Exclusive: Keg owner may appeal Evanston liquor board decision

Marshall Cohen

The owner of The Keg of Evanston is mulling over appealing the city’s decision to revoke his liquor license, he told The Daily on Thursday in an exclusive interview, his first since the mayor issued her decision.

After the Jan. 27 hearing of the city’s Liquor Control Review Board, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl decided three days later to revoke the liquor license of The Keg, 810 Grove St. The Evanston Police Department served the revocation order to owner Tom Migon earlier that morning.

“It was a sad day, ” Migon told The Daily. “The Keg was a part of my life for 19 years. It was how I put food on my table at home. I’m married with two little girls.”

The city provided a list of 111 alcohol-related citations issued at the downtown bar since 2005 and said the establishment had a reputation of being a haven for underage drinking with lax ID enforcement.

More than a dozen people were cited at the bar for underage drinking after an EPD sweep of the premises last month. The student hotspot was shut down for seven days in 2005 after a homicide at the bar and was again closed for two days in 2010 when an underage patron was injured during a fight.

Migon and his attorney, Todd Stephens, said they repeatedly reached out to Tisdahl last week, hoping to secure a face-to-face meeting to discuss possible legal issues with her revocation order.

However, they received no response from the city and are currently weighing the merits of appealing her decision to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

Tisdahl told The Daily on Thursday she has never seen any of her decisions as liquor board commissioner appealed and declined to comment further.

“I can’t comment on anything to do with The Keg until it is resolved by the state liquor commission,” Tisdahl said. “I can’t discuss it – that’s what our lawyer said.”

Troubling tweets

During the liquor board hearing, city attorney Grant Farrar presented comments from online review site Yelp and screenshots from a Twitter account under the username @kegofevanston that he alleged was run by Migon.

One tweet read, “Tuesday equals booze day. IDs are optional. Kidding!”

Migon said at the hearing he had “no idea” who was responsible for the tweets.

“The Internet is just a part of life,” Migon told The Daily on Thursday. “Anyone with any intellect knows that you can’t believe most of the stuff you see online.”

His lawyer told the liquor board The Keg was not affiliated with the Twitter account.

“Any owner who has been here for 19 years would never put anything so unbelievably disturbing and inflammatory on a Twitter account,” Stephens said.

One day before the mayor issued her decision, The Daily reported allegations that a Northwestern student who graduated in June was behind the @kegofevanston account. In an anonymous interview with NU Intel last year, the then-senior said he thought the posts were “so outrageous” that “no one would think” it was actually connected to The Keg. The alumnus declined to comment to The Daily and the account was deleted the day of the hearing.

Tisdahl suggested at the hearing that the tweets were less important than the 111 alcohol-related citations. However, the issue resurfaced when the account was mentioned in her official decision, and the tweets were unequivocally attributed to The Keg.

“Group Exhibit 3 (the Twitter screenshots) offers incontrovertible proof that The Keg, through its use of social media, expressly incited, encouraged, and assisted underage patrons in coming to The Keg and consuming alcohol,” the order said.

Farrar approved Tisdahl’s written decision. His office repeatedly declined to clarify the “incontrovertible proof” phrasing and deferred to city spokesperson Eric Palmer, who also declined to comment earlier this week.

Migon said he was upset the order used such strong language to associate him with the satirical tweets.

“It was all over the media on all the news channels – all these quotes from that Twitter account that they used against me, even though I reiterated that I had nothing to do with it,” Migon told The Daily.

The city’s Liquor Control Review Board is a five-member advisory panel headed by Tisdahl, who exclusively holds decision-making powers. In conversations with The Daily, two members said they do not believe Migon was behind the tweets.

“Honestly, I don’t believe he had something to do with the account,” said liquor board member Marion Macbeth (Weinberg ‘73). “But that Twitter account had been up for a year and as a responsible business owner, he should know what is being said about his place. Did he have his head in the sand?”

Fellow liquor board member Dick Peach, who has known Migon since The Keg was a new establishment, said the bar’s owner is not technologically savvy.

“I don’t believe Tom actually did the Twitter account – I don’t think he knows how to even get a Twitter account,” Peach said. “But I can’t believe he didn’t know it existed. Somebody put up a phony Facebook page on me, and I knew about it in 12 hours.”

The other two liquor board members could not be reached for comment Thursday. Byron Wilson did not return a phone message and Patrick Hughes was unavailable due to business travel.

Grounds for appeal?

Migon’s attorney immediately objected when Farrar tried to introduce the tweets as evidence “on the grounds that they are hearsay,” Migon said. The city included the Twitter screenshots over his objection.

