A small crowd gathered at Denise Stinson's pub last Friday night to celebrate her 51st birthday. It was a mellow affair. A few friends and former coworkers sat at the bar, drinking Pepsi and nibbling on burgers.
Stinson sat beside them, occasionally rising to greet other customers who wandered into her Tam O'Shanter Pub at 332 Garden of the Gods Road, just east of Interstate 25.
"I'll have a beer," one woman said, glancing at tap handles for Beamish, Coors Light and other brews.
"I'm sorry, honey, we don't have a liquor license," Stinson replied. "Can I get you a soda instead?"
"I'll just have water," the woman said.
The woman said a few words on her cell phone, then left minutes later.
"Don't give up on us," Stinson called to her. "Check back."
Stinson could be forgiven for wanting to give up herself, considering what she has faced since buying the decades-old pub in January. After closing the deal, she had to delay opening for a month because of an undisclosed liquor-code violation from the previous owner.
Then, after building her bar's business (with a temporary license) for months by offering free hors d'oeuvres, tasty food and karaoke nights, she went before the city liquor board herself and watched while the board's members corked the lifeblood of her neighborhood tavern.
"I've never had to fear government before," says Stinson, recalling two liquor board meetings in July and August at which members first denied her application to take over the pub's liquor license, then refused to reconsider their decision. "I'm dealing with a bureaucracy I don't know how to deal with."
The hang-up seems to center around two theft charges filed against Stinson, and later dismissed, in Dallas nearly 25 years ago. On her application to transfer the liquor license, Stinson noted she'd received a parking ticket and had been cited for driving an unsafe vehicle, but she forgot the theft charges, which came as she packed up her two children and divorced their father.
"I was never put in a cell. I was never advised of my rights," Stinson told the board at a hearing July 20, explaining why she didn't write the charges in a space that asks about convictions or pending charges. "I didn't realize it was a charge or an arrest, frankly."
Board members pressed her for details.
"We need to know how it was resolved," board member Richard Wright said. "If these are not outstanding issues anymore, if they were all taken care of, we don't have an issue. But if you were convicted of a crime here, of theft, you didn't list it on your application. We need to know the result."
Stinson explained how hectic her life was when the charges were filed. After hearing they showed up on an FBI background check, Stinson told the board, she called Dallas authorities but couldn't find out more. Nobody could help.
The board didn't like her answers, voting 4-2 to deny the permanent transfer of the Tam O'Shanter license to Stinson. Some members listed "evasiveness" among their concerns.
Stinson came back before the board Aug. 3, and board member Gary Turner asked his colleagues to reconsider their decision.
"Personally, I don't want to be responsible for running someone out of business that we may decide, "Oh, maybe they weren't so bad after all,'" Turner said.
The board's legal adviser told them that the Dallas charges were dismissed and should not be considered.
"If it's not a conviction, it's nothing," city attorney Scott Patlin said. Patlin noted also that another line of questioning leading to the license denial rested on a board member's misrepresentation of the liquor code.
Despite Patlin's assurance that the charges were dismissed, Wright did not let the matter drop.
"To me, there is no conclusive information in the file, one way or another, other than the fact those charges were there. We don't have any further remedy on that. Are we supposed to just turn our backs on that?"
The board again voted 4-2 against Stinson, denying her the chance to present her case to the board again and killing her liquor license.
Stinson filed for a new tavern license immediately afterward, viewing that as the quickest way to save her business.
On her birthday, Stinson received a letter refusing her request. Since she was asking for a new license instead of a transfer, the city had to check for schools nearby, making sure none were within 500 feet. The new CIVA Charter School in District 11 was just opening its doors 491 feet away.
One morning in 1983, Stinson says, she came home from her job at a Dallas hotel bar to find her newborn son and 3-year-old daughter asleep on the floor in front of the television, their father passed out in the bedroom after a long night of drinking.
It was the last blow to a crumbling marriage. Stinson packed up the kids and left that night to stay with a friend.
"I made a decision," she says. "Enough was enough."
Stinson worked two and sometimes three jobs in the weeks and months that followed, using income from one job to pay childcare while the other jobs covered expenses. She moved into her own apartment.
