Last month's 50th anniversary celebration for Tootsie's Orchid Lounge has stirred up a stink, with some tourists now saying the big bash was just a bash for their cash.more>>
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tootsie's Orchid Lounge may be the most-famous honky-tonk in America.
Located on Nashville's Lower Broadway, the bar packs in the tourists, serving up booze, music and a history of the Opry stars who once bellied up to the bar.
But a big, star-studded celebration this weekend -- celebrating Tootsie's 50th anniversary --comes at a time that the Music City landmark faces accusations of out-of-control bouncers beating up tourists.
Our NewsChannel 5 investigation also discovered that the folks who run the bar are convicted felons who've got their own shady past.
"We're probably the largest tourist attraction in this area," owner Steve Smith told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Smith -- whose half-brother John Taylor is listed as general manager and appears to oversee the bar's day-to-day operations -- has controlled Tootsie's since the mid-90s.
"If we didn't have such a great establishment," he insisted, "we wouldn't be backed by these famous country music artists that come in here."
But for some, Tootsie's has another kind of reputation.
"The atmosphere is fun, but it can get out of control real fast," one former patron said.
That man and others have complained about leaving Tootsie's with some ugly souvenirs. In fact, three recent lawsuits claim that Tootsie's hires employees who lack training, have felony convictions, putting tourists "in danger of being assaulted."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Smith, "Do you hire convicted felons?"
"No," he replied.
"You don't?" we asked.
That's when Smith changed his story. "I don't do the hiring here -- so I can't say that. I'm not even going to go there."
But surveillance video shows an incident where Tootsie's settled a lawsuit filed by a tourist. That tourist claimed, after he got into an argument with a bartender, bouncers chased him down the street, ending in a "brutal assault."
One of the employees, John Robert Martinez, is a convicted felon who had stabbed two men during an argument.
"That is part of the lawsuit -- I can't talk to you about any of that," Smith said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates showed him Martinez's police mugshot and asked if he had ever seen it.
"Look here, I said I can't talk about that," he answered.
Then, there's the man we found working as the bar's night manager.
Michael Eugene Seay -- a childhood friend of Smith's -- was released two years ago from a Georgia prison after serving a 20-year sentence for a string of violent store robberies. Before that, he also served time behind bars in Tennessee.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates found a police report and beer board inspections that list Seay as a manager.
After the interview, we noticed that a sign behind the bar instructed Tootsie's employees to contact Seay or Smith's son if they were going to be absent from work.
Still, the Tootsie's owner insisted.
"He's not a manager, He's a barback," Smith said, referring to someone who helps the bartender and keeps the facility stocked.
In addition, our investigation found even more convicted felons on the Tootsie's payroll.
"I can't answer none of them questions about my personal staff," Smith said, waving off the question. "Not going to, not going to, not going to answer them questions. Sorry."
In fact, questions have swirled around the Tootsie's operators ever since Smith got into a dispute with a business partner back in 1994.
Court documents claim that, at one point, Smith pulled up to Tootsie's in a limo with several other men, stormed inside and announced "a corporate takeover." The bar manager swore one man patted a handgun, warning "You don't wanna mess with us."
A year later, that man shot and killed a roommate who had crossed him.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates told Smith that all of these questions appear to reflect on his bar's reputation.
"I think we've got a great reputation," he declared.
Over the years, Smith has told regulators that he was convicted of "tax evasion" back in the 80s.
But our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Smith and his half-brother were implicated in a major criminal conspiracy involving some rather unsavory characters.
"You and your brother got involved with the Mafia?" we asked.
"I don't know anything about no Mafia in New York. I've never been in the Mafia in New York. And at this point, I've got to go," Smith answered.
What the Tootsie's owner did not want to discuss was a 1986 federal indictment out of New York accusing Smith and his brother, John Taylor, of engaging in a conspiracy to embezzle $1.8 million dollars in securities.
As part of a plea bargain, Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service. His brother pleaded guilty to the same charge, as well as bank larceny. He also pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in a separate matter involving kickbacks on certain stock transactions.
Both men were sentenced to probation.
At a sentencing hearing for a codefendant, court transcripts show, the judge was told that the accomplice understood that "the people who eventually took the stocks and cashed the checks were involved in organized crime."
"I don't know anything about that," Smith claimed, as he got up and prepared to walk out of the interview.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates also discovered that Taylor ending up testifying against several mob figures in a money-laundering trial in Florida.
There, transcripts show, he admitted that he'd also been given immunity for an interstate stolen car ring, adding "I had nothing to do with that," but "my brother was involved in it."
Smith claimed to know nothing about any such testimony.
"I don't know anything about that, buddy," Smith said. "I'm sorry -- never heard of that."
"You've never heard of that?"
Smith said no.
We pointed out, "You were a defendant in New York where there was all sorts of testimony."
"I got convicted in New York for a tax issue -- that's it," Smith said.
"As part of a stock fraud scheme," we noted.
"Thank you, sir."
Add to that, court transcripts show that there was also testimony suggesting that Taylor owned a nightclub in Brooklyn where "bodyguards who worked there" took a co-defendant to the basement, "stripped him," then threatened him and his family.
Smith insisted, "You all are fabrilizing (sic) stuff. Never heard of that. I'm sorry. I've never heard of that."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates pointed out that Smith had been a defendant in that criminal case.
"You've got the wrong guy, buddy, is all I can tell you," he responded. "You've got the wrong guy."
As to whether the Tootsie's owner has learned any lessons about associating with the wrong people, Smith refused to say and walked out of the interview.
Later, Smith's lawyer told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that "you appeared to have done your homework," although he would not say how Mr. Smith and Taylor came in contact with the Mafia or any Mafia associates.
Still, he said that, since they turned on their mob associates in the late 80s, they've lived clean lives here in Tennessee.
The lawyer insisted that Tootsie's security has never used more force than necessary.