Forest Park Tap Room, 7321 Madison St. | File photo

A public hearing of the Forest Park Liquor Commission on June 8 to decide if the Forest Park Tap Room, 7321 Madison St., would get its liquor license renewed was halted about an hour and a half into the proceedings after a court reporter took issue with a Forest Park Review reporter recording the meeting.

The court reporter alleged the audio recording of the meeting was improper, saying it was a court proceeding and that she was the only one allowed to make a record of the meeting. Tap Room attorney Mark Johnson argued the proceedings were compromised, claiming that the reporter’s recording might have picked up his private conversations with his client.

Village Attorney Sharon O’Shea told the reporter he had to delete the recording in full view of the court reporter or the village would pursue litigation against Growing Community Media to the fullest extent of the law. The reporter complied, and afterword, attorneys from both sides agreed to scrap the entire hearing and start from scratch on June 23 at 10 a.m.

Forest Park’s village municipal code makes no reference to any kind of limits on recording public meetings, including those of the liquor commission. No statement was made before the meeting began suggesting that recording was prohibited.

Dan Haley, publisher of the Review, later told Mayor Rory Hoskins that the paper would consult its attorney and noted it was common practice these days for reporters to record meetings on smart phones in order to get more accurate quotations.

Don Craven, general counsel to the Illinois Press Association and the Review’s legal adviser in such matters, said, “Until the village adopts such an ordinance limiting recording a public meeting, it had no grounds to end the meeting or to demand the reporter delete the recording.”

“The confusion that led to this hearing being cancelled and rescheduled is in no way the fault of the Forest Park Review or its reporter,” said Haley. “I’m troubled that our reporter was put in this awkward position as we simply worked to report on a public hearing about a matter of considerable local interest.”

The Review’s attempts to reach O’Shea for comment were unsuccessful. Late Monday Hoskins texted this statement to the Review: “Our experienced court reporter raised a concern about your reporter holding a recording device. After speaking with her, we believe Igor’s (Studenkov’s) proximity to the defendants and the likelihood that he recorded privileged conversation is what concerned her. The idea that the privileged communications may have been recorded was also troubling for the attorney representing the Forest Park Tap Room.”

The Tap Room is co-owned by brothers Lance and Hansel Law, who have also owned Berwyn Tap Room, 6330 16th St., since 2019. Since it opened in Forest Park on Oct. 23, 2020, the bar has faced multiple complaints about loud music, fights and violating COVID-19 mitigation limits in place at the time. Those alleged actions resulted in three liquor license suspensions. In August 2021, Hoskins, who serves as the Forest Park liquor commissioner, pulled the license after the bar allegedly stayed open past the time limits in place at the time. The Illinois State Liquor Control Commission overruled Hoskins, finding that there was no evidence the bar was selling liquor after hours.

The hearing last week, already delayed previously, was convened in response to Forest Park Police Chief Kevin Gross filing a complaint asking Hoskins not to renew Tap Room’s liquor license. He cited the aforementioned complaints, as well as the brothers allegedly lying to the village on multiple occasions. While the owners said they never had any issues at Berwyn Tap Room, the complaint cited a subsequent Forest Park Review investigation which uncovered numerous police calls and a liquor license suspension in Berwyn to prove otherwise.

Much of the testimony reflected what was stated in the complaint. Maria Maxham, a village commissioner and former Review editor, testified about her Tap Room-related coverage and how she obtained the Berwyn police reports. Johnson objected to the testimony, arguing that what happened in Berwyn wasn’t relevant to the proceedings — a point on which Hoskin overruled him.

“[Berwyn Tap Room] is a separate entity owned by my clients that is located in Berwyn,” Johnson said.  “This has no bearing nor relevance to these proceedings.”

Tim Gillian, who served as Forest Park village administrator until June 2021, testified that he, Hoskins, then Police Chief Thomas Aftanas, and other officials met with the Law brothers on March 11, 2021 to discuss complaints, and the owners seemed receptive.

“I do remember absolutely letting the Law brothers know that the village wanted this to work,” Gillian said. “The village was looking to be a good neighbor and good partner with what we hoped would be a good business.” 

O’Shea also had Kevin Harnett, owner of Zimmerman-Harnett Funeral Home, 7319 Madison St., testify. The funeral home shares a wall with the building that houses the Tap Room. Harnett testified that, since the bar opened, there have been regular instances of “public urination, vomiting, open alcohol in plastic cups” and that, because people smoked by the doors, “the inside of my funeral home would smell like smoke” in the morning. He testified that he never had such issues with Healy’s Westside, which previously occupied the space.

Harnett said he tried to reach out to the Law brothers using the phone number provided by building landlord Mark Hosty. He said he spoke to one of the brothers —  Harnett said he wasn’t sure which — and appealed to the fact that he and the brothers attended the same seminary and asked them to show kindness and compassion. While the brother who spoke to Harnett sounded receptive, he said that “things quickly deteriorated,” becoming “absolutely unbearable” in February 2021.

“When I arrived at the funeral home in the morning, there was vomit over my front door, broken glass, full bottles of liquor, cigarette butts everywhere. You would smell the urine everywhere,” he said. “There sometimes would be cars that have done burnouts and left huge tire marks, so it would look like BMX tracks after the race.”

Johnson pressed Harnett on whether he could prove that any instances of urination and other issues were caused by people leaving the Tap Room. The funeral director responded that he witnessed it firsthand at least 10 times and photographed the aftermath with his phone.

During the proceedings, the Review reporter was sitting in a chair behind the defendants’ table and used the Samsung Recorder app on his phone to make an audio recording of the proceedings, pausing the recording during breaks in the testimony.

Hoskins called a 10-minute recess about an hour and a half into the meeting. After the reporter paused the recording, O’Shea called him outside, where she and the court reporter confronted him about the recording issue. Johnson claimed that this could be cause for a mistrial, both because the meeting was recorded at all and because the recorder might have picked up privileged conversations between him and his clients.

After a discussion between the attorneys and Hoskins — during which the reporter was asked not to do anything to the phone — the parties demanded the reporter destroy the recording in the full view of Gross and the court reporter. The reporter was also told to testify under oath that no other copies of the recording exist. The court reporter said she deleted the transcription all the way up to when the hearing came back in session.