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Court battle begins over the future of iconic Columbia college bar Group Therapy

  • Updated
Group Therapy hearing 2-11-2020

Former USC quarterback and current Group Therapy owner Steve Taneyhill, center, testifies Feb. 11, 2020 during the first day of a hearing where several entities are challenging the bar's licenses and permits to sell alcohol.

It’s not often that a court hearing starts with an attorney quoting Hootie & the Blowfish lyrics.

But not all court cases involve Group Therapy, the longstanding Five Points bar that now finds itself in the crosshairs of a number of entities that want to see the Greene Street establishment shut down.

Tuesday marked the opening day of an administrative law hearing in which several factions — state Sen. Dick Harpootlian’s law firm, the University of South Carolina, the Columbia Police Department, the state Department of Revenue, and residents from neighborhoods surrounding Five Points — are fighting the renewal of Group Therapy’s licenses to sell alcohol. The opponents have said, among other things, that Group Therapy — which opened in 1978 and, since 2016, has been owned by former USC star quarterback Steve Taneyhill — is a public nuisance that contributes to what they see as a raucous and unsafe environment in Five Points.

Harpootlian, USC and the police have been successful — directly or indirectly — in closing four college bars in Five Points in the last couple years. Some have lost their liquor licenses in court battles, while others have chosen to close when a legal fight seemed inevitable.

The Group Therapy case, being heard in front of Judge Shirley Robinson, is expected to continue Wednesday.

In his opening statement Tuesday, attorney Bakari Sellers, who is representing Taneyhill and Group Therapy, evoked the lyrics of the Hootie hit “Hold My Hand.” 

“I have to quote one of my favorite songs: ‘With a little love, and some tenderness / We’ll walk upon the water, we’ll rise above this mess / With a little peace and some harmony / We’ll take the world together, we’ll take them by the hand,’” Sellers said. “Your honor, that’s from Hootie & the Blowfish, ‘Hold My Hand.’ The difference in this case and so many of the cases your honor deals with is that we are talking about Group Therapy, which is a cherished establishment in Columbia.”

Sellers, who went on to paint Taneyhill, who was in the court room Tuesday, as an “awesome man” who gives thousands of dollars to the Special Olympics. He stressed to Robinson that Group Therapy is not a “fly by night” bar and pointed to its four-decade run in Five Points, and noted Hootie’s 2019 national tour was named in honor of Group Therapy, the watering hole typically referred to by locals simply as “Group.”

Meanwhile, Chris Kenney, an attorney from Harpootlian’s firm, told Robinson that Group Therapy contributes to a debauchery-filled, at-times dangerous, liquor-soaked party culture in Five Points.

“With respect to Group Therapy specifically, and Five Points more broadly, there is a public safety problem,” Kenney said. “On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights you have a large group of young people, mostly college students, many of whom are underage. The business model of Group Therapy and other bars is to serve large quantities of alcohol, typically liquor, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. These young people drink to excess.”

Kenney said Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook will testify Wednesday morning and speak to public safety issues that proliferate in Five Points as a result of underage drinking and the party culture there.

Sellers and Taneyhill did score one legal victory Tuesday, when Robinson said she would not hear or consider testimony regarding the percentage of food Group Therapy sells, balanced against the amount of alcohol it sells.

As it has battled the bars in Five Points, Harpootlian’s firm has often wielded a section in the S.C. Constitution that says restaurants that sell liquor by the drink must “engage primarily in the preparation and serving of meals.”

Sellers argued Tuesday that the law does not set a specific percentage of food sales an establishment must hit to get a liquor license. He also argued that Group Therapy meets a number of other statutory requirements, in that it has seating for at least 40 people, offers a menu of food and has a kitchen for preparing meals.

Ultimately, Robinson decided not to allow the food sales debate into the proceedings, saying that SLED and the Department of Revenue should have a hand in enforcing that law, not residents of neighborhoods near Five Points.

“That is an enforcement argument,” the judge said. “I think enforcement is the responsibility of the Department [of Revenue] and SLED. In this instance, it concerns me that I don’t think that SLED and the Department are adequately fulfilling their role. But, the citizens don’t have the [standing] to bring an enforcement action.”

But the various entities opposing Group Therapy will still attack the bar on a number of fronts, such as the testimony from police on public safety issues set to come Wednesday.

The Department of Revenue is arguing that Group Therapy is not suitable for a liquor license or a beer and wine permit because the bar was “in violation of permitting a criminal act on the premises.”

Specifically, Revenue notes that, in September, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents went to Group Therapy for an alcohol inspection. 

An agent reportedly smelled marijuana and went to a door in the business marked “employees only.” When she got inside the door, the agent reportedly encountered four people, one of whom allegedly had some marijuana in a backpack. 

The person in question, 21-year-old Torrickory Outing, appeared in court Tuesday, and testified that he occasionally used to DJ at Group Therapy. He was charged with possession of marijuana in the incident, and is going through pre-trial intervention on that case.

Outing testified that, on the September 2019 night in question, he and a female companion went into the office to retrieve the aforementioned backpack, saying he had left the backpack there a couple days before. While they were in the office, SLED eventually came in, and the marijuana was discovered.

Outing said he later spoke with Taneyhill and apologized for the incident.

SLED Agent Kirkland Jordan testified Tuesday that, on the night of the marijuana incident, a Group Therapy employee told her that Outing and the others must have sneaked into the back office. However, video evidence presented in court suggested that employees of the bar knew that the individuals were in the office at the time of the incident.

Taneyhill told the court on Tuesday that illegal drugs are "not permitted" in Group Therapy.

An Altoona, Pennsylvania, native, Taneyhill was a standout quarterback at USC from 1992 to 1995. He led the Gamecocks to their first bowl victory in school history, and quarterbacked the team to two victories over Clemson. He later was a successful high school football coach in South Carolina, including stops at Chesterfield High School, Union County High School, and at Cambridge Academy in Greenwood. He bought Group Therapy in 2016.

Among those watching Tuesday's proceedings from the gallery was former Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah. He tells Free Times he is concerned about businesses being targeted in Five Points and elsewhere.

"My concern is the future of bars and restaurants in the state of South Carolina, especially in Five Points and the City of Columbia," Baddourah says. "We should not be here to eliminate small businesses from operating legitimately in Five Points and South Carolina. So, my position is that we need to protect small business, period. Especially bars and restaurants. When you think about it, the [brick and mortar] retail industry is struggling, and we have few factories in Columbia.

"So we need to protect our hospitality districts as much as possible."

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