SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Finnies Next Door Sports Bar in Downtown South Bend is suing the St. Joseph County Health Department following information obtained during a REAL News Michiana investigation. In the legal filings, the bar’s owner, Rick Ruszkowski, claims to have been unfairly targeted by the health department and the University of Notre Dame in a coordinated defamatory attack on the business. Ruszkowski is seeking $1,000,000 in damages.
The tort claim notice reads in part:
Due to the COVID pandemic, the University of Notre Dame cancelled its longstanding 100 Days Before Graduation Celebration for its senior students to celebrate 100 days until graduation. Not wanting to break with tradition. Finnies decided to host the 100 Days Before Graduation Celebration for University of Notre Dame Students.
On February 10, 2021, Finnies hosted the 100 Days Before Graduation
Celebration and received a visit from health officers with the St. Joseph Health
Department. This is not unusual since the St. Joseph Health Department had clearly
targeted and harassed this place of business repeatedly during the COVID pandemic.
Environmental Health Director Mark Espich and Health Officer Dr. Robert
Einterz with the St. Joseph County Health Department arrived on-site and harassed the owner of Finnies Rick Ruzkowski. They did not issue any citations as Finnies was
compliant with the applicable law at said time.
Members of the St. Joseph Board of Health and officials with the University of
Notre Dame did proceed to issue public statements defaming Finnies. Most notably, Dr. Einterz stated publicly to the media, “Have you ever had the good fortune of going to Kenya during the great wildebeest migration? The animals hip to hip, nose to nose, grunting and making all sorts of guttural sounds. Perhaps what was lacking was the very distinct odor that one notices in the wildebeest migration. It is a very serious matter but that is what it is like.”
Officials from the University of Notre Dame joined in the chorus
of defamatory statements against Finnies, despite the lack of evidence of any violations of the law.
It was later determined by an investigative journalist that officials from both the
St. Joseph County Health Department and the University of Notre Dame conspired to
target Finnies for public condemnation.
COLLUDING WITH NOTRE DAME
RNM uncovered the coordinated attack aimed at Finnies through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.
One of the FOIAs uncovered emails between the University Notre Dame and St. Joseph County Health Department officials showing the University used the health department to target Finnies, a business that is completely unaffiliated with the school, under the guise of COVID-19 safety.
The emails start with a message from Tim Sexton, Notre Dame’s associate Vice President for Public Affairs. The email was sent to Dr. Mark Fox, St. Joseph County’s Deputy Health Officer, and Mike Seamon, Notre Dame’s VP of Campus Safety and University Operations. Fox is also a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Theology for the University of Notre Dame. The initial chain of emails go to Dr. Fox’s Notre Dame email address, that would not be considered public record. However, Dr. Fox forwarded the email along to his cohorts in the health department. That’s how they were discovered by RNM.
Sexton sent the message below on February 9th, 2021, at 6:13pm.
Dr. Fox/Mike – Good evening. I wanted the two of you to be aware of information we received from our students. Students shared news of an event being planned at Finnies Next Door for tomorrow evening. According to the students, it is being called the “100 days to graduation dance party”. Students have shared frustration of FND’s lack of adherence to mask wearing, social distancing and large numbers gathering.
Additional frustration was communicated around the fact that on-campus, university orchestrated events are limited to no more than 50 people, requiring all COVID safety protocols, yet a local bar can blatantly be out of compliance. I will continue to keep you posted on the information I hear. Tim
About an hour later, Dr. Fox forwards the message along to his boss, St. Joseph County Health Officer, Dr. Robert Einterz, and Mark Espich, the county’s Director of Environmental Health. He includes the following statement.
Anyone wanna go to Finnie’s tomorrow night and issue a fine??
Dr. Einterz responds with the next message.
Yes, that sounds like a terrific idea…many thanks to the gentleman who issued the complaint. Mark E, would you like to join me? If so, what time?
Espich responds with this:
Sounds like a plan, Finnies usually gets hopping after midnight
The entire email chain provided to RNM is below.
Dr. Einterz and Espich went to Finnies the following night. Health Department officials then went on a media blitz, slamming the bar in the public eye. In one article in the South Bend Tribune, Dr. Einterz describes what he claims he saw in the quote below.
“Have you ever had the good fortune of going to Kenya during the great wildebeest migration? The animals hip to hip, nose to nose, grunting and making all sorts of guttural sounds. Perhaps what was lacking was the very distinct odor that one notices in the wildebeest migration. It is a serious matter but that is what it was like,” he said. “The venue was packed on the main floor with probably 20% of people with a mask.”
Rick Ruzkowski, Finnies’ owner, said he was never contacted before the event. If the health officials and Notre Dame were trying to stop the spread of COVID, why did they not say anything prior?
