Paul Banducci sits in his Bulldog Lounge next to Bulldog Pipe & Cigar at the Silver Lake Mall and says he has a question.
“Have you ever consumed liquor anywhere that it wasn’t your own home, or a bar that had a liquor license?”
“You’re a misdemeanor," Banducci says. "Congratulations.”
“Per the state code, Title 23, you’re in violation and the person who served it to you, shared it with you or had it stored wherever they were, wasn’t a licensed premise or your own home, is also a misdemeanor,” he continues. “At the very least, a misdemeanor now and if the state wishes to, they can ratchet you up for racketeering If any money was involved in any way, shape or form.”
He gives an example of buying a bike at a shop, and the owner pours you a shot to celebrate the sale.
“You’re misdemeanor, he’s a felon for racketeering if the state wants it to be,” Banducci says as he puffs on a Padron cigar.
Nobody knows that, he adds, and asks why.
“Because they don’t tell anybody this, and they don’t enforce except when they choose to,” he adds.
He asks another question, this one: Have you ever played poker in someone’s home?
If it involves “one red cent” in the middle, it’s a misdemeanor.
“And if it’s your house, they can get you for money laundering if they so choose,” Banducci says.
Between all those scenarios, “You are at least a two-time misdemeanor and at worst, a two- to three-time felon,” he adds. “So that’s how we start these things.”
Then, Banducci adds this:
“You’re now in my world. It happens when you make political enemies in a small town.”
Banducci, 32, is upset. Both with government and law enforcement after he pleaded guilty in August to several misdemeanors, two counts of gambling, as well as compounding a misdemeanor, public nuisance and disturbing the peace. Police said the activities occurred between mid-July 2015 and late March 2017.
He’s also not pleased with a Sept. 21 Press report about the case that he believes didn’t present his side of the story.
This is his side.
He speaks of Idaho’s laws on the books since 1938 that he says ultimately led to his plea deal and being sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation, nine days in jail, 80 hours of community service and $2,500 in restitution and court fees.
The Post Falls man points to Title 52 that deals with liquor, Title 18 that deals with gaming, and Title 52 on public nuisance.
These laws are eight decades old, Banducci notes. They have not been changed.
“They don’t usually bother people with it but they can if they want to, and that’s why I’m looking to change that,” he says. “My example, my story, what the state has put me through in the last 3 1/2 years, I want to make positive changes.”
Banducci says he does not play the victim and “I don’t do sob stories.”
“I want people to think critically and I would like to effect some change, so that’s what’s going on here,” he says.
• • •
Bulldog Lounge recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. It is dimly lit, with a bar, large comfortable chairs, tables and fun, colorful signs on the walls. The atmosphere is casual.
It has about 100 members who pay a fee. Hence, it is a private club. After signing in, they can smoke a cigar, drink beer and wine, play pool and carry on conversations about religion, about politics, about sports, about life.
On a Thursday afternoon, two men sit at a table and chat over cigars, while two others set up the game "Terraforming Mars" on the cover of the pool table.
Another customer walks in the back door.
"How you doing?" he asks Banducci.
His wife, Mary, stops by with their two dogs, Stout and Porter (yes, named after beer), who apparently are also regulars as they wander around and plop down on the floor.
Bulldog Lounge, Banducci says, creates “a sense of something greater than just being friends through the bar.”
“We’re family here,” he says, smiling.
Life, he says, is more civil with cigars. You can sit down with your political polar opposite and have a cordial conversion if you’re smoking a cigar. You will connect in a way you have not before.
“My number one love language is quality time and cigars are incredibly relational industry,” he says.
It was Banducci’s dream, since he was a kid and first smoked a cigar to celebrate his 15th birthday at the urging of his uncle.
“Here kid, try this on for size,” the uncle said. “Happy birthday.”
Banducci did. He recalls it was a Padron 5000.
“I’m actually smoking a Padron right now,” he says as smoke floats upward.
Family members watched as he lit the cigar, convinced he would gag, cough, toss it away.
“At the time, I think it was fancied as a joke,” he says. “The joke was on them. I smoked the thing all the way down to the nub and I loved every second of it. I knew at that point that was one of the industries I wanted to be in.”
Banducci is well-spoken. Articulate. Intelligent. He speaks clearly, calmly, directly. In front of him rests a stack of papers pertaining to Idaho’s laws.
“Most of us aren’t good at being told what to do,” he says. “I knew I wanted to own my own business.”
In 2013, he was fired the day before Thanksgiving from a Post Falls plant.
His wife, Mary, urged him to check out Bulldog Pipe & Cigar at the mall, where he was a customer. He asked the owner about a job, was told no, but found out it was for sale. He bought it and took over in January 2014.
He added products and made some changes. He took over the next-door space in 2015, remodeled it and opened a lounge.
It was a good match — sales of cigars and pipes and related products, and a place to smoke them and hang with friends just a walk through a door.
“This was all my baby,” he says. “Here we are, just working at it every day.”
Banducci employs two and his wife helps out now and then.
“She really classes the joint up when she’s around,” he says, smiling.
