NEW ORLEANS -- After a day-long hearing this week that featured alleged threats and an arrest for insurance fraud, the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control revoked highly prized and hotly contested alcohol permits from three Gentilly convenience stores.
ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert revoked the three permits, which had most recently been held by high-profile lawyer Bob Harvey, and forbade anyone from holding alcohol permits at any of the three locations for a year.
The affected stores are attached to the B-Xpress gas stations at 3101 Elysian Fields Ave. and 4601 Chef Menteur Hwy. and the Shell station at 3032 Elysian Fields Ave.
“This case was a prime example of an individual or individuals who tried to skirt the law, bend the law, tried to fool the law and went ahead and tried to maintain an alcohol permit or permits that continued to make revenue for people who are not qualified,” Hebert said.
The man who still claims control over the three properties, Omar Hamdan, was arrested by Louisiana State Police on Tuesday after a dramatic appearance at the ATC hearing. He was booked with three counts of insurance fraud and a count of commercial bribery and was released Wednesday on $35,000 bond.
The charges were related to an allegedly staged burglary after Hurricane Isaac, which WWL-TV exposed in June.
That may not be the full extent of Hamdan’s legal troubles. Last year, an ATC investigator said in an email that Hamdan was the subject of a multi-agency federal investigation. Scott Wolfe, who is embroiled in a dispute with Hamdan over ownership of the Chef Highway property, said he’s been told by U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents that Hamdan is a suspect in the 2010 firebombing of the store across the street.
Several former employees have told WWL-TV or stated in court papers that Hamdan threatened to hurt them or store customers. Meanwhile, Hamdan himself was hit in the head with bricks at one of the stores in January.
Wolfe, who owned Wagner’s Meat Markets, a chain of gas and convenience stores, was ecstatic over Hebert’s ruling.
“I am in love with the commissioner for being one of the few government officials to bring these people to justice,” Wolfe said.
But Wolfe said he was “disheartened” that the revocation meant that the value of the properties would suffer. He has been trying to get the Chef Highway property back from Hamdan for three years.
Since June, the holder of the alcohol permits has been Harvey, who bought the three gas stations from his client, Omar Hamdan’s wife, Fatmah.
Harvey, a former Orleans Levee Board chairman and Edwards-era political heavyweight, had never been in the gas-station or convenience-store business. But the Hamdans owed Harvey $500,000 in legal fees, and he said he bought the stores for that price, cancelling the debt and keeping the alcohol permits alive.
Harvey sent notice to the ATC on Thursday that he will be filing for restraining orders against the decision in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.
Harvey said that Hebert shouldn’t be able to take away all three permits because the hearing was only noticed for one of the entities. He also said Hebert ran the hearing like a dictator and should have recused himself because Scott Wolfe’s son and attorney, Scott Wolfe Jr., recently sued Hebert over an alleged battery by an ATC agent who served a subpoena for Wolfe Sr. to testify.
Harvey claimed Hebert was intimidated into ruling against him by the lawsuit and by WWL’s investigation.
“The combination of … your cameras there for nine hours and the lawsuit, he yielded to pressure to make that decision,” Harvey told WWL.
But Hebert said he had enough evidence to issue the order based on the Hamdans handling of the permits.
Fatmah Hamdan’s testimony at Tuesday’s hearing was devastating. She admitted having little knowledge of the businesses that her husband actually ran, then claimed she didn’t understand what she was signing when she swore in 2007 that her spouse wasn’t a convicted felon. By then, he was a twice-convicted felon.
Fatmah Hamdan even said she divorced her husband in hopes of saving the permits. After the Hamdans were banned in April from holding them, they tried to sell the stores to their nephew, a store clerk, with Harvey loaning the 23-year-old $50,000. Harvey called it an “arms-length transaction,” but Hebert ruled the nephew was just a stand-in.
Even after Harvey took ownership of the stores, Fatmah Hamdan still owned all the buildings and collected $47,500 a month in rent from him. What’s more, she still owned shares of a company that held one of the three alcohol permits.
Harvey testified Tuesday that Hamdan needed to keep ownership in the company because it was involved in the real estate dispute over the Chef Highway property. Wolfe sold the Hamdans 3101 Elysian Fields Ave. in 2009, then claimed they swiped the Chef Highway store out from under him because of what he calls a documentation error. That’s been disputed in court for more than three years, with Harvey alleging some of Wolfe’s evidence is forged.
In an effort to make Harvey the convenience store owner and Fatmah Hamdan the owner of the real estate, they tried splitting the stock and claiming that Harvey’s class of stock was a separate entity from Hamdan’s for purposes of holding the permit. WWL legal analyst Doug Sunseri said that was akin to two people trying to split ownership of a dog and only be responsible for their own half.
The ATC said such a stock split wasn’t allowed, so Harvey and Hamdan tried shifting their respective percentages of ownership in the company. That didn’t fly either.
Two former B-Xpress workers testified that Harvey wasn’t really running the businesses and that Omar Hamdan and his nephew were really in charge. Harvey contended he tried to stop Hamdan and his nephew from telling the employees what to do. But Hamdan appeared briefly at the hearing and said he felt like he still owned the stores.
Hebert said he didn’t need to determine for sure if Harvey was truly running the stores. The mere fact that the Hamdans continued to benefit from the permits and had held them improperly for more than five years was reason enough to revoke them.
“The bigger issue is the Hamdans, according to testimony, actually held an alcohol permit since 2007 and I am of the belief they held those permits illegally since 2007,” Hebert said.