Lime Lite liquor license held by Fresno County DA challenger heats up race

The Fresno BeeJanuary 29, 2014 

For more than two years, Fresno County District Attorney candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp broke state law because she held a liquor license for a popular northwest Fresno restaurant while being a law enforcement official.

Even Smittcamp admits as much.

"That appears to be the law," she said.

But Smittcamp also pointed out that the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control approved her liquor license application for The Lime Lite restaurant on Shaw Avenue just west of Fig Garden Village. The ABC application from September 2011 lists her prosecutor's job, though she was on leave at the time.

In addition, Smittcamp said, her boss then -- District Attorney Elizabeth Egan -- was aware of her plans. Egan, Smittcamp said, had her chief deputy look into the legality, and he subsequently said to "go ahead."

"My affiliation to The Lime Lite was never a secret to my family or friends or anybody who I worked with," Smittcamp said. Egan "gave me permission to do it."

Now Egan, who is being challenged by Smittcamp in the district attorney's race, is complaining about the liquor license.

The dispute ramps up the rhetoric in what figures to be a heated race between former colleagues.

For more than a dozen years, Smittcamp was a Fresno County prosecutor. Egan became her boss when she was elected in 2002. Smittcamp took leave from the District Attorney's Office starting in 2010, returned in late 2011 but resigned last August to run against Egan.

Smittcamp got involved with the restaurant during her leave. She not only holds The Lime Lite's liquor license, but is the majority owner and managing member of the limited liability company that owns The Lime Lite. She said she took on those roles to help mentor her brother-in-law.

But the Egan campaign maintains that Smittcamp made the ABC application and represented herself as the restaurant's new top manager because her brother-in-law's past legal troubles were a liability. After Smittcamp announced her candidacy, Egan hired a Southern California attorney to research Smittcamp's role in The Lime Lite.

Steven Baric, the Irvine attorney who did the research for Egan, says in a memo to the campaign that Smittcamp violated the California Code of Regulations by holding the liquor license while she was employed by the DA's Office.

State law says law enforcement officials cannot hold a liquor license in the county where they work because they could be involved with enforcing state liquor laws. ABC spokesman John Carr said a deputy district attorney is considered a law enforcement position.

Baric also says Smittcamp violated the state's Business and Professions Code by "failing to oversee the sale of liquor on the premises under the liquor license" and "misrepresented herself as the 'managing member' of the restaurant ... and sole owner," which also violated the Business and Professions Code.

In an email, the ABC's Carr -- not speaking specifically to the Egan-Smittcamp dispute -- said the holder of a liquor license is responsible "for all aspects of the entire operation," but is not required to be on-site.

Carr also said the liquor-license holder and managing member of the business -- be they one person or two -- must ensure compliance with state ABC laws and regulations. The penalty for violating the laws can range from fines to suspension or revocation of the liquor license.

"Nobody in Fresno believes that Lisa Smittcamp actually runs The Lime Lite," said Dave Gilliard, Egan's consultant. Yet now, he said, she's making "such a preposterous claim."

Smittcamp denied the Egan campaign's allegations that she violated any state statutes on overseeing liquor sales or not being The Lime Lite's managing member.

"Where are the facts to support those allegations?" she asked.

As for holding the liquor license, Smittcamp said she had no idea she was in violation of the law, and said that both the state agency that oversees licensing and Egan's office never flagged her.

"I think it was an error," she said. "It was just an error. And I think the most important thing for me ... is that I wasn't trying to hide it."

The ABC's Carr said his department "may have been in error" in approving Smittcamp's liquor license.

"If she was an employee of the District Attorney's Office when she applied for the license, then ABC should not have issued the license," he wrote.

Egan said Smittcamp has a faulty memory. Her office, she said, never weighed in on the legality of the liquor license, and added that it was up to Smittcamp to do due legal diligence in getting the license.

"We don't give people legal advice," Egan said. "We don't give anybody legal advice. We prosecute."

But Smittcamp showed The Bee text messages between her and Egan that indicate there was some communication about The Lime Lite's liquor license.

Gilliard, who was emailed a copy of the text message's contents, said Egan "does not recall the text, but in it she makes no commitment about the legality of what Lisa was planning."

Bob Smittcamp's idea to buy The Lime Lite

Lisa Smittcamp said that plan took shape in 2011 when her father-in-law, prominent Fresno businessman Bob Smittcamp, came up with the idea of buying The Lime Lite and having his youngest son, Brandon, own and operate it.

"Bob was the one who thought The Lime Lite would be a great purchase," Lisa Smittcamp said. "I don't think it was Brandon's dream. It was my suggestion that we make Brandon earn it, instead of just buying it and giving it to him."

At the time, Lisa Smittcamp said, Brandon had only been a bartender and a waiter, and he was a recent college graduate. He had no managerial experience.