“What bothers me the most is that nobody contacted me prior to the event to ensure that we weren’t going to violate any rules.” Ruszkowski said.
“I wasn’t breaking any Health Department rules. And, I’m not part of Notre Dame. We’re a private business. Why is the health department pushing Notre Dame’s rules on a private business?” Ruszkowski added.
RNM reached out to Dr. Fox and Mr. Sexton. Dr. Fox sent an email several days after publication claiming he called RNM and left a voicemail. RNM does not have a voice mail from Dr. Fox. RNM sent a follow up email requesting he call back.
COLLUDING WITH THE MEDIA
Another RNM FOIA uncovered text messages between a local reporter and leaders of the St. Joseph County Health Department, showing what appears to be a coordinated media attack on the business regarding the same incident.
That FOIA uncovered text messages from February 8th, 2021, to February 13th, 2021, that discussed Finnies Next Door. The messages provided were from the phones of County Health Officer, Dr. Robert Einterz, and Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Mark Fox.
In one exchange, WSBT reporter, Selina Guevara, sends a message to Dr. Fox saying “Did the party at Finnies ever come to fruition?”
Dr. Fox responds by saying, “Yes, something like 350 people.”
The messages show the WSBT reporter and the health department had conversations about an “event” scheduled at Finnies, prior to the event ever happening. They then sat on that information, without announcing any concern prior about the event to the public or the business itself. And, instead, appear to have coordinated damning news coverage of the conservative owned business.
“Never. They never reached out to me to say anything before it happened. You would think if they’re trying to limit the spread, they would have said something and tried to work with me.” Rick Ruszkowski, Finnies owner, said.
Several days after the messages, Guevara published a story slamming Finnies. The article starts with the following:
It goes on to quote Dr. Fox.
RNM spoke to Guevara about the text messages as well.
RNM: “I found some text messages between you and Dr. Fox.”
RNM: “It obviously appears that you knew this party was going to happen. You did not reach out to Finnies. And, instead, just reached out to the health department. And, in a targeted fashion, went after Finnies in your story on the 17th.”
Guevara: “I’m going to have to get back to you and refer any questions you may have to our News Director.”
RNM: “So, you didn’t collude with the health department in this coverage?”
Guevara: “I don’t have a comment on that right now. And, I am really busy. I have to go. I’m sorry.”
Guevara’s story also claims Finnies never filed a COVID safety plan. In fact, the email correspondence below shows a safety plan was submitted and accepted by the county several months earlier.
RNM also uncovered emails from health department officials pushing for the use of the media to publicly shame local businesses.
In one email exchange, the Vice President of the Board of Health, Jason Marker, pushes to use the media to name and shame local businesses who violate an illegal public health order issued by the Health Department. He also criticizes Christians, Republicans and the conservative Tea Party movement, in the name of public health.
The email exchange starts with a message from Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz regarding a County Council vote on allowing the Health Department to issue fines for violating his mask mandate order on July 29th, 2020.
Last evening, the County Council committee voted 8 to 1 in favor of moving the ordinance empowering DoH to issue fines for non-compliance with the face covering order to a public hearing. Unfortunately, we needed a unanimous vote for the Ordinance to go to a public hearing. So, to enact the ordinance, it will have to go for “first reading” at the next full council meeting, then to committee again, then to public hearing, and then for a vote by the Council and then to the Commissioners. The one councilman who voted against the Ordinance was Mark Root. His comments were interesting. He expressed long-standing hostility toward the Department of Health, calling us dishonest and disingenuous. He said he did not think the DoH should have the power to issue fines. The president of the Council, Rafael Morton, pressed Mr. Root to elaborate on his long-standing dissatisfaction with the DoH; but, Mr. Root declined to comment further.
I had hoped that the ordinance would pass out of committee so that the “threat” of fines within the month would help with the DoH’s enforcement of the order. Unfortunately, given the likelihood that enactment of the ordinance is now more than two months away, those of you and your staff responsible for inspecting compliance with the order have no options for enforcement. As Amy Ruppe said to me earlier this morning, the best we can do is wag a finger and say “naughty, naughty” to any
establishment or person that refuses to comply with the order!
So, at this point, until the order makes its way through the various procedural steps, I think that the process of receiving and investigating complaints is a waste of time and demoralizing to the staff of the DoH responsible for the investigations. Therefore, I lean toward putting on hold all efforts at inspection and enforcement until the Council or the State legislature empowers the DoH. I favor pulling down the DoH’s complaint web page and stop investigating complaints. When we receive a complaint that a business or person is not complying with the order, I suggest we thank the person lodging the complaint, reinforce the importance of adherence to the order, explain that the Council and State are considering whether to empower the DoH to enforce the order, and then refer the person lodging the complaint to his/her county council member, commissioner, state legislator, and/or governor. If the Council or State empowers the DoH to enforce the order, we will re-institute our efforts to register and investigate complaints and enforce the order. Meantime, let’s focus our
energies on the Mask-Up Michiana initiative and our usual, pre-COVID responsibilities.
