Tokyo Valentino at night. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Torpy at Large: Left-wing Atlanta, right-wing lawyer — a sex shop story

They say politics draws strange bedfellows.

But toss in an adult business with a famously stubborn and litigious proprietor, some highfalutin neighbors and dreams of a gentrified Cheshire Bridge Road, and you have the city of Atlanta joining forces with a religious warrior of the right — Scott Bergthold, the scourge of nudie clubs and naughty retailers across the USA.

Three weeks ago, lawyers for the city and an adult business called Tokyo Valentino Erotique argued in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Atlanta after a judge previously thumped Valentino in a decision.

Also about three weeks ago, Project Q Atlanta, a publication that covers gay issues, carried a piece headlined “City of Atlanta hires anti-gay attorney to fight Tokyo Valentino.”

Billing records show that the city — progressive, Democratic, gay-lovin’ Atlanta — has paid Bergthold more than $267,000 to try to chase Tokyo Valentino from where it has operated for two decades. The tab is undoubtedly running because Bergthold worked the appeal.

Brookhaven, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Doraville and dozens more towns across the country have paid Bergthold a king’s ransom to protect their honor against unwholesomeness. (More than $400,000-plus was paid in Brookhaven alone.)

Tokyo Valentino Gwinnett sued the county in federal court because Gwinnett changed its laws to regulate sexual devices and move stores out of commercial areas. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta, however, has a whole stable of in-house lawyers, so you really shouldn’t need to hire a Hessian. That is unless you want a devoted mercenary such as Bergthold, who literally wrote the book on the subject. His office declined an interview.

Bergthold, a 1997 grad of evangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law, has worked for years in conjunction with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the de facto legal squad for the religious right.

The beautiful irony here is that in 2016, when the city hired Bergthold to battle Tokyo Valentino, Atlanta was already being sued by the Alliance Defending Freedom. That was the case in which then-Mayor Kasim Reed fired former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran in 2015 after the chief wrote a religious book that condemned homosexuality and handed out copies to underlings. The city ultimately settled that case.

Tokyo Valentino, which sits on some really expensive real estate on Cheshire Bridge Road near the corner of Piedmont Road, has had a long struggle with the city.

Michael Morrison, founder of Tokyo Valentino Erotique, puffing for his store, the site of a two-decade battle with the city. HANDOUT

In 1996, an enterprising young man named Michael Morrison moved to open an adult shop at the Cheshire Bridge location, a move fought by city officials, who argued the business was too close to residences. After a legal battle, Morrison prevailed and the store, which was called Inserection, sold adult novelties, toys, devices and lingerie, and had private video booths where people (usually men) hooked up for extracurricular activities.

In 2013, then-Councilman Alex Wan led an effort to “clean up” Cheshire Bridge and close adult entertainment joints from the tired 1.5-mile stretch of dance clubs, adult parlors, massage shops and restaurants. It is a stretch causing high-end apartment developers to drool in anticipation. However, some big-time developers worried the city might be setting a bad precedent by closing grandfathered businesses. And the Atlanta City Council shut down the effort.

Adult businesses allowed to stay on Cheshire Bridge Road

The next year, apparently not happy to leave well enough alone, Morrison announced he was renovating his business to create a gay “megaplex” rebranded as Tokyo Valentino. He fixed up the gaudy exterior with more subdued cedar planks and renovated the interior, although he claims it did not change substantially.

Soon, he says, city inspectors started ticketing him for the video booths, an attraction that has been there 20 years. “Every store I built, and I’ve built 38, have had video booths. It’s not like we snuck them in,” Morrison said. Inspectors, he said, have known they were there for years.

The city moved to shut him down and he sued in late 2015. Bergthold started billing hours the following April.

Months later, while deposing a recalcitrant Morrison, Bergthold seemed to be oddly impressed by the inventory at Tokyo Valentino’s retail store.

“I thought I knew it all until I was looking at a few items in the store and I was, even I learned something,” the invariably polite lawyer said.

The effort to close the store was criticized by many as an attack on gay places, something that the city denies.

“First and foremost, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation or the dismantling of LGBTQ culture in Atlanta,” mayoral spokesman Michael Smith said in an email. “This is a land use matter in which the owner is challenging the constitutionality of a city ordinance.”

Smith said Bergthold was hired “by the previous administration” and the matter is largely done, other than awaiting the federal appeals court decision. When asked why Bergthold worked for 16 months under the current administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Smith wrote, “The city only recently became aware of the counsel’s personal views, which are not representative of this administration.”

Eric Coffelt, an attorney who has bumped up against Bergthold many times, said, “The worst thing is this administration allows him to stand up in a court and say, ‘Your Honor, Scott Bergthold representing the city of Atlanta.’”

Councilman Dustin Hillis, who came to office in January 2018, said he was not aware that Bergthold represented the city until three weeks ago. He said the case demonstrates the City Council needs better oversight in the hiring of outside attorneys.

“I shouldn’t have to read a Project Q story to see the city has hired an anti-LGBT attorney,” he said.

Cary Wiggins, who represents Morrison, said they have tried to settle the case.

“I was saying, come on, your adult ordinance is no good. If I take a good swing at it, it could be gone,” Wiggins said. “I begged and pleaded with Atlanta to work with us on this.”

However, there is no settling with Bergthold. He’s on a mission from God. And he has won a number of cases in recent years.

But if Morrison wins this case, he vows to open more stores in Atlanta.

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