Former Harper’s Employees Appeal to City Council for Justice, as Owners Fight Back

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Harper's owners Pat and Trisha Riley at the July 23, 2020, Liquor Control Commission "show cause" hearing.

When the history of Covid-19 in East Lansing is written, the facts surrounding what happened at Harper’s will probably still be in dispute.

This much we know now:

According to Ingham County Health Department Officer Linda Vail, an epidemiological analysis from the state on the June 2020 coronavirus super-spreader event traced to Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub on Albert Ave. includes 192 cases.

Of those, 146 are primary, meaning they have been linked to people who were at Harper’s while it was open in June. The remaining 46 are secondary, meaning those infections are considered likely to have come from a person who was at Harper’s.

The outbreak has faded from the pages of the national news, but criticisms of Harper’s have continued to rage here.

Last Wednesday’s agenda packet for City Council included a series of letters strongly criticizing Harper’s, alleging unsafe conditions (in June and in times before), sexual harassment, intimidation, and failure to pay workers what they are due.

These complaints mirror many anonymous claims being made online, including in conjunction with a petition to shut-down Harper’s.

In response, Pat Riley, who owns Harper’s and the nearby bar P.T. O’Malley’s with his wife Trisha Riley, provided ELi with a strongly-worded rebuttal yesterday, saying they “take these libelous accusations seriously and will continue to consult with our legal team regarding further actions.”

The Rileys have also organized and provided to ELi a packet of letters from former employees defending them, and have encouraged many current and former employees to call ELi with personal testimony.

In one case – that of Harper’s bookkeeper Shelly Toth – the employee felt the need to specifically defend herself against a letter from a former employee. In that letter, Addyson Ives told Council that “the Riley’s [sic] had likely instructed Shelly to deduct money from several employees’ paychecks wrongfully in hopes that no one would notice due to the small nature of the biweekly paychecks.”

Toth said in a phone call yesterday this is untrue in every way, and she notes that the email exchange Ives shared with Council shows that Toth offered to meet with Ives and her mother, who is an accountant, to go over the pay records, but the Ives never came in.

Toth, like many other Harper’s supporters, say the Rileys provide at Harper’s a safe and fun environment. Writes former Harper’s doorman, barback, bartender, and manager Dylan Scher in his letter of support, “East Lansing without it would just seem empty and borderline spiritless.”

But former Harper’s employee Mary Reeber wrote to Council to say the Rileys “use their power and money to scare young college kids, especially young women, into believing that if you speak up for yourself, you will regret it.”

Reeber said that Harper’s has had unsanitary conditions, and that “I personally experienced sexual harassment by coworkers during my time, but was always too scared to say anything and after what happened this spring, I was right.”

Reeber asked, “Why does every student in East Lansing know the reputation of Harper’s and the Riley family, but it is never addressed by local authorities or the council?”

In contrast to Reeber, letters from former employees supporting the Rileys say the Rileys would never have knowingly tolerated sexual harassment and that they were extremely supportive of their young employees. (The support letters also include statements by people of color denying anonymous online claims that the Rileys are racist.)

While the Harper’s outbreak has negatively affected other businesses in East Lansing, Lansing, and beyond, former employee Brent Gallert blames the jealousy of other East Lansing bars for some of the struggles Harper’s has faced:

“I would see firsthand how it would play out that everyone was trying to play king of the mountain by knocking Harper’s off from the top spot in East Lansing . . . . The politics at play here were beyond abhorrent and blatantly obvious.”

Former employee Kwesi Arde Enu said something similar: “I had lived in East Lansing, Michigan, long enough to see a lot of the local restaurants and bars become very jealous of the Riley’s [sic] as they run a very successful business.”

For now, the establishment remains closed. It will not be able to reopen until it has in place systems to adhere to the governor’s current executive orders – including a system to ensure that a crowded line does not form outside and that, inside, there are not conditions conducive to spreading the coronavirus.

The Rileys will also need to get the go-ahead from the county health department and the state Liquor Control Commission before Harper’s reopens.

Whether the newly-constituted City Council will take up the issue remains to be seen.

In the presentation that led to her appointment to Council last week, Dana Watson spoke to the letters about Harper’s sent to Council. Watson expressed concern that those writing in did not seem to know that the City’s Human Relations Commission (on which Watson served) is charged with helping people with concerns about alleged racist treatment and sexual harassment in East Lansing.

That said, some making strong claims may back down as they face threats of legal action from the Rileys.

In theory, City Council could vote to revoke the Council-approve Special Use Permit that enables Harper’s to sell alcohol. In practice, this type of action has not occurred in recent memory. Of course, East Lansing has never before faced a situation quite like this.

A spokesperson for the City indicates no discussions of the matter are presently planned for Council.

Disclosures/updates: Aaron Applebey contributed reporting to this article. The last paragraph was added as an update at 12:30 p.m. on the day of publication, and on Aug. 7, this article was amended to correct the first name of Addyson Ives, who wrote to Council. ELi has in the past received funding from the Responsible Hospitality Council (RHC) which includes Harper’s and other bars and restaurants accused of jealous political maneuvering to undermine Harper’s.

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