At some point she wrote a bad check. A letter from the city of Carrollton, Texas, informed her of the offense. She went to city hall in the Dallas suburb, stood in line for a while, paid a fine and believed the matter was finished. She never saw the inside of a courtroom or a jail cell.
"If I'd done something that got me in jail, I'd sure never have forgotten that," she says.
Her divorce finally came through a year later, and a judge awarded her the couple's 1978 Ford LTD when her husband skipped the court date. She followed her lawyer's advice and had a collection agency immediately seize the car, fearing she would never see it if she told her husband he would be without his wheels.
The ex-husband called police after the car disappeared, leading to the theft charges, until Stinson convinced a police detective the car was legally hers. The detective took beer cans and a few tools back to Stinson's ex. She kept the car keys and tried to forget the whole ordeal.
An Ohio native, Stinson moved to Colorado in 1985, and came to the Springs in 1995. She eventually went to work as a customer management representative for Deluxe Corporation, which prints personal checks and business forms.
She started a Colorado Springs chapter of ACES, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, and in 1999 was part of an ACES delegation that went to Washington to meet with a domestic-policy adviser in President Bill Clinton's administration.
An FBI background check conducted before that Washington visit turned up nothing, Stinson says.
In 2001, Stinson's volunteer work won national recognition when she was named one of "100 who serve" by Bridgestone-Firestone, an honor that directed $2,000 to the local ACES chapter. Stinson keeps the award plaque at home and talks reluctantly about honor.
"I just don't toot my own horn," she says.
Instead, Stinson focuses her warmth and energy on others. This partly explains why she ended up buying a pub after spending most of her adult life telling her children to make their living by other means.
The other part: Her kids didn't listen to her. Now adults, both wanted to join her in running the Tam O'Shanter, a bar well-known across the city for a generation.
Liquor board, Part I
Business at the Tam O'Shanter was humming by July, as Stinson operated with a temporary license. Karaoke nights were a big success, customers seemed to like the new menu and the bar was sometimes packed several people deep, a sight that old-timers recalled from the pub's distant past.
Stinson did not worry too much about her hearing before the Colorado Springs Liquor and Beer Licensing Board. She watched meetings in which people with criminal records were granted licenses. She considered herself an "upstanding, law-abiding citizen," and she decided to speak to the board without an attorney.
"I'd waste an attorney's time," she says.
Stinson learned about the Dallas theft charges shortly before the July 20 hearing, but without case numbers, she couldn't find any more information about them.
According to law, members of the liquor board must judge candidates for liquor licenses based on five criteria: character and reputation, ability to run the business according to law, possession of the property, license eligibility and financial status. Crimes, particularly those not disclosed, can count against the character requirement.
At the July hearing, Stinson launched into an account of her experiences in Dallas shortly after starting her presentation. She called it a "daunting time" and started explaining the circumstances.
A board member cut in, telling her to stick to the five points.
Stinson backtracked, offering that she had been paying her bills and running the pub without problems for months. She talked about her volunteer work and character.
Board members then took turns questioning Stinson. Charles Stephens, the current board's longest-serving member, asked her about the liquor code.
"Can you tell me what percentage of your business has to be food to liquor, being a tavern license?" Stephens asked. Stinson said she wasn't aware of any requirement, adding that her business was about evenly split between food and liquor.
Stephens continued, asking about her familiarity with the code and the book she was supposed to study.
"And you do understand that in that book that you read there is a page that tells you what percentage of food to liquor you need to have for a tavern license?"
Stinson said she wasn't aware of the requirement, and apologized for being exhausted from working at the pub.
Wright questioned her on her criminal record, pushing for details but seeming to suggest the board needed only to be shown that she had not been convicted of theft.
Patlin, the board's attorney, counseled that without proof of a conviction, board members should not base their decision on the charges. Stephens said he agreed with Patlin's advice, but still believed Stinson had "skirted" around the issues.
"It's not whether you were convicted or not," Stephens said. "I'm concerned about your testimony."
Stephens voted against Stinson's application, joined by Wright, William Cartmell and Kathy Tarrant.
Stephens listed three reasons for his vote: "the applicant's inability to convince me she knew the liquor code correctly," her inability to testify and concerns about her moral character because of "evasiveness."
Wright echoed the same points.
