AUGUSTA — The owner of the popular Red Barn restaurant unleashed her anger at Augusta officials Friday in a two-minute Facebook video that attracted thousands of views, over a fine she said she received for not having a mass gathering permit for a fundraising event on July 6, 2016.

But while she spoke passionately in the video about how unfair it was that she was fined for a fundraiser for Honor Flight Maine, it turns out the event that violated city code was a different event. It was a show by the Veayo Twins Trio. The Honor Flight event was held five days later, on July 11.

Laura Benedict said Friday evening, hours after she posted her video, that she had not looked at the consent agreement that Matt Nazar, the city’s director of development services, dropped off with her at the restaurant Friday.

“When he brought it to me, I didn’t even look at it,” she said. “That sucks. It still doesn’t make it right to wait a year after an internal investigation. I was so upset. I was so mad.”

At 7:30 p.m., Benedict posted a statement acknowledging her mistake.

Even so, shortly before midnight Friday, the video had 437,000 views, 20,934 shares and 1,509 comments.

It had also prompted the office of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, to weigh in.

“Every American, every Mainer, should do everything humanly possible to honor and thank those who fought for our freedom, especially those who fought in World War II,” Poliquin said in a prepared statement. “As a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I salute the owners of the Red Barn for their charity efforts on behalf of our Veterans. Every day we can all do our part to honor and help the men and women who have served our great Nation.”

Poliquin’s news release included a link to the video.

Calls to Poliquin’s office Friday evening were not returned.

In her video, Benedict urged viewers to contact the members of the Augusta City Council, whom she listed by name.

City officials, who were deluged with emails and Facebook messages, said the video was misleading even before they realized the discrepancy between the date of the Honor Flight event and the event cited in the city document.

They say they are concerned about the public’s reaction.

Mayor David Rollins said Friday afternoon that he and the other members of the council were blindsided by the uproar. While they support the work of Benedict and the Red Barn, Rollins said, “I have to support the city code office. We can’t look the other way on this one and not on that one.”

“There’s a lot more to the story than she portrayed, and it’s inflamed a lot of passion in people outside of Augusta,” City Manager Bill Bridgeo said.

Elected officials and city employees were deluged with emails and comments over the video, some of which Bridgeo termed hostile and strongly critical of Augusta city government.

“City staff feel like they are in a pickle,” he said. “We support what Laura’s doing, and buy the Monday night dinners for the causes she supports, and we feel a lot of pride in what she’s doing.”

But even as she does that, the Red Barn has neighbors who have complained — vociferously, in Rollins’ description — when city noise ordinances have been broken.

In the video, a visibly emotional Benedict says she was “being fined $200 for sending our heroes to Washington, D.C.” She says taxpayers’ money had been wasted.

“The Red Barn is being fined for orchestrating an NBC Evening News No. 1 million viewed video that put Augusta, Maine on the map, incidentally, and sent most of our beautiful heroes down to Washington for the last time,” she says.

The consent agreement notes two dates on which the Red Barn held outdoor concerts, July 6, 2016 and June 11 of this year.

During the earlier event, Augusta police responded to noise complaints twice, and found that noise exceeded the 60 decibel limits set out in city ordinance. Each time, the music was turned down.

Augusta ordinances include a provision for a mass gathering permit that allows the holder to exceed the city’s noise limit for events.

While the Red Barn has secured that permit in the past, no permit was issued for the June event.

The consent agreement notes that while Red Barn employees dropped off a permit application on a Friday for a Sunday event, neither the chief nor the deputy chief was available at the Augusta Police Department to issue the permit. When neighbors complained about the noise, police found no mass gathering permit on file.

In his memo to city officials, Nazar noted that the $200 fine was twice the fee for a mass gathering permit, and because no sound measurements could be taken in June, no fine is proposed for that incident.

In an interview shortly after she posted the video but before the discrepancy in the dates came to light, Benedict said she’s just trying to do good things.

“It’s not the middle of the night,” she said.

In the video, Benedict said she would pay $2,000 to the city rather than $200, and held up a check.

“I made that reference to $2,000 because I am pissed,” she said. “I would pay 10 times what they are asking to shove it back in their face. That’s how I felt when I talked to Matt (Nazar).”

She said a number of people have offered to pay the fine on her behalf, but she said she has told them to donate it to Honor Flight.

“Listen, I can’t emphasize this enough. I want to play by the rules. I will pay the fine. I’m not asking for special treatment,” she said, “But come on.”

This is not the first time Benedict has run afoul of authorities. In 2013, the state Attorney General’s Office sent a cease and desist letter to the restaurant, which had been raising money for charities via more than 100 benefits, because the restaurant had not complied with the state’s Charitable Solicitations Act by failing to register with the Office of Professional and Occupational Registration.

Jessica Lowell can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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