It’s not hard to see why the Libertine club in Las Vegas has been raising some eyebrows since it opened in February. It’s an adult club that boasts, among other things, a bondage studio, various fetish nights and a boutique that sells toys hard to describe in detail in a mainstream newspaper.
The club’s owner, Edward Hurt, said the club attracts hundreds of people who are interested in “alternative lifestyles.” Hurt said he offers customers a safe haven where they can freely express their sexuality.
However, the club also has attracted the attention of the Clark County district attorney’s office, the county’s code enforcement officers and Las Vegas police.
“If people don’t understand or accept something, then they tend to think it’s wrong, corrupt,” Hurt said.
The district attorney’s office, which is trying to close the Libertine, filed a lawsuit in April that claims the club lacks a business license and is operating as an illegal sex club. County lawyers also have argued in a court document that the Libertine’s customers “are encouraged to engage in dangerous sexual practices.”
Hurt said the county wouldn’t be trying to close him down if he were running a mainstream business like a sporting goods store. He claimed the county is trampling on his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and expression.
One of the club’s biggest opponents is its next-door neighbor. The club is on Pecos Road near Sunset Road in an area with small businesses, storage facilities and several vacant offices. Its neighbor is Studio 34 Dance Academy, a children’s dance studio, and the two businesses share a parking lot and sidewalk.
The dance studio’s owner, Amber Sorgato, has complained that the Libertine’s patrons are out in the open for the entire world to see — including parents and children who go to her studio.
According to a court document, Sorgato claims women dressed in corsets and tights have pranced in front of her dance studio and used its windows as mirrors to fix their outfits.
In one instance, according to the document, a 7-year-old from the dance studio wandered accidentally into the Libertine because the student mistakenly believed the sex clothes on the wall of the club were dance clothes.
Hurt adamantly denies that ever happened.
Sorgato complained to the county, Las Vegas police and County Commissioner Rory Reid, but she refused to comment when contacted by the Review-Journal.
Attorney Allen Lichtenstein, who is representing the Libertine with attorney Conrad Claus, said there’s a simple reason the club doesn’t have a business license: The county isn’t playing fair.
Lichtenstein said the club applied for a business license on Feb. 8. He said the county’s zoning department approved the application on Feb. 29, but the Libertine still needed approval from the Fire Department before it was granted a license.
But strange things started happening, Lichtenstein said. On March 5, agents from the business license department went to the Libertine and served a cease-and-desist order on Hurt and the club. However, the order named the landlord, Biloxi Investments, and its manager, Diane Casano — not Hurt and the Libertine.
Then on April 11, the 45-day deadline for the county to act on a business license application passed without the county taking action on the Libertine’s license, Lichtenstein said. That meant the county could not reject the application, the lawyer said. But the county denies it missed the deadline.
Claus, who is handling the case for free, criticized the county for cracking down on a business it deems unsavory.
“The game the county is playing is very much in line with its not-so-hidden agenda,” he said.
However, county officials argue that they are operating by the book. In court documents, Deputy District Attorney Robert Warhola called the Libertine an illegal sex club. The county code defines a “sex club” as a business where wife swappers, swingers or others can go, pay a fee and engage in or view consensual sexual activity.
On its license application, the Libertine is described as a “motion picture” or film production company. But Warhola argued that the club is really a sex club with a functional dungeon and other racy activities.
According to a report by the business license department, an investigator determined that the Libertine wasn’t intending to operate as a motion picture studio but as an adult business. The report also showed that the department’s manager and assistant manager recommended that the club be denied a license on April 11, which was within the 45-day period.
Jacqueline Holloway, director of the business license department, recommended that the club be denied a license on April 14, the report showed.
But to Hurt, who has sunk at least $150,000 into the club and spent months perfecting it, the license denial has as much to do with violations of his First Amendment rights as with code violations.
He sums up his argument simply: “Freedom. It’s about freedom of speech. Ultimately, I believe we have something to offer the community.”
Disputes between sex-oriented businesses and the county are nothing new. In 2002, the county enacted a zone ordinance defining and prohibiting sex clubs. The county is currently in a legal fight with a reputed “swingers” club in Las Vegas, The World Famous Green Door.
Lichtenstein, who also represents the Green Door, said the county’s ordinance is so vague as to make it unconstitutional. By the county’s definition, he said, a motel or hotel could just as easily be considered a sex club.
“Why aren’t they going after Caesars?” he asked.
He said the Libertine also operates as a movie and photography studio, just not a traditional one.
The Libertine’s situation is made more complicated because its landlords are Biloxi Investments and Terry Gordon, the reputed “king of tease.” Gordon also is the landlord for the Green Door. His brother, Jack Gordon, notoriously tried to bribe Reid’s father, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, in 1978 when Harry Reid was the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission.
Terry Gordon said businesses like the Libertine are easy targets for county officials because sex-oriented businesses are generally unpopular. Gordon is also named in the county’s complaint.
He said the county is engaging in harassment. What consenting adults do in private shouldn’t be the government’s business, he argued.
Hurt said he is, in a way, being punished for the sins of previous tenants. For example, county officials claim the Libertine was operating last year because they found an ad for a club at the same location in an October 2007 issue of the alternative weekly Las Vegas CityLife. But Hurt said he had nothing to do with that club, called IBC.
The Libertine owner said he’s trying to be a good neighbor. The club has adjusted its hours on Saturdays so that it opens when the dance studio closes. Saturdays are busy days for both businesses.
Hurt said he wants to be sensitive to his neighbor’s concerns.
The owner, who is married and has a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, said his children are still too young to understand what he does for a living. Although he let them help paint the club when it was under construction, he won’t let them enter it now.
“Would we let them gallop through?” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Contact reporter David Kihara at dkihara @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.