(Originally published Aug. 25, 2007.)
Charlotte’s elected and business leaders have turned to Mohammad Jenatian to rally the city’s tourism industry around public projects such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Then-House Speaker Jim Black also turned to Jenatian, who is president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, as a liaison – for strip club money.
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Jenatian helped establish ties between Black and the topless bar industry, a seemingly odd pairing of a demure Matthews optometrist and the racy, neon-lighted adult businesses. Jenatian’s Tourism PAC, which supported Black with political donations, was often in the middle.
State elections officials and law enforcement agents have been examining Black’s financial connections to the adult entertainment business. The inquiry stems from an investigation that started with the video poker industry and ultimately brought down the former speaker with a guilty plea to corruption charges in February.
“Our investigation led us from video poker to Jim Black, and the Tourism PAC is directly related to Jim Black, “ said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections. “We’re going wherever the evidence takes us.”
A federal grand jury questioned Jenatian in 2006 about how he funneled a strip club owner’s unreported contribution through the Tourism PAC and then to Black the previous year. Now investigators are pursuing Black’s testimony that the same topless-bar owner, who is a board member of Jenatian’s hospitality and tourism alliance, also handed Black $2,000 in cash.
During Black’s tenure, the adult entertainment industry was looking for influence in the General Assembly as state regulators sought more control over topless bars.
The Tourism PAC gave $12,250 to Black over the past decade, according to campaign finance records. It also gave contributions to an assortment of other state and local candidates from both major parties.
Jenatian (pronounced jin-a-TEE-un) is an ever-present spokesman for Charlotte hotels, bars and restaurants, a lobbyist for their causes, and a glad-hander at their grand openings. He backs politicians whose common denominator is power, not party, building relationships with both Black, a Democrat, and Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican.
In an interview, Jenatian challenged any criticism of his role in routing money from strip club owners to politicians. He noted that the Observer accepts advertising from topless bars and is a member of the hospitality and tourism alliance, along with strip club owners.
“If it’s not an illegal business, I can’t discriminate against any businesses,” he said. “And I don’t have to answer any questions just because some people don’t like it.”
In recent years Jenatian gave $3,300 in personal money to Black’s campaign. And, when Black rounded up campaign donations for then-Rep. Michael Decker in 2004, Jenatian pitched in $250.
Decker, a former Republican who changed parties, later pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from Black.
“I would do anything I could do to help somebody who helps Jim Black,” Jenatian told the Observer before the Decker bribe was disclosed.
On Election Day 2004, Black reported a total of $11,000 in campaign contributions from Jenatian’s Tourism PAC and two strip club owners, one of whom is a member of the hospitality and tourism alliance that Jenatian leads.
Jenatian told the Observer he doesn’t recall the specific Election Day 2004 donations. With 800 members in the tourism alliance, he has limited contact with each one, he said. So when he does see some of them, they might discuss and then make contributions on the same day.
“It may have been one single event we had,” Jenatian said. “That’s the way it works. They make their contributions the same day.”
He said the alliance operates separately from the Tourism PAC, but he is a top officer in both and acknowledged that alliance members provide the PAC’s funding.
Campaign finance activists say the connections between Black and strip club money are another example of how N.C. politicians rely on special interest money to stay competitive.
Bob Hall, research director of Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog, said Black repeatedly turned to fringe commerce, such as strip club owners, payday lenders and video poker operators.
“Every election, he needed a couple million dollars. He didn’t have the deep connections to the good-old-boy network of Eastern North Carolina,” Hall said. “If you look at his campaign reports, he was very dependent on the Charlotte and Raleigh business community and those on the margins of what others saw as legitimate business interests.”
He said the Black scandal shows a need for more public financing of elections so politicians don’t feel beholden to donors.
Jenatian, 48, emigrated from Iran in 1977. He earned a civil engineering degree at UNC Charlotte while working part time at a Days Inn. He advanced in the hotel business and took on increasingly larger roles as a broker between government and the hospitality industry. He was named to civic boards and a task force advising U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican.
Few dispute his effectiveness.
“Mohammad has always had the ability to understand the angle or agenda of the person he’s talking to and to be able to discuss what he’s trying to achieve from that perspective – instead of, ‘Here’s why you should be thinking the way I think,’” said former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican.
McCrory said Jenatian has been effective in lobbying on crime issues, such as funding for criminal courts and anti-gang legislation. Decreasing crime is good for tourism.
“He’s very strong in law and order,” the mayor said. “I’m not hesitant to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need your help with public safety.’”
Since 2003, Jenatian has given at least $1,300 to McCrory’s campaigns. The Tourism PAC has given him $10,000 since 1997.
Two months ago, Jenatian traveled with executives from Wachovia, US Airways and other major Charlotte employers on a Charlotte Chamber trip to meet with North Carolina’s congressional delegation in Washington. Chamber President Bob Morgan said Jenatian helped broker the 2006 hotel and rental car tax increases that made the NASCAR Hall of Fame and new uptown cultural center possible.
“When those kinds of issues come up,” Morgan said, “we want to be on the same side as Mohammad because he’s formidable.”
David “Slim” Baucom, who owns several Charlotte-area topless bars, gave $4,000 to Jenatian’s Tourism PAC in January 2005. Jenatian immediately passed the money to Black’s campaign without reporting either transaction.
It is illegal in North Carolina for a campaign contributor to use his or her name while donating somebody else’s money. Questioned by the news media last year, Jenatian said it was an oversight and amended the PAC’s campaign finance report. Black gave the money to charity.
Two months later, Jenatian was called before the grand jury whose investigation ultimately led to Black’s guilty plea.
The same day that Black reported receiving the $4,000 from the Tourism PAC, he also reported a $1,000 donation from an executive at TMC Restaurants in Houston, which owns a chain of strip clubs, including The Men’s Club in Charlotte.
The company’s president, David Fairchild, was one of the Election Day 2004 donors to Black. One of TMC’s employees is on the board of directors for Jenatian’s hospitality alliance.
Fairchild gave another $3,000 to the Tourism PAC in 2003. The following year, Baucom gave the PAC $4,000.
Both men’s companies are listed as members and corporate partners in Jenatian’s hospitality alliance, and Baucom is on the board of directors. Their two donations combined account for about 40 percent of the money the PAC received between January 2003 and June 2005.
“Those connections would surely make someone want to ask more questions,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a former Mecklenburg commissioner.
The Raleigh connection
During the years when those topless-bar donations came in, the strip clubs tried to fight tougher regulation from state agents. And in 2005, they battled legislation allowing Charlotte to pass a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Jenatian traveled to Raleigh to voice opposition to the ban.
When the legislation came up in committee, two key Black allies derailed it.
“I always wondered the source of (Jenatian’s) power and influence in the General Assembly. It may very well be related to campaign contributions,” said Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, a Democrat who helped lead the fight for the smoking ban.
Jenatian said the unflattering publicity and grand jury testimony have dampened his enthusiasm for his political action committee and overshadowed his organization’s constructive work.
He’d be just as happy if political action committees were banned, he added.
“It’s so discouraging,” he said. “What the hell did I do wrong?”