Furthermore, Migon said he and his attorney called Tisdahl after the hearing once they learned the Twitter account was student-run.

“But she didn’t take that into consideration and didn’t try to figure out who was behind it,” Migon said. “There was just no credible evidence linking me to the account.”

Peach said he was “surprised” when city attorney Farrar included the Twitter posts into the record and said it “muddied” the hearing.

“I don’t know why Grant brought that in,” Peach said. “I really don’t understand. I thought there was more than enough information on the table before that ever arrived.”

Several Chicago-area liquor law experts said the tweets could pose a problem for the city if Migon decides to appeal the decision.

Harlan Powell (Weinberg ’91) of Chicago-based Webster Powell, P.C., has specialized in hospitality and liquor law for 15 years. He said the city’s inclusion of the Twitter account as evidence was “problematic on a lot of fronts” and could raise some “intere
sting questions” before the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

“That’s classic hearsay,” Powell said. “It’s basically out-of-court statements where the truth of the matter is uncertain. And as a general proposition, that is not admissible in court because you cannot verify the authenticity or veracity of any of the statements.”

However, Evanston’s liquor board hearings are not held in civil or criminal courts. They are administrative hearings that commonly follow less stringent rules than official court proceedings.

“The local liquor control board has a lot of discretion regarding what evidence they choose to consider,” Powell said. “But while the rules may be relaxed, hearsay is always hearsay and that’s not information that should typically be relied upon for an order that essentially deprives someone of their livelihood.”

Majdi Hijazin, a managing partner at his law office in Oak Brook, Ill., specializes in municipal liquor matters and was recognized as one of the top Illinois attorneys by Super Lawyers magazine in 2011. After reviewing the mayor’s order, he said it was clear that part of her decision was based on the Yelp and Twitter posts.

“If the reason she revoked, even partly, is because of this Twitter account, then I think it’s wrong,” Hijazin said. “Maybe the decision to revoke was right, but what she used to base the decision might be wrong.”

Migon and his attorney said they are currently weighing the odds of a successful challenge to the mayor’s ruling. If they decide to appeal, they would file paperwork with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, and the hearing would probably take place in Chicago, Powell said. The case could be further appealed to the Circuit Court of Cook County and could possibly reach a state appellate court.

End of an era

Migon told The Daily a city employee who wished to remain anonymous informed him the liquor board initially voted, in a split decision, to recommend a 30-day suspension of The Keg’s liquor license. Migon alleged Tisdahl then decided on her own in favor of full revocation.

But both Peach and Macbeth said that alleged vote never occurred.

Peach said the mayor didn’t ask board members for a recommendation, and the panel did not discuss the hearing after it ended. He added that the mayor previously asked for on-the-record opinions from all members during the Tilted Kilt hearing last year.

During the hearing, Tisdahl and other board members pressed Migon to explain why the number of citations at his establishment was so high compared to other Evanston bars.

They repeatedly asked Migon what steps he has taken to prevent droves of NU students and other underage drinkers from entering the bar – especially after temporary shutdowns in 2005 and 2010.

“I honestly think Tisdahl might have given him a 30-day window to work with, had he put something, anything on the table,” Peach said.

Migon insisted Thursday he had offered several possible steps at the hearing to crack down on underage drinking. He said he would be willing to check three forms of identification, purchase state-of-the-art scanners or even change the name of the bar.

“We would even hire off-duty law enforcement officers from surrounding communities and have them working the door,” Migon told The Daily. “But the city wasn’t receptive to that.”

But those offers from Migon and his attorney were not enough to convince Tisdahl he was taking the issue seriously. In a statement issued with her official order, Tisdahl said underage drinking was a “serious matter that cannot be left unaddressed” and decided to revoke the bar’s liquor license.

Now that The Keg is closed, Migon said his group of roughly 30 employees rapidly went from having secure jobs to being out of work.

“They are now unemployed and are scrambling for work,” Migon said. “They have car payments to pay and these guys have been with me for 10 to 12 years, some since I first opened the doors to The Keg in 1993.”

Migon still owns two other bars in the area including Tommy’s On Higgins in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago and Tommy’s on Waukegan in Morton Grove, Ill. However, he said The Keg was his most profitable bar.

Nearly 20 years after first opening his business on Grove Street, Migon is now banned from ever obtaining a liquor license in Evanston again. Reflecting on his time, he thanked the of-age student population for their patronage and support.

“I feel like I provided a great venue for Northwestern and Kellogg students, after spending 19 years serving the University,” Migon said. “I’m the biggest Northwestern fan out there. My heart is broken.”

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