- Walter Novak
- Ed Niec says he was drinking water behind the bar. The cops said it was Grey Goose.
Restaurant Associates had a problem. The company, which runs upscale bars on the rarefied club level of Browns Stadium, suspected its servers were sneaking swigs of top-shelf liquor.
Catching them would take the work of intrepid investigators willing to watch football, drink beer, and bitch about Gerard Warren's frequent trips to the concession stand. This wasn't a job for just any sleuth.
This was a job for Cleveland police.
The company teamed with stadium security to set up the stakeout. It found at least five off-duty officers willing to give up their Sunday to watch football and down brewskies. On October 17, a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the sting was on.
The operation was fairly straightforward: Sit at the bar, act like customers, and watch for anything shady. It's a standard technique called secret shopping, used by bar owners to spy on employees, says company general manager Lew Sprague.
Just before kickoff, the officers infiltrated two club-level bars -- spacious lounges reserved for season-ticket holders and luxury-suite dwellers. They settled in at the bars and ordered drinks, taking note of what they saw: Bartenders slyly pouring Grey Goose and Kahlua into cups and taking sips.
It was the kind of scene you'd find at any bar, but for the secret shoppers, these were high crimes.
This surely was grueling investigative work, considering the distraction from the Browns, who were playing uncharacteristically well that day, and the need to look like any other customer by pounding beers. It took hours of drinking, chatting, and rooting. But in the end, at least two officers mustered the energy to draw up reports.
Detective John Pitts wrote that his "surveillance was terminated" at 3:30 p.m., two and a half hours after it started. The report doesn't say how many drinks he ordered. Sergeant Pete Guerra was wise enough not to mention drinking at all.
But in a third report, Detective Kristin Riley writes that she sat at three bars over a three-hour period. Though she reports only ordering one beer at the second bar, she ordered "several more" at the third, she writes.
"She had quite a bit to drink," says Anthony McCullough, one of the bartenders who served Riley. "That tells me she was intoxicated."
Riley says she was careful not to jeopardize the investigation -- even if it meant wasting $6 drafts. "I would go to the bathroom and take notes and pour out half the beer," she says. "I was in full control."
For their part, the bartenders deny boozing. Mike Kirby and Ed Niec say they were downing water and juice. McCullough clings to a drinker's best alibi: "I was so hung over, I couldn't even put one down that day."
If the cops' allegations were true, it would seem that they had enough evidence to nail all three bartenders. But a week later, Guerra and Riley returned to Browns Stadium for one of the season's toughest tickets, versus the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
Why a second stakeout? Ken Ilg, who runs the bartenders' union, says a Restaurant Associates official told him that the officers asked to go back so they could investigate a possible ecstasy ring.
It would seem rather implausible that the club level, home to 60-year-old bankers and their clients, would be the setting for an "E" ring. Though a Dewars ring seems possible, this is decidedly not the rave crowd. But police won't talk about their suspicions. Guerra, who works on a drug task force, says only that "it's an ongoing investigation." The Browns and Restaurant Associates declined interview requests from Scene.
But the bartenders aren't buying it at all. They nurse suspicions that they were punked by cops who wanted to play VIP -- and needed drinking bartenders and CEO ecstasy rings to scam additional work at Browns Stadium.
"They're going to want to come up with some kind of story, so they can get called back and watch the Browns game, drink at the club lounge, and have a good time," McCullough says.
Adds Kirby, "The fans and the game and the crowd -- who wouldn't love to be at the Browns game?"
Riley sent her report to Browns security that Monday. Two days later, all three bartenders lost their jobs for drinking on duty.
They find it hypocritical that they were supposedly busted for drinking on duty by cops who were getting tipsy themselves. "When you're doing a job, you shouldn't be drinking," says Niec. "These people were consuming alcohol throughout the day."
Now the bartenders are fighting back. In grievances filed by Ilg, the union complains that the company neglected to ask the bartenders for explanations before firing them. Ilg also accuses the company of union-busting; it so happens that two of the bartenders were on the union's negotiating team.
The union is still waiting to hear back from the National Labor Relations Board. In the meantime, the bartenders are left to look for new jobs for the next football season. Mike Kirby already has one in mind:
"Free Browns games, free alcohol . . . I need to become a cop, I guess."