So initial ownership papers -- filed Sept. 6, 2011 -- that indicated Brandon Smittcamp would own the restaurant were changed, Lisa Smittcamp said. The change came on Sept. 29, according to state documents.

At that time, Lisa Smittcamp said she became 59% owner. The other partners: her husband, Brent, and Bob Smittcamp's daughter, Lisa Goeas, each 15%; The Lime Lite's former owners, George and Cathy Milutinovich, each 5%; and Bob Smittcamp, 1%.

Lisa Smittcamp said she agreed to be Brandon Smittcamp's mentor and to be the restaurant's managing partner.

"My husband and I have had a very active role in The Lime Lite," she said. "I put a lot of exhausting hours in The Lime Lite."

Now, she said, the business is in the process of a major ownership overhaul. Lisa and Brent Smittcamp, as well as George and Cathy Milutinovich, will no longer hold any ownership interest. Brandon Smittcamp, who Lisa Smittcamp said has learned and is ready to take the next step, will assume some or most of the restaurant's ownership.

The liquor license, she said, will move to either Bob Smittcamp or Brandon Smittcamp.

"We have mentored Brandon to the point that he has earned it now, to where he has proven to himself and to us and to his father that he can manage this restaurant," she said.

Egan campaign takes a different view

Egan and her campaign tell a different tale.

It starts with Brandon Smittcamp's 2009 arrest, when Fresno police discovered he was driving without a license and in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and 1,000 Vicodin pills.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Denise Whitehead eventually sentenced Brandon Smittcamp to two years of probation, 40 hours of community service and a drug treatment program. He successfully completed the program and his probation and got the conviction removed from his record.

Because Brandon Smittcamp didn't have the felony conviction on his record, he wasn't disqualified from holding a state liquor license. Even Baric, the attorney retained by Egan, says so in his memo.

Still, Egan and her campaign maintain Lisa Smittcamp "acted as a straw man all along, attempting to hide Brandon's true role, and her own, from the (California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control), her own employer, her own friends and the public," Gilliard said.

As further proof, in emails produced by the Egan campaign dated November 2011, Lisa Smittcamp wrote to another county employee that her brother-in-law was buying The Lime Lite.

Smittcamp said the charge was nothing more than an attempt to smear the name of her entire family -- patriarch Bob Smittcamp included. Brandon Smittcamp, she said, was "never ineligible to be the owner or hold the liquor license, because he was already completed with his probation and he was not a convicted felon."

And that, Smittcamp said, makes the whole premise of Egan's argument -- that she was a straw man to hold the liquor license -- null and void.

When all this was happening, Lisa Smittcamp was on leave from her job as a Fresno County prosecutor.

She filed her ABC application on Sept. 29, 2011. In it, Smittcamp lists her occupation as Fresno County prosecutor on leave from the District Attorney's Office.

Trail of text messages

The application -- which was subsequently approved by the ABC -- was filed weeks after Smittcamp had the text message exchange with Egan.

"I have a confidential question to ask you re my employment," Smittcamp wrote in a text message to Egan that she shared with The Bee. "My family is in the process of purchasing a restaurant here in town of which Brent & I will be part/silent owners. Is there anything prohibiting me from being the owner of the liquor license? If you don't know the answer -- who should I call?"

Egan responded in part: "Don't believe so. I'll check discreetly ..."

Smittcamp said she then received a call from Kelly Keenan, Fresno County's chief assistant district attorney, who said there was nothing to prevent her from getting the liquor license and to "go ahead."

A few days later, Egan sent Smittcamp a text message that started: "I understand Kelly got w you on your question."

Smittcamp said the exchange shows that Egan is the one at fault in the incident.

"I think it's unfortunate that the district attorney of Fresno County did not provide me, as her employee, an accurate statement of the law," Smittcamp said. "I called and asked for her permission, basically."

Gilliard, Egan's consultant, dismissed the text messages.

"Elizabeth never spoke to Lisa about her managing The Lime Lite or holding the (liquor) license," he said. "She does not recall the text, but in it she makes no commitment about the legality of what Lisa was planning, and since Lisa only identified herself as a 'part/silent' owner, she was purposefully misleading Elizabeth about the role she was claiming to have on her official application and LLC documents."

Smittcamp portrayed her relationship with Egan at the time as good, and said she intended to quit the DA's Office in 2010 for family reasons. Egan, she said, tore up her letter of resignation and insisted she take a leave instead -- which Smittcamp took as a vote of confidence.

But any camaraderie now seems gone -- and it is still more than four months until Election Day, June 3.

Egan said it is not her job to deal with personal issues -- unless it affects an employee's work duties.

"She really thinks I am much more involved in her life than I ever was," Egan said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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