Police Probe Ocean City Business For Porn Activity

OCEAN CITY – The growing saga of the beleaguered Cowboyz Smokehouse and Saloon, closed down last week for numerous food safety violations, took a turn this week when it was revealed the establishment is under investigation for alleged underage drinking, late-night pornography sessions and other sordid activities.

Last week, the Worcester County Health Department closed Cowboyz after a follow-up inspection revealed management failed to correct a laundry list of violations from a routine health department inspection 30 days earlier and in some cases had reportedly gone in the opposite direction. Among the more egregious violations discovered during the inspections was a lack of hot water in the facility, faulty refrigeration equipment and meat and other food supplies stored at temperatures over 60 degrees.

However, it was learned this week the health code violations might be just the tip of the iceberg for the Gold Coast Mall business. Ocean City police this week confirmed Cowboyz is under investigation as a site for the alleged after-hours filming and photographing of pornographic material later posted on Internet websites. In addition, it appears the nightclub has had problems with underage drinking and that at least two underage girls participated in the pornographic activities in the restaurant.

One of the girls in the videos reportedly complained to Ocean City police she had not given consent for the videos to be posted on the Internet, touching off an investigation into the alleged illicit activity. Investigators then obtained information from the Internet depicting sex acts allegedly filmed at the restaurant.

The health code violations first discovered during a routine inspection in August that ultimately led to the closure last Wednesday were incidental to the police investigation into the alleged pornographic activities, according to OCPD Public Information Officer Mike Levy.

“This is an entirely separate issue,” he said. “This centers around the investigation into pornography. There was another issue with some possible underage drinking that we’re looking into.”

Levy said investigators have nearly completed their probe into the alleged illegal activity at the restaurant although he was decidedly guarded about the outcome.

“The pornographic investigation is pretty much done,” he said. “It’s not something I can say too much about at this time.”

No charges have been filed against the establishment or its owner, John Brooks, although if the allegations are true, Cowboyz is clearly in violation of the terms of its operating license. However, if underage individuals participated in the production of pornography, which has been suggested, it could become a legal matter and not merely a license issue. Although he wouldn’t comment specifically about the Cowboyz case, State’s Attorney Joel Todd this week said, in a general sense, there is nothing illegal about adults producing pornographic material.

“It’s not illegal for consenting adults to take nude pictures of themselves,” he said. “Now if any of the participants are under 16, that changes everything.”

Meanwhile, Cowboyz remains closed indefinitely as the health department issues and the investigation into alleged pornographic activities proceed on parallel courses. There was a hearing scheduled on Tuesday with the county’s Board of License Commissioners, but it was postponed until Oct. 15.

“He has an attorney issue,” said Levy. “He has retained a new attorney who needs some time to get up to speed on the situation, which is why the hearing set for today [Tuesday] was postponed.”

Todd said regardless of the outcome of the license commission hearing in October, Cowboyz will remain closed until at least 2010. The state’s attorney also reiterated his office is not involved in the investigation at this time.

“They’ve entered into an agreement to stay closed until Jan. 1,” he said. “There is not an investigation by my office. The investigation is being conducted by the OCPD in terms of any criminal activity, along with the Worcester County Health Department on their end.”

While neither Brooks nor his attorney, reportedly J. Harrison Phillips, have not made any public statements about the health code violations or the alleged pornographic activity, posted on the Cowboyz website this week was a lengthy message addressing the food safety issues and the immediate plans for the establishment. The message has since been removed leaving only a blank page on the facility’s website.

“Due to unfortunate circumstances, Cowboyz is closed indefinitely and are currently reviewing offers for sale of the business and its contents,” the statement reads.

As far as the health department is concerned, any production of pornographic material in areas where food is prepared and served represents a serious violation, according to county health inspector Ed Potetz.

“If they were utilizing food contact surfaces for that activity and there was bare skin contact, I have a major problem with that,” he said. “Almost all food-borne outbreaks are caused by humans. We call it the oral-fecal route, like when somebody goes to the bathroom and doesn’t wash their hands and comes in contact with food or food contact areas. If you have bare bodies on food contact surfaces, that’s even worse.”

Potetz said even individuals dancing on a bar top is considered a serious public health issue.