Four days after her application to take over the Tam O'Shanter liquor license was denied, Stinson was ticketed for serving alcohol without a license. She was unaware the license had been suspended immediately after the board made its initial decision.
Stinson consulted with attorney Vince Linden, who was representing her on other matters. By that Friday, July 27, she had a temporary restraining order in hand that allowed her to serve alcohol until the board reconsidered its decision or her temporary license expired Aug. 15.
On Aug. 3, the board discussed whether to reconsider Stinson's case, setting a new hearing at the next meeting at which she would be able to present her case with Linden's help. Patlin explained that a judge granted a temporary restraining order against the board's decision. The restraining order was based on a review of what happened July 20.
"So we have a district court judge who thinks it's at least reasonably likely that our current decision would be reversed," Patlin said to the licensing board.
Patlin then talked about several points raised during the earlier hearing, including Stinson's uncertain response when Stephens asked her what percentage of her sales had to come from food.
"It's a pretty good answer," Patlin said of Stinson's response. "The only requirement is that she have sandwiches available. A review in court might look at that and say, "Well, you know, it's kind of a trick question.' It's not really a good grounds for finding she didn't understand the liquor code."
Patlin also had people in his office look into the Dallas criminal charges. Though no details were available, they discovered the charges had been dismissed. He encouraged the board to have a new hearing if they based their decision on those charges.
Finally, Patlin said he reviewed the transcript and found Stinson actually did manage to touch on all of the required points. If the board were to allow a new hearing, Stinson would bring an attorney and the testimony would undoubtedly be clearer.
"Clearly, the board is looking for licensees who can be good licensees," Patlin said. "We're not looking for licensees who can be good attorneys."
Discussion about whether to reconsider became contentious. Kit Abrams, who sided with Stinson at the July hearing, said she did not want reconsideration of old matters to become a pattern. Wright would not let go of the matter of criminal charges.
"She testified under oath that she had no criminal history, or along those lines, when, in fact, we didn't have conclusive information that she didn't," Wright said.
Board member Randall Kouba, who was absent at the first meeting, said it would be in everyone's best interest if "we be more concerned with doing what is right than digging our heels in and saying, "We already considered this once. We don't want to talk about it anymore.'"
The board's discussion Aug. 3 ended oddly. It appeared at first the motion passed 4-2, and Stinson would get a new hearing.
After some discussion, the board decided the actual vote was 2-4. Stinson lost.
Kathryn Young, the city clerk, says the board members now will vote with their computers to prevent confusion from oral voting.
Trying to survive
A pub that can't serve alcohol makes for a strange sight. Posters from an unsuccessful "teen night" cover the glass doors of a fridge stocked with beer. The liquor is locked away in back, and plastic shopping bags sometimes cover the taps at the bar. An ornate purse and other leftovers from a silent auction dot the tavern, and there's a single donation jar to help Stinson with her legal fight.
She stays open most evenings, watching as customers turn away but staying open so they know at least she is still there.
The fight to stay in business is hard.
"It's a pub," Stinson explains. "People don't want to go to a pub for a soda and a sandwich."
Stinson is a slight woman, standing just over 5 feet tall, with curly brown hair, glasses and a gentle manner. She seems at ease chatting with her customers or bouncing her 7-month-old granddaughter on her knee.
Still, she is not one to be pushed around.
Soon after taking over the business, she says, a Budweiser distributor tried to bully her into accepting a larger shipment than the place needed, telling her the old owner used to go through three kegs in a week.
Stinson refused to give in. She told the distributor she was done carrying Bud products. Coors filled the gap behind her bar.
Despite her determination, Stinson faces tough times ahead. Appealing the board's decision to district court would take months, so Stinson opted instead to apply for a new license.
Then she found out last week about the effect of the new charter school. While schools can move in within 500 feet of taverns, she learned, taverns cannot get new licenses if they are too close to schools.
Stinson now plans to submit paperwork for a restaurant/hotel license, which has different requirements. But the earliest she could get such a license would be late October, according to city officials.
Liquor board members are appointed by City Council to serve up to two consecutive three-year terms, but they are the ultimate liquor licensing authority for the city. While City Council can remove board members, only a district court judge can overturn their decisions.
