Partners for Pay

Young women taxi-dance for dollars, at the price of innocence lost

"A guy who said he was a Houston Post reporter tried to do a story on me once," Austin told the Press reporter in the back-room session. "I got him fired." He did not elaborate, and former employees of that paper who were contacted could recall no such incident.

"We have no problems here," he adds. "There are tons of HPD officers here, including this gentleman right here." He pointed to his right, to a seated man who claimed to be an HPD employee.

"I've gotten no complaints from the police nor the mayor [about my clubs]," he said again, before telling the bouncers to remove the reporter.

There have been complaints, and even lawsuits, against the clubs.
Two suits stemmed from the 1992 accident that killed motorists Robali and Lisa Skok, both 19. Relatives of Robali filed a suit accusing Fiesta of gross negligence for allegedly allowing the underaged woman to get drunk in the club and cause the wreck.

Attorneys for the club fired back in legal documents that denied any wrongdoing, saying the woman could have become intoxicated in the 90-minute span between her departure from the club and the fatal accident with Skok. Robali caused her own intoxication, they said.

Skok's relatives also sued the club, repeating the allegations and saying that negligence of the club caused their daughter's death. Neither case came to trial, and it was unclear from court records if there had been any settlements.

Austin, before he orders a reporter removed from Fiesta, says, "I'm a retired Houston police officer and want no stories written about my clubs."

City and county officials as well as the Houston Sports Authority, concerned about Houston's national image, want the Port Authority to replace its blighted building with a park entrance to the baseball stadium under construction downtown.

Concerns about image, however, are lacking when it comes to other next-door neighbors of the stadium -- the La Luna and Fiesta taxi-dancing clubs. In fact, at the time the Houston Press began making inquiries, all indications were that Houston officials showed little interest of any kind in the allegations of underaged drinking and girls and women dancing for dollars at such clubs.

May and some others in the community believe the inaction could stem from the persistent rumors about links between police and the clubs, possibly started by Austin's own fondness for referring to his past occupation.

"Since everyone thinks that [La Luna and Fiesta] are owned by cops, no one will speak out against them for fear of retaliation," May says. Parents of the girls, she says, are terrified of the police and have no one else to turn to with their problems.

She said she complained about the clubs in a call to the HPD Magnolia substation, and was referred to the Southeast substation. An officer there relayed her to the vice division, where she said an officer told her he knew the owners of La Luna and Fiesta, and couldn't promise her anything, but he would look into it.

That was in May. She did not hear back from them until late June, when she said they reported that they saw no one younger than 14 years old. An officer wondered why she was so upset, she said, because young females taxi dancing was something happening "all over town."

May turned her efforts to the office of Mayor Lee Brown, who campaigned on the theme of helping Houston's youth. She voiced her concerns to a member of the mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council. The member brought it to Brown's attention and received assurances he would take care of it.

A spokesperson for the mayor said that Brown looked into the clubs to see if any member of the HPD had a partnership with La Luna and Fiesta. According to the documents accessible to him, Brown determined that the accusations were unfounded.

After inquiries by the Houston Press and after May convened a recent meeting with various community officials to press her case, police and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said they had started an investigation into reports of underaged drinking and dancing at the clubs.

Representatives of the police and mayor's office said they would not discuss details of the investigation, and said they were unaware of any past complaints against the clubs.

"What I think is mind-boggling is that the mayor campaigned on our city's youth and is allowing this type of activity to go on under his nose," says Gasper Mir, an adviser and board member of El Centro de Corazón.

"I think this is devastating to our young Hispanic women and to our Hispanic community as a whole," says Mir. "I wouldn't expect it to happen here in Houston. Maybe in a Third World country, but not in Houston, Texas."

According to a spokesperson from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, both La Luna and Fiesta have wine and beer permits. There are no laws preventing minors from entering establishments that serve alcohol, although no one under 21 years old is allowed to drink alcohol.

However, a city of Houston ordinance requires that customers be at least 18 years old to attend dance halls such as La Luna and Fiesta Ballroom, unless the minor is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

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