“It’s like dancing on bar top,” he said. “That bar top is a food contact surface and you don’t know what’s on the bottom of their feet or their shoes. How would you like it if I walked on your kitchen table?”

In terms of the health department violations, things began to unravel for Cowboyz during a routine inspection on Aug. 19 during which several serious food storage, preparation and handling infractions were discovered. As part of the normal protocol, management was presented with a list of the violations and given 30 days to correct them before a re-inspection. For Cowboyz, that re-inspection came last Wednesday, and not only had the most egregious violations not been corrected, but a new list of infractions was discovered, according to Potetz.

“We never heard anything back,” he said. “They were given 30 days to contact us and tell us how they corrected these things, but nothing ever came. We did our follow-up anyway, and we found that that they had corrected a few things, but we found a lot of new stuff. The place was dramatically changed in 30 days and not for the better. That’s why we moved forward with the closure.”

Among the major infractions noted by the health department was a lack of hot water at the establishment, faulty refrigeration equipment and meat and other foods holding temperatures over 60 degrees. The health inspection also revealed a pattern of unsafe food handling procedures, an overall lack of sanitation, mold growing in ice machines and the overall condition of the facility.

“We look at the overall pattern of behavior,” said Potetz. “Each of these items individually is serious, but when you put the whole package together, you see an overall theme. It comes down to the overall practices of the place.”

Chief among the most egregious violations was the lack of hot water at the facility, according to Potetz.

“My concern was how long it had been off,” he said. “They have claimed it was a bad pilot, so why didn’t they get it fixed. The employees didn’t even know where the hot water tank was.”

In the statement on the restaurant’s website earlier this week, Cowboyz officials denied operating without hot water and blamed the problem on a faulty pilot light on the hot water heater.

“We never once operated without hot water, which would frankly be impossible,” the statement reads. “On the morning in question, the pilot light on the hot water heater had gone out as it does every now and then. When the health inspector notified us of this fact, we simply lit the pilot and corrected the problem within 15 minutes. The only violation which would normally shut a restaurant down would be the water heater, which was fixed within minutes, in fact before the inspector left.”

However, Potetz said the condition of the hot water heater during the inspection suggested it was an ongoing problem staffers chose to ignore.

“They have a 100-gallon hot water tank and it was stone cold,” he said. “Even if it had shut off that morning, there should have been enough hot water for a couple of hours, based on their use. I got the feeling it had been off since at least the night before. Who knows how long it had been off? They didn’t seem to mind or care that they were working without hot water.”

The Cowboyz website statement also suggested health officials did not allow management to be present when the inspections took place and never clearly spelled out the violations discovered or what they needed to do to correct them to remain open. However, Potetz said this week disputed that notion..

“They are always welcome to go around with us. To say that we prevented them from participating in the walk-through is bull crap,” he said. “We always sit down at the end of an inspection and go over the list item by item. To say they didn’t know, to say there was no meeting, that’s ridiculous.”

The closure last week came just days before the big Bike Week weekend including a breast cancer benefit. Potetz said his office made an attempt to get Cowboyz signed off on enough of the violations to get re-opened for the weekend and the breast cancer benefit, but got no cooperation from the owner or management.

“We go out of our way to work with people,” he said. “We talked to our legal counsel about the breast cancer awareness benefit and we decided if he met the parameters, we could get him open for that event.”

Potetz said he talked to the breast cancer benefit organizer and told her the health department was making an effort to allow Cowboyz to still host the event.

“I called her Saturday morning and told her I was sorry, but there is nobody here,” he said. “The door was barricaded and the phone was disconnected. I sent somebody up there three times on Saturday and I finally went up there myself about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and there was nobody there.”

In the website statement, Cowboyz officials agreed there was at least an effort to re-open for the benefit last Saturday.

“Cowboyz did have an agreement to reopen this Saturday [Sept. 19] from the Worcester County Health Department and a re-inspection was set up,” the statement reads. “The issue as to why this meeting did not happen is debatable, but suffice it to say it did not take place.”

The website statement appears to suggest the closure of the restaurant was preconceived and unrelated to the reported health code violations.

“Anyone who was there knows that this was a planned closing and even if it was the most immaculate kitchen in the world, it would have been shuttered because that was the decision made beforehand,” the statement read. “Cowboyz did not have a dirty kitchen at all.”

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