I welcome your suggestions and input.
In the email exchange, which can be seen in its entirety at the end of the story, several people respond with their own opinions on how to move forward. However, the response from Health Board VP, Jason Marker, shows an immediate politicization of the pandemic as he suggests the board and health department act as activists. At the same time, he slams conservatives and specifically goes after Republican County Councilmember Mark Root.
I went to high school with Mr. Root and attend church with him presently. I do not know his “beef” with the BoH/DoH, but I suspect his “Tea Party-esque” libertarian leanings inform some of his opinions. I am personally disappointed in this political sects’ inability to integrate science AND biblical teaching into their secular worldview, but am sadly not surprised that his was the vote that will kill our citizens.
I am in favor of using the power of media to take our next steps. I believe we should proceed into the path that the Council has forced us locally, hope that the ISDH can provide additional guidance and enforcement support from state government, and continue to collect complaints that are sent to us AND encourage our BoH/DoH to be active “reporters” in their day-to-day life as citizens, as well. I would advocate that our Board meetings have a regular agenda item to visibly and audibly report and discuss violations, acknowledge that we have no enforcement authority as yet (but are in pursuit), and implore our media partners to report on our meetings in a robust manner. Certainly we can report out at our next meeting how “the vote” went including a “roll-call” report of our Council members (since that vote is a matter of public record anyway). This may actually be more impactful as we return to school, COVID continues to make gains, and people begin to think more from a community-focused standpoint again. I wouldn’t advocate using the word “boycott”, but community organizers (which is what this council action has forced us to be) have historically found this to be an acceptable and effective tool.
It appears Marker’s advice was taken into consideration by the Health Department, specifically the use of the media. The following month, August 2020, the South Bend Tribune and several TV news stations started to publicly shame local businesses. The SBT published an article with a “Repeat Violations” section.
In another email chain uncovered by RNM, Dr. Marker brags about instituting “Draconian” restrictions on local businesses.
In the email from December 2020, the Vice President of the St. Joseph County Board of Health, Jason Marker, is addressing concerns from local physicians.
“Contrary to what may be generally believed, we and our Health Officer, Dr. Robert Einterz, have pushed extremely hard for Draconian restrictions on business activities…” Dr. Marker wrote in part of the email.
The term Draconian comes from the ancient Greek legislature, Draco, who prescribed death as the penalty for nearly every criminal offense.
Miriam-Webster defines Draconian as the following:
1 law : of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him
It turns out, the Draconian comparison appears to be spot on. Death to businesses is essentially what happened. In March, the South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing 62 local businesses that had closed in the year of COVID. In October, the SBT wrote another article showing business closures were up 50-percent.
And, it appears Dr. Marker showed little care for the livelihoods of local business owners with what he continued to write in an email chain between the president of the board of health and Health Officer, Dr. Robert Einterz. He also appears to show he was aware of the problematic nature of the actions he was pushing.
I prefer these conversations to happen in a dark corner of a local pub, but since you and Heidi (Dr. Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, President of the St. Joseph County Board of Health) and I can’t quite get away with that, we’ll have to consider alternatives! Marker wrote.
I don’t want to speak for Heidi (though I fear I’m about to) but I suspect that she and I are willing to rock whatever boats we need to in the interest of public health advocacy if that gives you cover to do whatever needs to be done.
Dr. Beidinger–Burnett responded enthusiastically.
I couldn’t agree more … I’m willing to rock the boat w you! I don’t know that it will matter whether we offend the commissioners or not since two of three have all declared their anti sci sentiment UNLESS Andy can reel them in.
Dr. Marker also rips into elected officials and concerned citizens for voicing their opinions. He describes people with a differing opinion than his as anti-science, ignorant and crude.
…the public has given us hours of crude, anti-science, willfully ignorant and grossly ill-informed opinions of our work including 4 personal threats and numerous broadly encompassing law suits to slow us down. Certain members of our County Council and County Commissioners are happily in their camp and have blocked our efforts to make progress in these areas while stripping the “teeth” from all of the interventions that they have been willing to pass to appease us.
At no point does Dr. Marker discuss the very real economic and social impacts of what he is pushing. Nor does he refer to any expert of public and economic policy. However, like a true professional, he alludes to punching a wall and abusing narcotic prescription drugs.
I’ll now be going to take a Xanax and find the drywall patch kit! He wrote.
You can read the entire email chain below.