Lockn’ limbo: No news is good news for festival in ABC dispute

Lockn' Festival. Photo: Tom Daly Lockn’ Festival. Photo: Tom Daly

Headliners like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, and Widespread Panic are onboard for this year’s Lockn’ Music Festival in Nelson County over Labor Day weekend. Not onboard so far: the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control, which has not issued a decision from a May 16 hearing during which the agency sought to revoke Lockn’s license.

For Lockn’, however, no news is good news, as the delay virtually guarantees the event will go on with alcohol sales flowing. That’s because the festival gets to keep its license during the disciplinary and appeals processes. Local breweries like Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain Brewery and Starr Hill are lined up to sell beer at the September 4-7 event at Oak Ridge estate in Arrington, according to festival organizer Dave Frey. “It’s bizarre,” he said, that his license was renewed at the same time it’s threatened with revocation.

Last year, the festival ran afoul of undercover ABC agents armed with video cameras, who documented over a hundred alleged instances of drug use—mostly pot smoking—as well as a topless woman sunbathing. The ABC also cited Lockn’ for not having the lights bright enough during concerts for agents to discern possible illegal behavior. Not among the charges threatening the license of Lockn’s caterer, Best Beverage Catering: actual alcohol violations, such as underage drinking.

“It makes me furious,” said State Senator Creigh Deeds, whose district includes Nelson County.  “Lockn’ was in its first year and there were probably mistakes. But it’s a wonderful economic development for Nelson, and it seems like the ABC is trying to shut the thing down.”

While Nelson County Sheriff David Brooks said the festival took place with “little to no problem” in a post-fest press release, during a two-day disciplinary hearing, ABC agents testified that they expected a riot from the 25,000 who attended the festival, which is why they said didn’t make arrests. Officers from the Nelson County sheriff’s office made seven drug arrests without incident.

Captain Ron Robertson with the sheriff’s office described the behavior of the ABC special agent in charge of Lockn’, Matthew Layman, as aggressive and that of “a storm trooper or Gestapo agent” at the ABC hearing. And festival organizers testified that Layman said attendees would be “raped, murdered or stabbed.” Layman will not be working with the festival this year, said ABC spokesman Becky Gettings in an e-mail.

Although it’s been two months since the May 16 disciplinary hearing, hearing officer Clara Williamson has 90 days to make her decision, which puts it in mid-August, a couple of weeks before the festival. If the license is revoked, Lockn’ will appeal to the ABC board, and then to Nelson Circuit Court, said Lockn’ lawyer John Russell. “A pending appeal would delay revocation,” he said.

Williamson was the hearing officer at another high-profile disciplinary hearing in 2003, after plastered UVA students turned the Foxfield races into a drink-a-thon and the ABC went after the event’s license. Undercover agents went to the April steeplechase and filmed falling-down drunk young women. “It’s more of the same,” said Benjamin Dick, president of the Foxfield Racing Association. “They have this clandestine mindset. They’re supposed to be working with the licensee upfront, not back in the woods with hidden cameras. The fact the ABC is down there in Nelson County doing the same old stuff they’ve done for years is shocking to me.”

In the Foxfield case, Williamson ordered probation and an $8,000 fine, and was overruled by the ABC board, which revoked the license. Since then, says Dick, Foxfield has worked with county, university and state police, the ABC, and emergency responders to take a professional approach to dealing with UVA revelers.

Dick calls the ABC’s response to Lockn’ heavy-handed. “The organizers want to put on music,” he observed. “They’re not encouraging people to get trashed or smoke pot.”

He points out that following last year’s arrest of sparkling-water-carrying Elizabeth Daly at Harris Teeter, “The ABC is going through a major examination by the General Assembly. Legislators don’t want to see the days of Barney Fife. The ABC needs a new approach.”

When undercover ABC agents surrounded Daly’s vehicle in the Harris Teeter parking lot, believing her in underage possession of beer, one agent pulled a gun and another pounded on the SUV’s window with a flashlight.

Deeds carried legislation to fold the ABC’s law enforcement activities into the Virginia State Police. The bills didn’t pass, but Deeds still thinks it’s a good idea to put all state-agency law enforcement under the state police. “It would be more professional and I think morale could improve,” he said. “I think we can raise the standards.”

While Special Agent Layman is off the job, there are no guarantees the ABC’s approach will be less aggressive, and Lockn’ Lawyer Russell said he’s heard the ABC plans to be on hand again this year with its controversial, deluxe $750,000 mobile command unit and a magistrate to enforce the law, but the ABC declines to confirm that. “[W]e do not disclose tactical information that could compromise law enforcement efforts and public safety,” said ABC public relations specialist Kathleen Shaw.


Original headline: Lockn’ limbo: No decision yet on festival’s ABC license

Posted In:     News

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