Banducci says the Bulldog Lounge is not what most people might think, a place where old, rich men sit, smoke and discuss their latest purchase of a yacht or money they made off the stock market.
“It’s easy to vilify us if you don’t know us,” he says.
It is a mix of young and old, men and women, smokers and nonsmokers. His clients are blue-collar workers, lawyers, politicians, law officers and church ministers. He refers to them as “pillars of the community.”
“We have relationships with all these people. We keep our money here as much as we can because I put my money where my mouth is,” he says.
Bulldog Lounge is a place in which he takes pride, a place he created based on vision, planning and hard work. It is a key part of his livelihood with Bulldog Pipe & Cigar.
“This is the American dream,” he says.
• • •
The dream turned into a nightmare when, in March 2017, state officers raided the lounge following an 11-month undercover investigation into allegations of illegal gambling and alcohol sales.
Numerous liquor bottles were reportedly seized during the search, along with credit card receipts, bank statements, membership records and other business documents. Phones and a laptop were confiscated and the lockers of clients were searched.
Charges were filed in January 2020 against Banducci, who had no previous criminal record.
He was initially charged with two counts of racketeering and one count of money laundering but accepted a plea agreement.
Banducci disputes that he was selling liquor or running a gambling operation.
He says there were poker games at Bulldog Lounge, with buy-ins in the range of $20, and players brought their own liquor, “which they purchased from the state of Idaho.”
“We never touched it, we never served it, we never sold it,” he says.
Banducci says the Bulldog Lounge has served alcohol just one time and had a catering permit from the city to do so on St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. It served a flight of Irish whiskies, five.
“That was the one day we sold it,” he says.
As for the poker games, he says they were much like friends playing in a home. It wasn’t a casino-style operation and dealing rotated among players, a small group that occasionally got together at the lounge.
“They make it sound like it was some kind of covert operation we were running here,” Banducci says. “They make me out to be a villain because I’m dealing a few hands, like I’m running a casino, which is laughable.”
He says the “house” made no money.
“I didn’t make any money on it,” he says. “It was a net zero.”
Banducci pauses, then says, “That’s the liquor and the poker.”
The whole thing bothers him.
He says Idaho State Police received a tip of illegal liquor sales and gambling and launched an investigation. An informant joined The Bulldog Lounge, paid for membership and inquired about the poker and liquor, he says.
“We never solicited it,” Banducci says.
He wishes officials had simply let him know the poker games and drinking of liquor on site needed to stop, and they would have.
“That’s trouble I don’t want,” he says.
But he got it.
Three and a half years after the raid, he pleaded guilty in August to several misdemeanors, two counts of gambling, as well as compounding a misdemeanor, public nuisance and disturbing the peace.
He says he agreed to a plea deal because if he went to court on the original criminal complaints of two counts of racketeering and one count of money laundering, which are felonies, he faced up to 10 years in prison.
With a family, he couldn’t take a chance in court.
“I sure as shit ain’t no organized criminal, but the law says I am now,” Banducci says.
The stress between the time of the raid, the charges and pleading guilty in court, he says, took a toll not just financially, but physically and emotionally.
“Nothing is more stressful than fighting with the government,” he says.
• • •
According to its owner, the Bulldog Lounge is open and business is returning to normal. Sales have increased about 5 percent each year since the raid in 2017.
They are sure to follow all applicable laws.
“We remain in full compliance, always have, always will, because again, we‘re not looking for that fight. We don’t live that life. I want to play ball with everybody. It’s the smart thing to do.”
He says there is a demand for his products and services. He has loyal customers. His long-term plan remains expanding his business to “become that household name in the region.”
That will have to be somewhere else, other than his current home.
Banducci said he recently learned that mall officials told him both the pipe and cigar store and the lounge had to leave by the end of November. He said he has locations he is looking at in Post Falls for a new home.
"We have six weeks to do what would normally take six months," he said.
In the course of an hour-long interview, Banducci comes back to what he believes is an unfair system and an intrusive government.
He uses words like "hypocrisy" and "double standards" when describing regulations of his industry.
He questions why the state’s tobacco tax rate is 40 percent, while it taxes cigarettes at 57 cents a pack.
He questions why the state doesn’t tax online purchases in Idaho for either the seller or the buyer, creating economic challenges for local, small business owners.
He questions why a liquor license is so expensive, in the range of $250,000 or more — and that’s if one comes up for sale, which is rare.
He questions why it’s OK to bring wine to a place of business via a corkage fee, but you can’t bring liquor.
He questions why poker, a “provable game of skill,” is illegal, while the state can operate a lottery.
He questions “why we can’t have laws that better reflect the day and age we live in, the culture we live in.”
Banducci shakes his head.
While thankful to have most of the ordeal behind him (he did some community service on Wednesday), he is disappointed in how it came down.
“It’s not a justice system. It’s a judicial system. A legal system. There’s not a whole lot of justice these days.”
His goal is to “effect positive change” by creating awareness of what he says are inequities in laws and regulations.
He knows it won’t make him popular with some people. He doesn’t care.
“I don’t shake hands and kiss babies the way a lot of other people do,” he says. “That’s what happens.”