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In January 2000, Ash had called Pride South Florida's co-chair, Richard Cimoch, and proposed helping the nonprofit organization book acts for PrideFest at Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale on February 23. Each year thousands attend the festival, the largest gay gathering in Broward County. In addition Ash offered his new venture, Storm, as a venue for partying after Pride Parade on February 27. Cimoch and other PSF planners went to Chili Pepper to check it out, and a Chili Pepper employee explained to them how Ash was subcontracting certain times at the club for Storm. "It seemed like it was on the up-and-up," Cimoch says.
Ash lined up some big-name acts, most prominently Martha Wash of "It's Raining Men" fame. PSF also booked acts on its own. Cimoch, however, found out on the day of PrideFest -- which 15,000 people attended -- that Wash had canceled. "He gave us a song and dance about a death in her family and this, that, and the other," Cimoch says. "There's not a lot you can do. We rearranged the entertainment and stretched out some of the other acts so it would last a whole day."
Storm had been heavily promoted during PrideFest, and the start-up club was touted on a float during the Pride Parade -- a parade for which Norm Kent was grand marshal. Kent, remembering the Manhattan/ Gravity mess, had viewed Ash's reemergence with great perturbation. The day after the parade, February 28, Kent's fledgling Express printed an exposé that included comments from the Winter Party's Baird and club owners who had been burned by Ash. Some readers criticized Kent for publishing the article, saying he was being overly critical of someone who just wanted to contribute to the gay community, Kent recalls.
Just as Storm was set to open, Ash began spreading the word that it and another gay club, the Saint, on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale, were merging. He repeated the story to a reporter at The Express and to Kent. However, Kent was the attorney for Saint owner Richard Knaur and knew the claim was bogus. Unfortunately certain Saint employees were not as well informed. "[Ash] charmed the employees of the Saint into thinking they were merging," Kent says. "[They] went to work at Storm the day it opened because they were convinced by Bill Ash that they were supposed to. They closed the Saint and went to work at the Storm."
Ash had contacted Jump Start Booking Agency in Chicago attempting to book musical acts for Storm. Raul Rodriguez, an agent with Jump Start, was leery of dealing with Ash. During the summer of 1999, Ash had booked Jennifer Holliday, a diva famous for "I Am Love" and "Hard Time for Lovers," for his birthday party. But the engagement was canceled when Holliday had the chance to perform at a divas concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, Rodriguez says. He offered to reschedule Holliday, in accordance with a provision in the contract. But Ash started getting "paranoid" about Holliday showing up on the rescheduled date, threatening Rodriguez that he would "drag her name through the mud, blah, blah, blah," he says. "We had to put security on her," Rodriguez says of Holliday's appearance at Ash's birthday party.
"There were no police or security with her," Ash counters. "Her and I were in a limousine -- just her, myself, and my lover."
When Ash called Rodriguez in early 2000, the agent expressed his reluctance to work with him. "He said, "Let's let bygones be bygones,'" says Rodriguez, who finally agreed to book a list of acts. But he recalls warning Ash: ""I'm not bending on this. If the money's not in, if deposits aren't in....' Naturally he didn't come up with the money, at which point I called the Chili Pepper and said, "Do you realize what this guy is doing on your behalf? Your name is being dragged through the mud.'"
Storm's final affront to Chili Pepper came when the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco raided the place on March 5, a week after its opening, acting on an anonymous tip that Storm was selling liquor to minors. Levin was out of town at the time but learned about the arrests the next day. "The bust basically stopped the promotion," Levin says. "[Ash] caused a big scene for himself. We felt it was best for our business to just part ways. From what I heard, he blew up at the police officers and was blaming everyone but himself."
The sale of alcohol to minors is a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1000 fine. The charge against Ash is still pending.
In the aftermath of the Storm debacle, Pride South Florida board members looked more closely at Ash's role in PrideFest. They learned Ash never actually had a contract with the "canceled" Martha Wash. "We talked amongst the group, but there wasn't much we could do," co-chair Cimoch says. "By then the whole business was defunct. It wasn't worth pursuing -- except to learn from a mistake and to make sure that in the future contracts would have our name on them so we'd have control."