Reinstated license still in jeopardy for Cooper

Cooper is thankful for letters and a petition written on his behalf.
Thursday, October 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:03 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The sign reading “No beer until we obtain a new liquor license” has faded and cracked since it was taped to the cooler at Cooper’s Landing four months ago, when owner Mike Cooper lost the license he held for 17 years.

The state’s Administrative Hearing Commission ordered the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control to reinstate his license in a decision issued last Thursday, but the sign is still there.

“I’m not going to take it down,” Cooper said. “Not until I obtain a new liquor license.”

That may take some time.

By law, the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco has 30 days to decide to appeal the commission’s decision. If it decides to do so, the case would go to the circuit court of Boone or Cole County, and could be taken all the way to the state Supreme Court.

Division state supervisor Keith Fuller, who will make the decision on the appeal, said he has not yet reviewed the ruling, but said he expected his decision would not take the full 30 days.

Although he wouldn’t elaborate on the circumstances under which he would choose to appeal the ruling, Fuller said if the commission’s decision raises issues affecting public policy or departmental procedures, he would have to consider whether an appeal would be the best means to address those issues.

“There’s a whole bunch of legal areas and impact areas that have to be considered before the decision to appeal or not can be made,” said Lori Baskins, deputy supervisor. She said the decision’s legal impact on the division or the state in general would be of particular concern to Fuller.

Kurt Schaefer, former assistant attorney general representing the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control said appealing the decision could be risky for the division because Administrative Hearing Commission decisions are not binding case law, while court decisions have a broader impact.

“Once you take something up to the circuit court and you get their ruling, if the court finds the same thing wrong, you kind of make that known more widely, and that’s always a problem,” Schaefer said.

The alcohol division decided not to renew Cooper’s license in June when it discovered he had pleaded guilty to a felony drug possession charge in 1993. Fuller charged that Cooper’s criminal record, combined with his failure to report his criminal record on each of his subsequent license renewal applications, illustrated Cooper’s lack of “good moral character” — which the law says would keep him from holding a liquor license.

He also cited Cooper for failing to make “full, true and complete answers” on his license applications.

Cooper appealed the decision to the Administrative Hearing Commission in July, and the case stirred up an outpouring of support. More than 40 people sent letters to Fuller in Cooper’s defense, and more than 300 signatures have been collected on a petition asking Gov. Bob Holden to grant Cooper executive clemency for the 1993 charge.

In its 30-page ruling, the Administrative Hearing commission said Cooper’s willingness to accept responsibility for his criminal past and the testimony of many witnesses holding responsible positions in governmental and private organizations during the August hearing showed Cooper “is of good moral character now.”

The commission concluded that the alcohol division’s renewal application is “confusing to a lay person” and that Cooper had the sincere belief that his record had been cleared. Finally, they said the statute of limitations for Cooper’s offenses had already passed.

Cooper’s attorney, Brian Gepford, said he hopes the division will not appeal. He said businesses cited for other violations, such as serving liquor to minors or having gambling devices on the premises, are generally only fined or have their licenses suspended for a very brief time.

“He has already been disciplined far greater than most,” Gepford said.

The loss of his liquor license during the peak-season summer months has created a financial strain for Cooper, and in September he put the property up for sale. Although he may still sell the Landing if he can find the right buyer, he said the community support he has received has overwhelmed him.

“Before all this happened, I didn’t really realize how much people appreciated Cooper’s Landing,” he said. “It makes me feel that what I’m doing is worthwhile, and I feel more obligated than ever to make improvements here.”

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