Board decisions are almost never appealed, according to Young, the city clerk, and Colorado Springs' two liquor code enforcement officers. Out of hundreds of yearly applications for new or transferred licenses, perhaps five a year are rejected, they say. Young says appeals are not even filed once a year.
Linden calls the board's decision in Stinson's case "arbitrary and capricious." The trouble is, Stinson has no legal recourse that will help her stay in business. She could sue the city, but that would take years. An appeal to district court would take six months at "absolute best," her attorney says.
"She's basically blown her life savings," Linden says. "The reality is, she doesn't have the money to sustain herself while she's not selling alcohol."
Todd Heck, Colorado Springs manager for the Denver Poker Tour, still holds weekly free poker nights at the Tam O'Shanter. Though fewer people are coming to the Tuesday evening event, Heck says, he plans to keep it there while the doors remain open.
Heck says the board's decision is a mystery to him. While there are good reasons to wonder how some bar owners ever got a liquor license, he says, the reason for denying Stinson's application can only be evidence of "government gone amok."
Meanwhile, Denise Stinson pushes on, keeping the Tam O'Shanter open without alcohol for as long as she can, hoping simply to save her business from closing.
"I don't talk in legal terms," she says. "I'm a country girl. I never dreamed that would cost me my livelihood." firstname.lastname@example.org
The Colorado Springs Liquor & Beer Licensing Board
Charles Stephens (voted against transferring the Tam O'Shanter Pub license on July 20, was absent at Aug. 3 meeting): A retired physician, Stephens joined the board in 2001. Stephens said board members are not supposed to comment on specific decisions, referring the Independent instead to minutes and recordings from their meetings.
Richard Wright (voted against transferring the license and against reconsideration): Worked as general manager for an Anheuser-Busch distributorship before joining the board in late 2005. Could not be reached for comment.
William Cartmell (voted against transferring the license and against reconsideration): Currently chair of the liquor board, Cartmell was appointed in late 2005. Would not talk specifically about Stinson's case, but noted there are "a lot of factors" that go into the board's decisions.
Kathy Tarrant (voted against transferring the license and against reconsideration): A dental assistant who joined the board in late 2005. Declined to comment about Stinson's case.
Gary Turner (voted for the license to be transferred and for reconsideration): A political science and pre-law student at UCCS, Turner has been on the board since late 2005. Turner said the board has granted liquor licenses to people with drunken-driving convictions, but that it "looked sketchy" that Stinson hadn't disclosed information about charges in Texas. Still, he said the board's decision, in his opinion, might not hold up were it appealed to district court.
Randall Kouba (absent from July 20 meeting, voted for reconsideration Aug. 3): A private consultant and policy adviser who served in various administrative positions at UCCS for 29 years, he has been on the board since late 2006. "The members voted in a way they thought was appropriate," Kouba said. Stinson "was less than forthright" at times during her testimony, he said, "and that became an issue."
Kit Abrams (voted for the license to be transferred but against reconsideration): A Colorado Springs liquor store owner, Abrams has been on the board since late 2006. She would not talk about specifics of Stinson's case, but said the board was "just a group of people who try to do our best." She said she would "appreciate" her position on the board not being publicized.
A brief timeline
January 2007: Denise Stinson buys the Tam O'Shanter Pub on Garden of the Gods Road, but learns days later the previous owner faces a liquor-code violation. She closes the doors until the matter is resolved and she can get a temporary liquor license.
Feb. 23: The pub reopens.
July 20: Stinson's application to transfer the pub's liquor license is denied.
July 24: Stinson learns that her temporary license to serve alcohol, which doesn't expire until Aug. 15, was rendered null and void the moment the board denied her transfer application. Having served alcohol over the previous few days, she is cited by a city liquor enforcement officer.
July 27: A district court judge issues a temporary restraining order allowing Stinson to serve alcohol until the board reconsiders her case or the temporary license expires.
Aug. 3: Liquor board votes against reconsidering its July 20 decision.
Aug. 28: City Clerk Kathryn Young drafts a letter informing Stinson that her application for a new tavern license has been rejected because the pub is 491 feet from a new charter school. The law requires 500 feet of separation.
Aug. 31: Stinson turns 51 and receives the city's letter.
Compiled by Anthony Lane