Acts of Commission

The Human Rights Commission finds a Castro bar discriminatory. But the commission's investigation has its own bias problem.

Castro club owner Les Natali is a hard guy to track down. He doesn't have a cell phone, and he doesn't like to be interviewed. Two weeks ago, after the San Francisco Human Rights Commission released a report that concluded he used racist policies to keep African-Americans out of his club, SF Badlands, Natali was more reluctant to talk than usual. After many attempts to contact him by phone and at the urging of his lawyer, Natali finally agreed to an interview, albeit a short one. During the conversation, the reclusive Castro resident referred most questions to his attorneys, but he made it clear that he planned to challenge the commission's conclusions. "I'm appealing because they exceeded their powers, the process was unfair, and many of the facts they stated in the report are just wrong," Natali said in his gruff baritone.

And it seems, recent publicity notwithstanding, Natali's claims do hold some weight.

To read the report issued by the Human Rights Commission, the case against Natali would seem open-and-shut. Commission Director Virginia Harmon and her staff found that Natali had concocted a host of bizarre ways to keep African-American patrons out of his club -- by not playing hip hop music, by asking black people for multiple forms of identification, and by allowing only whites to bring handbags and backpacks inside the club. The day after the report was released, local media outlets ran headlines such as "San Francisco finds popular gay night club discriminated against blacks" and "Panel finds bias at Castro bar/ Owner denied entry to black patrons, commission reports." Dozens of people gathered in Harvey Milk Plaza to celebrate the outing of Natali as a racist.

But just what had the Human Rights Commission proved? A look into the commission's investigative proceedings reveals flimsy evidence requirements, unusual witness procedures, and even a disregard for the agency's own statute of limitations. The commission may have also seriously overstepped legal bounds, first by releasing written findings and then a second time by offering them to city and state agencies -- including the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the San Francisco Entertainment Commission -- that have regulatory authority over Natali's clubs.

Commission members and Natali's opponents say their primary concern was in ending discrimination, and in this case, they believe, justice was done. But in the absence of any legal authority to punish Natali, it seems all the commission did for sure was to convict Natali in the press. The so-called evidence used in the commission's report almost certainly would not convict him of anything in a court of law.

In 1964, San Francisco Mayor John Shelley signed an ordinance that established the Human Rights Commission of San Francisco; in 1990 voters established it as one of the commissions authorized by the city's charter. For decades, the commission has provided mediation to groups and individuals who allege discrimination, in the process dealing with issues ranging from housing bias to unequal treatment of people born with ambiguous genitalia. So it was not particularly unusual for the commission to agree to look into complaints from a group called Is Badlands Bad? about an allegedly racist club owner in the Castro District.

Paul Mooney, a spokesmen for Is Badlands Bad?, says that complaints about Natali initially came up over brunch when Derek Turner, then a bartender at SF Badlands, confided to three friends that he'd witnessed Natali discriminate against customers, employees, and job applicants based on their race and sex. The friends -- who have since formed the nonprofit group And Castro for All -- say they subsequently looked for patrons of SF Badlands who felt they'd suffered discrimination. It isn't clear exactly how the group rounded up the 15 former customers who were brought to the Human Rights Commission as supposed proof that Natali is racist. It is clear that the commission took on the case with gusto.

According to Larry Brinkin, the Human Rights Commission's contracts compliance officer who supervised the investigation, it is rare for the commission to launch a full investigation; mediation between parties is the commission's usual method of dispute resolution. But in this case, Brinkin says, there were many complainants, and Natali seemed to be particularly unwilling to cooperate. So the commission chose the investigative route.

It was an investigation that employed markedly different standards of evidence and witness procedure for the opposing sides of the dispute.

Don Romesburg, another member of And Castro for All, says his organization worked hard to support the people who spoke out against Natali. Romesburg said witnesses against Natali were allowed to have members of the organization with them "for support" while they were interviewed by the commission. Paul Melbostad, Natali's primary attorney, says Natali's witnesses, consisting of both current and former employees, were not given the option of having supporters present.

Melbostad said he was unaware of the unequal witness treatment until last week; it raises questions about the authenticity of testimony taken in the probe "since it is not known if supporters were allowed to coach the witnesses in any way."

There is also the issue of the commission's own two-year statute of limitations. Ten of the 18 people who complained about Natali say that the discrimination they knew of had happened more than two years ago and, therefore, was outside of the commission's statute of limitations. Those 10 people were not interviewed during the investigation, but they were, oddly, allowed to provide written statements. Even more odd: These sworn statements about events long past were actually given more credence than live witness testimony about more recent events -- even though the commission, because of its statute of limitations, was technically no longer able to investigate the older claims.

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