Dirty politics

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One agent bought "Bushy Pussies" for $21.15, while another spent $31.75 on "Tampa Tushy Fest." Other titles on the official shopping list included "Sperm Burpers," "Latin Girls Love it Backdoor" and "Gangbang No. 18."

All these films came from the same place: a hole-in-the-wall video store called Video Exposé, on the south side of East Colonial a few hundred yards west of Forsyth Road.

The customers were agents of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, who bought the videos in an undercover sting operation last summer. The MBI -- a task force founded in 1978 to investigate and prosecute vice -- made 10 arrests at Video Exposé, charging the store's clerks and managers with selling adult material without a license, a second-degree misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $250.

MBI Director Bill Lutz says the arrests were the result of ongoing surveillance of the store, not a difficult task considering the fact that at one time store owner Greg Burris advertised his triple-X videos in Orlando Sentinel, the telephone book and on a giant billboard on Forsyth Road. He pled no-contest to selling adult material in 1996 and was one of those arrested earlier this summer.

"We're trying to keep these businesses from being too close to schools, parks and residential areas," Lutz says. "We're not trying to stop him from selling adult material. He's welcome to do that. He just needs to get an adult license."

Burris, who turns 41 on Halloween, isn't much different than many people who own small video businesses. He's married, has a 14-year-old son and was a manager at Toys 'R Us before he tired of corporate life.

Video Exposé is not his only store; he also owns outlets in Savannah, Jacksonville and Atlanta, though Orlando's where a bulk of his legal troubles occur. "Georgia is much more liberal than Florida is," he shrugs.

Burris says he didn't set out to be a video black sheep. He would have purchased an adult license -- they only cost $750 -- but county zoning regulations have made obtaining one increasingly difficult.

For example, adult stores are limited to industrial zoning, and must be at least 1,500 feet from churches, schools, parks or other adult establishments. That's why all three licensed adult bookstores in Orange County are located along the Orange Blossom Trail corridor, the seediest strip in Orlando.

It's true that Video Exposé went overboard in the past in promoting its business. There was a naked silhouette on the side of the building until code enforcement made Burris paint over it. He says he tries to keep ahead of his legal troubles, but county officials keep changing their ordinances each time he complies.

Last spring, for example, he installed a wall separating his pornographic merchandise from his mainstream stuff. He did this on his own hoping to appease the county. But the MBI didn't care how the store was arranged, says manager Russell Greene.

Burris says he no longer knows where the county draws the line. Considering how the county defines adult bookstores, that's not surprising.

In March 2000, the Board of County Commissioners amended the adult- bookstore ordinance, defining such establishments as business at which a "substantial portion" of merchandise is sexually explicit.

But what exactly is a "substantial portion"? Like pornography itself, the definition is elusive.

The county could have defined the term as a percentage, the way it used to in the early 1990s. Instead a substantial portion is "more than a significant or incidental portion." Contrary to common sense, the term doesn't necessarily mean a "majority" or even a "predominant" amount of a store's merchandise.

To complicate things further, the county has six other factors to consider when determining whether or not a store that sells porn is really a porn store: the amount of floor space dedicated to smut, the amount offered for sale or rent, the retail value of the porn, how prominently the naughty tapes are displayed, whether minors are allowed in the store, and a catch-all category that includes any evidence police consider applicable.

The law is so vague that Video Exposé attorney Steve Mason has decided to put it on trial in order to save Burris from his latest misdemeanor charge.

"This ordinance gives the MBI the authority to arrest whoever they want," says Mason, a well-known criminal defense and First Amendment attorney. (You may remember him from his appearance in the HBO "Real Sex" series in which he spoke about a Shakespearean production performed by strippers at Club Juana.)

And another question: Why does the agency want to pick on Video Exposé? There are dozens of video stores in the metro Orlando area that sell and rent porn, including two Video News stores within two miles of Burris' store.

Mason believes the answer has a lot to do with a lawsuit Burris filed in 1996 challenging the county's adult bookstore ordinance. Burris eventually dropped the suit but was allowed to remain open with several changes to the store.

Mason thinks much of the problem stems from Orange County's piety and moralism left over from the days when the area was nothing more than orange groves and cattle fields.

Look no further than our own county commissioner Clarence Hoenstine for an example.

Two years ago Hoenstine tried to shame Mason during a debate over the adult-bookstore ordinance. Hoenstine first asked Mason if he lived in the area, then queried the lawyer as to whether or not his friends and family knew what kind of law he practiced. Finally, Hoenstine told Mason to "say hello" to the camera broadcasting the debate on a government access channel.

Mason says he has seen the same attitude from the MBI.

"A certain amount of this is political religion," he says. "It comes from the top. Certain people will adamantly deny that. But they enjoy it too much."

Of course Video Exposé knows how to play political games too. Burris keeps stock he knows won't sell -- buckets of golf balls, cartoon videos, old magazines -- so he can argue that his store is legitimate.

The back-and-forth points to one thing: It's difficult, if not impossible, to regulate what has become our national pastime. (Baseball's self-reported revenues were in the range of $3 billion last year; Forbes magazine estimates the porn industry generated some $2.6 to $3.9 billion.) And there's ample evidence to suggest that law enforcement should move on to bigger problems.

In fact the American Planning Association, a professional organization that helps city leaders design better communities, recommends that civic officials take a tough stance on live entertainment clubs and ease up on adult bookstores.

"The most significant impacts of sexually oriented businesses on neighborhoods involve businesses with on-site entertainment, particularly those with direct interaction between patrons and entertainers," says the APA's 2000 Planning Advisory Service Report. "These businesses should be regulated through both zoning and licensing ordinances."

Video stores carrying porn should be arranged so they have a back room that prohibits children under 18 from entering, according to the APA.

The group further recommends a 40 percent threshold; a store carrying more than 40 percent porn in value and floor space must buy an adult license. Otherwise, they're treated just like any other business.

Orange County officials are aware of the APA's recommendations. They choose to ignore them, claiming that video-store owners consider percentages arbitrary. But at least an objective 40 percent standard is preferable to the cat-and-mouse game store owners and the MBI currently play.

It's a game Burris says he's finished playing. He says he's selling his business by Oct. 15, the date his landlord has set for his eviction.

He could very well score a legal victory when his lawyer challenges the county ordinance later this month, but it will be another video operator who enjoys the success.

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