MSG Owner Demands Phone Records For State Liquor Investigator in Facial-Recognition Fight
Lawyers for James Dolan's company open a new front in a sprawling legal war over the use of facial recognition technology to ban lawyers from venues.
The owner of Madison Square Garden has filed a new legal action demanding access to the phone records of a New York state liquor investigator — the same state official who the company reportedly hired a private detective to tail.
In a petition filed Monday, attorneys for MSG Entertainment (MSGE) asked a New York judge to force Verizon to hand over cellphone records from Charles Stravalle, an investigator for the State Liquor Authority (SLA). The filing says the records will prove MSGE’s allegations that the SLA has unfairly targeted the company with a “sham” investigation over its controversial move to use facial-recognition technology to ban opposing lawyers from its venues.
“The SLA is misusing its enforcement powers at the behest of politically influential lawyers,” MSGE’s attorneys wrote. “Angered and motivated, those lawyers prevailed on the SLA to conduct an inherently compromised investigation of MSG.”
According to MSGE’s filing, already-revealed texts between those same lawyers and Stravalle “show that the investigation was compromised from the start” — and MSGE now wants access to the rest of them.
“MSG needs the phone records it subpoenaed from respondent Verizon to be able to more fully understand how deep this collusion and corruption goes, and how high the deck was stacked against MSG from the start,” the company wrote.
In a statement to Billboard on Tuesday, a spokesman for the State Liquor Authority said: “While we do not comment on pending litigation, we will continue to vigorously defend our processes and dedicated team of public servants. The only factor driving this disciplinary action is our mandate to ensure that all licensees comply with their obligations under the law.”
A rep for Verizon did not immediately respond to a request for comment, including whether or not it would comply with the subpoena.
The new filing comes two months after the New York Times reported that MSGE and Dolan had hired a private detective to track Stravalle after he was assigned to work on the SLA’s probe into the company.
It also comes amid an increasingly sprawling legal battle facing MSGE and Dolan, who also own Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theater and other live music venues throughout New York City.
The fight began last year when MSGE enacted new rules to ban attorneys who are suing the company from attending events at Madison Square Garden and other MSGE venues. When MSGE began enforcing those rules using facial recognition technology, it drew public scrutiny and backlash from lawmakers like State Senator Liz Kruger, who expressed concern that MSGE’s rules were “discriminatory and retaliatory.”
In November, the SLA began investigating whether the lawyer ban violates state alcohol laws, which require businesses to be “open to the public” — a probe that could result in the revocation of MSGE’s liquor licenses. In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James requested information about the ban, warning that it might violate local, state and federal human rights laws. And in March, state lawmakers threatened to revoke Madison Square Garden’s property tax exemption which is valued at roughly $43 million a year.
Through it all, MSGE and Dolan have remained defiant. In a January television interview in which he threatened to stop serving alcohol at Madison Square Garden, Dolan defended his company’s actions: “If you’re suing us, we’re just asking you please don’t come until you’re done with your argument with us, and yes we’re using facial recognition to enforce that.”
Monday’s new petition is Dolan’s latest legal effort to fight back against the SLA investigation. He previously sued to challenge the validity of the investigation itself, but the case was tossed out in April after a judge ruled that MSGE could not bring such a case until the SLA had actually issued a decision. MSGE is currently appealing that ruling to a state appeals court.
In a statement to Billboard following the filing of the new case, MSGE’s attorney Jim Walden said: “We believe the incriminating evidence revealed by the communications between the SLA and the plaintiff’s attorneys is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what our motion and subsequent subpoenas will uncover. We look forward to exposing the SLA’s abuses and bringing the facts to light.”
Read the entire petition from MSGE here: