Strippers work for tips-sometimes premium tips for premium, personalized services. This, the Nose knows. But though they work set shifts, are penalized for showing up late or otherwise failing to abide by club rules, and generally strip for only one club at a time, they aren't paid wages-at least not at Norma Jean's Nite Club on Baltimore's Block, according to two strippers' federal lawsuits alleging the company violated state and federal minimum-wage laws by not paying them. And, the lawsuits contend, Norma Jean's strippers fork over a significant portion of their tips to help pay the DJ and keep the club clean.
Sounds like a bum deal to the Nose. The two former Norma Jean's strippers-Raqiya Whyte and Unique Butler-aim to sweeten the deal by making the club pay up the wages they didn't pay when they worked there. Whyte's lawsuit seeks to become a class-action matter, meaning other former or current Norma Jean's strippers could join in and try to collect.
Their target, though, is a prominent one: As the Nose also knows, Norma Jean's is a well-connected club.
PP&G, Inc., formed in 1997, owns and operates the strip club. Since its founding, the company has been a big-time political donor to movers and shakers in Baltimore and Maryland-so big-time, in fact, that the company was fined $5,000 in 2005 for exceeding the maximum allowable amount of political contributions, giving to such household names as then-soon-to-be Governor Martin O'Malley and then-Governor Robert Ehrlich, along with state senators and members of the Baltimore City Council. Since 2007, it has given nearly $8,000 to pols' campaigns, including $2,500 to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she was the City Council's president, and $3,450 between 2007 and 2009 to former Mayor Sheila Dixon before she was unseated by a criminal conviction.
So Norma Jean's and its owners, the husband-and-wife team of Peter and Lisa Ireland, have juice. Peter Ireland is a survivor, too, having lived through being shot by Harvey Karvounis, who was convicted of the attack in 1989-only to have his five-year sentence commuted by then-Governor William Donald Schaefer a year later. And when the Block, the cluster of strip clubs situated between City Hall and Baltimore Police Department headquarters, had an umbrella business group-Baltimore Entertainment Center, which local law dictated would occupy two of the nine seats on the city's Adult-Entertainment Business Advisory Task Force-Peter Ireland was on its board of directors. The man's been a Mobtown player for a long time. Lisa Ireland, meanwhile, knows the business well; in addition to being PP&G's president, she faced prostitution charges back in the early 1990s.
Even Norma Jean's' lawyer-retired Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Themelis-speaks to its prominence. The Nose called and emailed Themelis, but he wasn't playing-he would neither take our call nor even confirm in an email that he's a former judge.
So this is who the strippers are taking on. And who's their lawyer? A man who signs his court papers "J. Wiggs, Esq.," a Prince George's County attorney who this year has started building a practice representing strippers in federal minimum-wage cases. In addition to the Norma Jean's cases, Wiggs-whose real name is Jamon Wiggs-has filed two more of them in D.C. federal court, representing former Stadium Club stripper Talayna Clements in suits against the D.C. club, its owner-a Baltimore guy named James "Tru" Redding-and its manager. In taking on the Stadium Club-which, as reported by former CP scribe Jeffrey Anderson in the Washington Times, has ties to infamous D.C. ex-gangster Cornell Jones-Wiggs is up against another powerhouse.
The Nose wanted to do a story about this guy, pitching it to Wiggs as a profile of a stripper-rights attorney. He mulled on the idea for a few days, then got back to us: "I appreciate you wanting to do a story on me," he explained, "but I prayed on it, and I don't think it's the right time."
Now that's something for Norma Jean's to keep in mind as it fights back against the strippers looking to get paid back wages: Their lawyer has God on his side.
Instead, though, it looks like Norma Jean's is playing hardball. Butler's case has been going on since February and appears to be headed for trial. Whyte, it turned out, was called in for a deposition in the Butler case in August and has been identified as a possible plaintiff's witness-but she was fired in September, prompting her to sue too, claiming her termination was in retaliation for exercising her free-speech rights. If she and Wiggs are able to gain class-action status on the minimum-wage claims, look for a whole host of Norma Jean's strippers to want more than tips too.