Baltimore City police officers were very clear when they testified before the Liquor Board last November – they had observed flagrant drug dealing right in the doorway at Bill’s Cafe, at 6701 Holabird Avenue.
“We locked the buyer up, we went and locked the dealer up and once we got in there we learned that the dealer’s girlfriend was actually the bartender,” Sgt. Ed Davis said, describing what he and a detective from narcotics had witnessed on September 16, 2013.
The officers were clear that there had been chronic problems with drug dealing in that spot, that “the community was in an uproar” and that the DJ had been dealing drugs in the doorway before.
Also clear was the Board’s 2-1 vote to revoke the club’s license. “Guilty, 2nd offense, license revoked,” Chairman Stephan W. Fogleman had tweeted that day.
Fogleman had tweeted that news even though he had voted against the move – in order, he said, to let owner Nicolaos Trintis sell the license. His two fellow Board members had overruled him, Fogleman acknowledged, in announcing their decision at the hearing.
Or had they?
At yesterday’s hearing, it was clear the dead license had somehow sprung back to life: the Board was scheduled to transfer it to applicants Dilbag Singh and George Mooney.
Rebecca Lundberg Witt, of the Community Law Center – who described all this in a post last night on their watchdog blog, “Booze News” – was flabbergasted.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Witt told The Brew in an email.
Ultimate Zombie License
Witt, who has been observing the Liquor Board closely for months, remains circumspect and sticks to the lawyerly detail in her blog posts.
But yesterday’s actions, in effect, created “the ultimate zombie license,” she told us.
“It’s not just a license that the Board has forgotten about or extended too many times, but a license that the Board actively took away from the licensee as a punishment for the serious and continuous drug trafficking he allowed to occur,” Witt said.
“To allow the former licensee to benefit financially by selling the revoked license is contrary to all of the responsibilities of the Liquor Board laid out in Article 2B,” she observed.
Witt noted in her blog post that the licensee had brought a line-up of witnesses to testify in favor of the transfer and that it was only because of a community leader’s protest that the Board postponed the matter to next week’s meeting.
Joyce Adamski, president of the Southeastern District Police Community Relations Council, told the Commissioners the applicants never came to the community to say they were trying to get the revocation overturned. Adamski said that “considering the history of the premises,” the community wanted to at least meet with the applicants Trintis had lined up as new owners.
The Commissioners agreed to the postponement but, as Witt relates in her account of the proceedings, there seemed to be pressure from Fogleman and Trintis’ attorney, Melvin Kodenski, to move things along.
“Mr. Kodenski objected to the postponement because the witnesses were there to testify and because the decision is time sensitive,” Witt wrote. “Fogleman pointed out that the Board is anticipating. . . ‘protest of renewal season,’ which is time-consuming.”
Meeting Held “in the Back”
Asked today how the Board could be planning to transfer a dead license, Fogleman said “a motion to reconsider was filed four or five months ago and we approved it.”
Asked when this happened, Fogleman said, “If we revoked it in August, it would have been the next month we reconsidered.” Fogleman was reminded by The Brew that the revocation took place in November.
So was the motion to reconsider voted upon in one of the weekly hearing sessions the Board holds on Thursdays? (The docket for these sessions is published online and closely watched by the communities.)
No, Fogleman said, it was considered and voted on “in the back” during one of the breaks in between the public sessions.
Fogleman described these non-public meetings where, he said, “it’s the board’s policy” to make decisions on, among other matters, motions to reconsider a license revocation.
“Every week when we get a break, whether it’s before the hearings or in between hearings, we go through correspondence,” Fogleman said, noting that they also consider and take action on such items as a request for a one-day license. “Doug Paige has a list for us every week,” he said, referring to Douglas K. Paige, the Board’s acting executive secretary.
In the case of the Bill’s Cafe license, Fogleman said, they received letters from the licensee’s attorney and from others in support of reconsideration, including one from John Gavrilis, CEO of the Greektown Community Development Corporation and another from Fr. Michael Pastrikos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
“We agreed that what we ought to do is to stop him from operating, not to financially impugn him,” Fogleman said.
“It’s Our Case at That Point”
Asked how unusual it is for the board to revoke a license, Fogelman said, “It’s rare, maybe once a year. It’s the ultimate sanction.”
And the Board can move to un-do such a serious punishment in a non-public meeting without consulting the community?
“While a petition to revoke is handled in public, a petition to reconsider is not,” he said. “It’s our case at that point.”
“We’ve just been following policy,” said Fogleman, who was recently appointed by the legislature to an Orphan’s Court judgeship and is leaving the Liquor Board in several weeks.
“A future Board,” he said, “might want to reconsider the policy.”
How serious were the problems leading to the revocation?
The video of the officer’s testimony, posted by Fogleman, can be viewed below.
Here are some excerpts we transcribed from what Sgt. Davis said:
It was pretty much in plain view, in view of everything at the bar. . . Outside we’ve had numerous arrests. We’ve got like 30 arrests on that corner. We were there a couple month ago for the same location, same transaction. The DJ was dealing in the doorway.
So the community’s in an uproar. Squires Restaurant’s been complaining. There’s a lot of robberies that are increased on the county side – crime’s picked up in that area. It’s quite obvious it was an open-air drug market at the time.
Marijuana, Cocaine and Heroin
For further reference, here’s some information about Trintis’ previous appearance before the Liquor Board on September 26th.
In this case, the police officer testifying was also Sgt. Davis. The Brew described Witt’s Booze News writeup of the testimony and Board ruling here.
According to Witt’s account, Davis said that on a Feb. 15, 2013 visit they found “twenty $20 vials of crack cocaine, a “very little loose rock cocaine,” a “little bit of heroin” and “a bag of marijuana in the DJ booth.”
In addition to the drugs found on the premises, “drug transactions were observed on the premises,” Fogleman said at the hearing, reviewing the violations. Trintis’ other violations were: that the names of the people identified as the dj and bartender were not displayed on the premises and that there was live music without permission from the board.
Trintis said he was not aware of the drug violations (“I can’t look through their clothes. . . I don’t know whatthey’re doing behind my back or in the bathrooms!”) but admitted the others. Davis and Trintis testify in this Liquor Board video:
The commissioners found Trintis in violation on each of the charges and fined him $500 for the drug-related violations, Witt said. Commissioner Elizabeth C. Smith had voted to suspend the license but she was overruled 2-1.
Trintis said he had been in business since 1973 (I’m not new at this.”) but that the neighborhood had deteriorated and that he was “trying to sell the business.”