight of adult entertainment licenses in 1999. Over 10 months in 1996 and 1997, police charged dancers there with prostitution four times; the club was also written up for obscene stage acts.
After news reports of the violations, the city in 1997 revoked the Plaza's adult entertainment license, but a Baltimore Circuit Court judge overturned the decision. The dancing has continued, as has the trouble.
The Plaza's recent history, as laid out in liquor board files, offers a case study in the revolving-door nature of enforcement on The Block. Owner Jules A. Gordon would not comment. Neither would Edward F. Dimick Sr., who holds the liquor license with Gordon.
On Feb. 28, 2000, the board held an administrative hearing. Unlike in court, hearsay is admissible, and commissioners - appointed by the governor with input from Baltimore's state senators - say they use common sense to assess guilt. That winter day, the board found the Plaza guilty of letting a patron fondle a dancer. The fine: $1,125.
That July the Plaza was back at a hearing. Sgt. Craig Gentile of the Police Department's vice squad had seen dancers performing sex acts on patrons and another patron touching a dancer sexually. Since the board felt managers allowed the activity, it levied a $7,125 fine and yanked the club's licenses for five days.
In April 2001, the Plaza returned, facing many alleged sex violations. The most egregious charge was for letting a dancer and patron have sex in the bar. The penalty was a $9,625 fine and 10-day suspension.
At the hearing, board chairman Leonard R. Skolnik, a retired apartment manager, likened the Plaza to a "whorehouse" and berated its owners.
"You can't allow this kind of behavior in your establishment; you can't do it," he said. "And what's going to happen, you guys are going to come back once too many [times] and your license is going to get revoked."
The club paid $5,125 of the fine but held back the rest while it appealed to court, a step clubs sometimes take. Liquor commissioners know the harder they come down, the more likely a potentially lengthy appeal. In this case, the Plaza lost and paid the $4,500 balance.
Despite Skolnik's anger, the club was allowed to choose its suspended days, so it could stay open on big-money Friday and Saturday nights.
Last January the Plaza was back. The charge was comparatively minor: illegal touching. Guilty. $1,125 fine.
"Be careful," Skolnik warned Dimick at the hearing.
"I will," Dimick said.
On Sept. 19 the Plaza returned yet again. A doorman had been charged by police with trying to pimp a Plaza dancer who was his girlfriend. In a report, Gentile said the doorman told him: "Well, there's a girl down there that will take care of anything you want at a reasonable price."
When Gentile, working plainclothes, indicated he wanted sex, the man said it could be done. "Yeah, go down and ask for Mimi," he said. "She charges reasonable." The club said the man was not an employee and was just standing at the door.
The board also found the club guilty of letting a dancer masturbate a patron on a bar stool. Commissioners scoffed at the club's claim that the woman walked in off the street with a man, borrowed a dancer's lingerie for a "guest set" on the stage and, without going onstage, fornicated with the man.
Again Skolnik referred to the Plaza as a "whorehouse" and warned, "This kind of behavior in this kind of establishment cannot happen."
The penalty was $3,125 in fines and a 10-day suspension. Asked why the club was not hit harder given its history, he said 10 days was "reasonable."
Afterward, Plaza lawyer Charles Ford Milland took issue with Skolnik's comments.
"I know a lot of guys who work down there [at The Block]," Milland said in an interview, "and they're not drug addicts, pimps or whore masters." Nor, he said, are the women all prostitutes or "bad people."