NEW ORLEANS -- A New Orleans Civil Court judge has ruled that the state must grant license renewals to former Orleans Levee Board Chairman Bob Harvey for two gas station convenience stores he took over following a series of Eyewitness News investigative reports.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control denied the renewals in May after the stores were flagged because of nearly $700,000 in alleged delinquent tax payments from the two stores on Elysian Fields in Gentilly.
But Judge Sidney Cates IV ruled Friday that the state considered the stores in “good standing” at the time Harvey filed for renewal on May 21. The ATC blocked the licenses on May 30 when the state Department of Revenue issued a “jeopardy assessment.”
Cates ruled that the state did not follow its own rules by not allowing Harvey “a reasonable time for protest.”
Not only did Cates grant the renewals, he found ATC in contempt of a previous ruling by him in which he granted Harvey a preliminary injunction to stop ATC from taking any action on the stores.
In his five-page ruling, Cates wrote, “The Court finds that this was willful and a violation of the injunction and designed to do indirectly what the Court ordered not to be done directly. It is clear to this Court that the defendants’ goal is to shut plaintiff’s businesses down.”
Harvey has been at odds with the state for months, filing a lawsuit last year after ATC raised questions about Harvey’s ownership of the stores.
The stores had been owned by the wife of a man represented by Harvey – Omar Hamdan – but she lost the licenses after reports by WWL-TV’s investigative reporter David
Hammer raised questions about Hamdan, including previous felony convictions.
The ATC found that Hamdan’s wife had lied on her application when she stated she was not married to a convicted felon.
Following those WWL-TV reports, Hamdan was charged with fraud and bribery charges related to a different convenience store. Bob Harvey took the stores off the Hamdans’ hands when they lost their license.
But ATC raised new questions about Harvey’s takeover, in particular, whether Harvey is just a straw owner who took over the stores for the Hamdans. Harvey said he purchased the stores for $500,000 by canceling the debt Hamdan owed him for legal services.
When ATC raised questions about Harvey’s ownership in court, they landed in front of Judge Cates, who issued the injunction.
After the state denied the renewals due to the alleged delinquent taxes, Harvey’s attorneys argued that the earlier injunction should continue to apply to the new circumstances.
Cates agreed, ruling that the sales tax block “was knowingly issued for the purpose of circumventing this Court’s prior injunction.”
ATC has filed a motion to appeal, and in the meantime, is asking that Cates’ decision be suspended.
In a press release, ATC wrote that it was “ordered to issue renewal permits to two businesses who owe the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid sales taxes, penalties and interest, despite the fact that state law explicitly prohibits ATC from doing so.”
In a separate case, Hamdan, represented by Harvey, is pursuing a libel lawsuit against WWL-TV and David Hammer, accusing them of unfairly portraying Hamdan in the earlier investigative stories.
The station stands by its stories and is vigorously defending the lawsuit.