THE EMBATTLED Greek Cusina closed its doors on January 1, after a year and a half of paying more than $200,000 for near-constant city-imposed fire inspections.
The establishment, recognizable for the large purple octopus perched outside, is now graced with other decorations to mark the occasion. Brightly colored paintings, including skulls, cover the Cusina's windows, saying, "Rest in Peace Greek Cusina," "50 less jobs," and a little more provocatively, "Randy Leonard is a KOOK."
Feisty owner Ted Papas would only say "an artist" did the drawings overnight. Papas says seeing his business close is "too much to bear," but that he isn't going "to stay a lame duck," and is now seriously considering filing a lawsuit in federal court against the person he squarely blames for the closure: City Commissioner Randy Leonard.
Leonard is in charge of the city's "HIT Squad," or Housing Interdiction Team. Made up of police officers and fire and building inspectors, the HIT Squad, without any written rules or oversight, randomly picks downtown businesses and inspects them for building and fire-code violations.
Saying only that he has "been talking to several attorneys," Papas says the HIT Squad has intentionally targeted him. Papas first came under the Squad's eye in May 2008, when the Greek Cusina was found to be in violation of 50 fire codes.
The city subsequently ordered the Greek Cusina to pay for a "fire watch," in which a fire inspector walks through the restaurant to make sure that there are no fires or fire risks, the fire sprinklers and extinguishers are working, and the exits are clear.
"It's not a typical fire watch," says Kim Kosmas, the fire bureau's public information officer, of what was done at Greek Cusina. What wasn't typical, Kosmas says, is that the fire watch was performed every half hour during business hours by private security firm Wackenhut. To pay for the inspection costs, Papas has shelled out $232,619, in addition to $14,834 for building code violation fines.
"How can any business sustain that?" asks Papas. "This expense was designed from the beginning to put me out of business."
The Greek Cusina's bank and lender, Capital Pacific Bank, made a settlement with Papas wherein he agreed to "surrender the property" to the bank, says Harlan Barcus, chief credit officer at Capital Pacific Bank.
Barcus would not confirm the amount of liens against the Greek Cusina, nor give any detailed information about the settlement, saying it was "proprietary." The records are not yet available from Multnomah County's records office.
Papas' troubles and threat to sue the city aren't the first time he has found himself in difficulty (and the subject of a news story). Last year, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) threatened to yank the Cusina's liquor license, but a final report issued by the OLCC and released in August 2009 concluded the license would be renewed, albeit with restrictions such as the prohibition to sell alcohol after midnight. In 2007, a man sued the Cusina for $600,000 for being beaten unconscious by three bouncers, but in May 2008 the case was dismissed. And, in perhaps Papas' most unpopular moment, he launched a campaign to ban Portland's beloved food carts in 2002.
If Papas does sue the city, it would make the HIT Squad the target of two lawsuits. Cindy's Adult Bookstore, which closed in 2007 after the HIT Squad ordered the building's electricity to be shut off, is seeking $950,000 from the city in federal court for a similar inspection crackdown ["Hitting Back," Hall Monitor, Dec 17, 2009].
"They are putting together their own blacklist of places they want to put out of business," says Randal Acker, the attorney for Cindy's owners. "[Greek Cusina] is on the same blacklist, and [Papas] has been treated the same as my clients."
Acker says the way the HIT Squad operates may be unconstitutional because business owners are not guaranteed due process, and also that the random, unannounced inspections amount to unreasonable searches and seizures.
Victor Calzaretta, an attorney who has represented Papas in the past against the OLCC, would not comment.
Leonard maintains that Papas has not been treated any differently than other business owners outside of code compliance, and isn't concerned about a lawsuit, saying, "The truth is the defense."
"If he wants to sue the city and have our various inspectors and examiners go through the details of what he has done, and how we have continued to work with him, I'm sure the city would happily show up in court to defend itself," Leonard says.