I shook the Tampa Bay summer rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word.
These guys had seen a few things. I could tell. They'd been undercover in strip joints, bikini bars, peep shows and adult bookstores all over Hillsborough. These private dicks were key players in the county commission's plan to crack down on businesses that sell sex in its infinite varieties. Gumshoes. Professional private investigators. "Kick back, boys," I told them, "and tell me all about it."
The one named J.R. Long Jr. started. "On June 3, 2006, I drove to Brandon, Florida, to observe a business named Showgirls Men's Club. I arrived at the establishment at approximately 4:49 p.m." He took a seat at the bar. He was armed only with an expense account provided by the good folks down at the County Center.
Long continued his tale. "I ordered a beer and paid $4.75 for the drink. While I was seated in the bar area, a female dancer approached me. She referred to herself by the name 'Sage.' She wore a red T-back piece of lingerie (similar to a G-string) that covered the pubic area but revealed almost the entirety of the buttocks. She also wore a white, silky, waist-length top that was opened in the front, revealing the white bra that she wore underneath."
Long cut to the chase.
"Sage" had told him that a private dance would cost him a $6 cover charge, a fee that was waived as it was "happy hour." $10 a song for a couch dance. $20 for a bed dance.
Long went for it.
"I accompanied 'Sage' to the 'Private Dance' area," he said. "During the 'bed' dance, I laid on a small mattress area and 'Sage' straddled me, grinding her groin and buttocks against my groin area. After engaging in this contact for the length of one song, I paid 'Sage' for the 'bed' dance."
With taxpayer dollars, I mused. I thought to ask him if he got "full value" but then changed my mind.
"During the 'couch' dance, I sat in an upright position and 'Sage' straddled me," Long resumed his report. "During the length of one song, she grinded her groin and buttocks against my groin area. At 7:34 p.m., I left the establishment."
Two hours, 45 minutes on site. That's dedication.
One of the other gumshoes chimed in. Greg Byrd had gone to an adult video store on 56th Street called Pleasures Video.
"I entered the peep show area and smelled the odor of semen," he said. "I went into nine of the unoccupied peep show booths to observe their conditions. When I used a black light device in the nine booths, I observed a yellow/green substance that is consistent with acid phosphatase, an enzyme present in human semen.
"In each of the booths, I saw acid phosphatase stains on the front wall, on the floor, and on the left and right walls."
The words hit me hard.
I asked them who was behind all this, who was the mastermind, the Mr. Big who was directing this crackdown. They were silent on the subject.
Their stories were strong stuff, and county officials plan to use it as a weapon against adult businesses. Testimony at the public hearing, on Aug. 2, no doubt. Along with God knows what other nasty details county officials have dug up.
We paid handsomely for this work. $15,000 for the Tennessee lawyer and local private investigators who built the case against selling sex in Hillsborough. When I say we, I mean the folks who pay for county government. The taxpayers.
The business owners know they're in for a tough time, like a punk picked up for a robbery whose going to get sweated good by the detectives downtown. The owners met quietly on July 5 to figure out a strategy to fight back. They are rallying their customers and readying stats to show how many jobs they create and how much sales tax they pay. Their critics, mostly the Christian right movement in Hillsborough, have tried for years to maintain that the clubs create crime, from increased rapes to pedophilia. Cop records don't bear that out.
But again I wondered, who's behind all this? Who dreamed up the idea of killing the adult businesses? The county wasn't talking. Assistant County Attorney Don Odom told me, "We are not commenting at this time because this is such a hot-button issue."
So I turned to a mouthpiece named Luke Lirot. He'd gotten fat over the years on the adult industry. Never mind that he won almost every case on First Amendment grounds.
"The community standard [for determining obscenity] is dictated by reality," Lirot told me. "There are scores of adult businesses in the Tampa Bay area that operate legally and successfully. It's not what you want it to be; it is what it is. The First Amendment is not a beauty contest or a popularity contest."
Yeah, right. But why is the county doing this right now? And why would it put this ordinance to a nonbinding straw ballot referendum in November?
"It's an agenda tool for the commission and Storms to rally the troops," Lirot said. "The referendum is truly a meaningless thing. Stop wasting people's time."
That's right. I suddenly remembered: Ronda Storms is running for office again. What better issue to rally the troops. And what better way to increase right-wing voter turnout in November.
The new ordinance would go beyond the normal zoning regulations that limit where adult businesses can open. It regulates the businesses directly. Owners and employees would have to pay $50 to get licenses. Customers stay six feet away from erotic dancers. No touching of patrons. No alcohol. No nudity in mobile adult cabarets. No sex in peep show rooms. Lighting in film booths of at least five foot-candles, measured at the floor level. No glory holes. A peep show booth would become a clean, well-lighted place.
I suddenly got it: A group of Republican county commissioners — whose mantra is less government, fewer regulations — is trying to get rid of an industry by regulating it to death.
How ... ironic.
The dialogue with the county's private investigators was re-created from public record affidavits the investigators submitted. The other quotes in the story were obtained via interviews. With all apologies to the late Mickey Spillane.