Smut fight

Conservative politicians and district attorneys across the country always seem to be waging battles to shut down sexually oriented businesses. But the largest and most successful adult newspaper in Texas is finding its worst enemies have come from within.

The Metroplex Sundown, a Dallas-based weekly that circulates throughout the state, has enjoyed enormous success since the first issue hit the streets about three years ago. The Dallas Observer reported on the paper's growth in a December 19 story, "Two for the road."

Also distributed in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Abilene, and other Texas cities, the Sundown publishes page after page of advertisements for gentlemen's clubs, adult book and video stores, tanning salons, nude modeling clubs, and escort services. By way of editorial content, the paper throws in a bit of blue-collar humor from columnists writing under bawdy pen names.

Apparently filling a longtime void, the paper flourished immediately when it began distributing for free at adult book stores, tattoo parlors, and topless bars. The Sundown turned a profit its first year, something almost unheard of for a small, start-up weekly newspaper.

But twilight may be coming already for the Sundown, which has found itself locked in a bitter newspaper war.

In the space of two days in early December, eight members of the Sundown's sales staff quit to form a competing newspaper. About the same time, Gerald Lenhan, one of the Sundown's two original owners, filed a lawsuit attempting to have Sundown Publications, Inc. dissolved.

Lawsuits, restraining orders, and claims of unfair trade practices have ensued as the two newspapers fight for the adult advertising dollars the Sundown monopolized ever so briefly.

Self-described "publishing goddess" A.J. Crowell, a 50-percent partner with Lenhan and former boss of the eight salespeople who quit the Sundown, has filed a lawsuit against her former employees.

In her suit, Crowell claims her former sales staffers stole mailing lists and equipment and used purloined confidential information to establish the competing Adult News and Entertainment.

Crowell is also fighting partner Lenhan's efforts to buy her out, and she is refusing to let the Sundown company be dissolved without a fight. A judge ordered Lenhan and Crowell to meet with a mediator on January 8 and try to work out their differences.

Crowell declined to talk to the Observer on the advice of her attorney, but attorney Baxter Banowsky spelled out his client's assertions over the telephone.

"It is our contention that the resignation of the eight employees to form Adult News and Entertainment and the attempt by Gerald Lenhan to close Metroplex Sundown was not a coincidence," Banowsky declared. "We believe he is, in fact, the 'silent partner' for Adult News and Entertainment, the financial backer. Furthermore, we allege that before they quit, the former employees stole confidential client lists and layout boards, among other equipment, to use for the creation of Adult News and Entertainment."

On the strength of these claims, Crowell and Banowsky convinced State District Judge Adolph Canales to issue a temporary restraining order on December 11 prohibiting the printing and distribution of Adult News and Entertainment. Visiting Judge David Cave, citing First Amendment concerns, amended the order on December 20 to allow Adult News to publish as long as it used no equipment or client lists taken from the Sundown.

Meanwhile, Lenhan obtained his own restraining order, prohibiting Crowell from entering the offices of Sundown Publications, but Cave also amended that order and allowed Crowell to return to her office.

Since Crowell still had a sincere desire and the resources to publish a newspaper, the judge reasoned, it was again trampling on First Amendment rights to prevent her from doing so, at least until the fate of the Sundown is decided.

Lenhan, who was in Europe with his family for the holidays, could not be reached for comment. Allie Stout, former sales staffer at both the Observer and Metroplex Sundown and current co-publisher and editor of Adult News and Entertainment, defended her new publication.

"We took no equipment from the Sundown offices," she insists. "And as far as 'confidential client lists,' there was nothing confidential at all about the advertisers who appeared in the Sundown. People walking down the street could pick up that newspaper and see for themselves who advertised. These were contacts we had already established."

Stout is equally adamant that Lenhan has provided no financial support for the start-up of Adult News and Entertainment, although "he might come aboard later," she says. She claims the seed money came from another former Sundown sales rep who quit along with Stout.

Stout says it wasn't some entrepreneurial impulse to compete that drove her and her fellow Sundown employees to leave. She points to a collective resignation letter signed by the eight employees, which reads "The reason for my resignation is that I can no longer work under the unrealistic demands, insults, and verbal abuse of A.J. Crowell." She admits, though, that merely quitting to work at another paper wasn't an option, because "the money was too good" at the Sundown.

She bristles at the suggestion that, with the formation of Adult News and Entertainment, she fired the first round in a war of the Texas adult newspapers.

"I don't want to fight a war," she protests. "I don't wish anything bad on A.J. I just want them to leave us alone so we can publish our paper and get on with our lives.

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Jimmy Fowler

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