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9 more arrested in Prince George's corruption probe

By Ruben Castaneda, Rosalind S. Helderman and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 12:16 AM

Nine people, including three Prince George's County police officers, were arrested Monday on charges involving drugs, guns, and black-market alcohol and cigarettes as authorities ratcheted up a sprawling corruption probe in the county.

Federal agents conducted numerous searches around the county and moved to seize more than 30 homes, businesses and vehicles as part of the widening investigation into corruption in Prince George's.

The nine suspects were arrested three days after County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife were led from their home in handcuffs, accused of evidence-tampering in a probe of sweetheart land deals. Federal officials say the arrests are all connected.

"This case and Friday's are among a series of related investigations," said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. He was referring to Monday's roundup of suspects and the arrests of the Johnsons on Friday, when the executive's wife allegedly flushed a $100,000 check down a toilet in their home and tried to hide $79,600 in cash in her bra as FBI agents knocked at the door of their home with a search warrant.

Johnson, 61, due to leave office next month after two terms as executive, and his 58-year-old wife, Leslie Johnson (D), newly elected to the County Council, were released after their arrests. Jack Johnson was back at work Monday doing the job "the people had elected him to do," his spokesman said, adding that couple are "strong and faithful."

The nine people arrested Monday were taken into custody early in the morning in an operation involving about 150 law enforcement officers who executed as many as a dozen search warrants. Among those charged are police Sgt. Richard Delabrer, 45, of Laurel, Cpl. Chong Chin Kim, 42, of Beltsville and Officer Sinisa Simic, 25, of Woodbridge.

A federal indictment unsealed Monday alleges that liquor store owner Amrik S. Melhi, 51, and others paid Delabrer and Kim to guard the distribution of untaxed cigarettes and alcohol in Maryland and Virginia. Melhi, the two officers and four other suspects are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion.

In a separate scheme, Simic is accused of conspiring to distribute cocaine and using firearms in drug trafficking. Another of the nine suspects, Mirza Kujundzic, 30, of Woodbridge, was charged with those same offenses.

The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, seeks the court-ordered forfeiture of $3.5 million in cash, 25 homes and businesses, 13 vehicles and 84 bank accounts that authorities said are associated with the alleged crimes.

Melhi, of Clarksville, owns several liquor stores, including Tick Tock Liquor and Restaurant in Langley Park, where Delabrer worked off-duty as a security guard. Tick Tock is well known in the county and is one of the most lucrative liquor stores in the area. Online property records indicate that Melhi owns several homes and properties in Prince George's and Maryland.

The others charged in the alleged booze and cigarettes scheme were identified as Melhi's wife, Ravinder K. Melhi, 49; Amir Milijkovic, 39, of Bowie, who owns a College Park auto glass store; Chun Chen, 34, of Bowie; and Jose Moreno, 49, of Alexandria.

All were ordered held until detention hearings Tuesday and later this week.

Eugene Pitroff, a lawyer, said federal agents raided his Upper Marlboro office Monday and seized records related to work he had done to help Amrick Melhi and several relatives obtain liquor licenses in Prince George's and Calvert counties.

Pitroff represented Tick Tock in 2007, when Johnson, citing an increase in crime and unruly behavior, ordered a crackdown on nightclubs in the county. After negotiating with the county, club owners, including Melhi, agreed to beef up security at their establishments and install new lights and cameras.

Maryland law sets caps on the number of liquor licenses that local jurisdictions can issue, meaning that most stores and restaurants obtain licenses via transfers from other stores and restaurants that are closing. Critics of the system have long said that it favors business owners who form alliances with state lawmakers and local politicians.

Campaign finance records show that Amrik Melhi has donated money to several Prince George's political candidates, including Johnson.

"As far as I knew, these were decent people," Pitroff said of Melhi and the relatives he helped obtained licenses. "All this stuff has come as a shock to me."

Among the properties that authorities have moved to confiscate, in addition to Tick Tock, are what appear to be several liquor stores in the county, including Shop Rite Liquors in Takoma Park. Public records indicate that Shop Rite is partly owned by Karl Granzow, a former deputy fire chief in Prince George's.

Granzow's home was searched in 2008 in the probe of development deals. At the time, Granzow declined to comment. As for the liquor store, Granzow's attorney, Timothy Maloney, said Granzow has a 25 percent stake in the business but is not involved in its daily operation. He said he does not think investigators are interested in his client.

Prince George's Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said that before Monday morning, he knew very little of the federal investigation that now includes three of his officers.

"I'm outraged at the disgraceful conduct demonstrated by three of our officers who tarnished our badge for their own greed and personal gain," he said. "These individuals are just bad people that need to go away."

He said that federal authorities "did not share the targets, the names of the targets with me," so he could not suspend all those involved while the investigation continues.

Hylton said that officers might soon be prohibited from working part time at establishments that are not properly licensed or are known to serve too much alcohol.

"We are going to go back with a process that will require each of our officers to submit a request to work at a location before they are approved," Hylton said, adding that a deputy chief will review each of the requests. "We have to really rein this back in. I think we have to address the issue of greed."

Since Johnson's arrest Friday and the announcement from the chief federal prosecutor that more charges were coming, anxiety and speculation have been rampant in Prince George's.

The Johnsons' arrests grew out of a four-year FBI investigation into developers and their associates suspected of "regularly providing things of value to public officials" in exchange for official favors, according to a 10-page affidavit filed with the criminal complaint.

The investigation centered on alleged bribes that Jack Johnson took in exchange for helping an unidentified developer seek grant money from a federal affordable-housing program administered by the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The developer gave Johnson cash and checks as far back as 2007, including one for $100,000, according to the affidavit.

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