By Ruben Castaneda
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:59 AM
The owners of a Langley Park liquor store who were swept up as part of a broad corruption probe paid bribes to Prince George's County officials and hid $400,000 in cash in their closet, federal prosecutors said in court Tuesday.
FBI wiretaps captured conversations between Amrik S. Melhi and public officials about bribes Melhi paid in exchange for official acts, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Copperthite said during a detention hearing for Melhi.
Copperthite and another federal prosecutor said in separate court hearings that Melhi, 51, and his wife, Ravinder K. Melhi, 49, also talked to each other about paying off county officials.
Prosecutors did not specify who allegedly received the bribes or what the officials did in exchange for the payoffs. But the revelations in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt show the broadening scope of the federal corruption investigation in Prince George's.
They also shed light on how Monday's arrests of the Melhis, who own Tick Tock Liquors and Restaurant, and seven others, including three county police officers, fit into the larger probe.
The investigation became public Friday when County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie Johnson, were arrested on charges of evidence tampering and destruction of evidence.
At the direction of her husband, Leslie Johnson allegedly flushed a $100,000 check from an unnamed developer down a toilet in their Mitchellville home and tried to hide $79,600 in cash in her bra as FBI agents armed with a search warrant knocked at the door.
Nine more people, including the Melhis, were arrested Monday, and federal authorities have said more arrests are coming.
Two of the police officers arrested - Sgt. Richard Delabrer, 45, of Laurel and Cpl. Chong Chin Kim, 42, of Beltsville - are charged with providing protection for the Melhis in the transportation and distribution of untaxed alcohol and cigarettes. Delabrer and Kim are accused of bringing the contraband from southern Virginia to the Tick Tock and other locations.
During Amrik Melhi's detention hearing, Copperthite said federal agents were investigating the protection scheme, using wiretaps, when they learned about the bribes.
The Tick Tock, located in a hardscrabble neighborhood, has been the center of controversy in recent years.
In 2007, Johnson cracked down on nightclubs, citing an increase in crime and unruly behavior. Club owners, including Melhi, negotiated with the county and agreed to increase security.
According to campaign finance records, Amrik Melhi has donated to the campaigns of several Prince George's politicians, including Johnson (D).
During Tuesday's detention hearings, Copperthite and Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell said that the Melhis, who are charged with conspiracy, should remain detained until their trials because they are flight risks.
The Melhis are from India and travel to that country frequently, the prosecutors said.
The prosecutors said the couple owns at least a dozen businesses in Prince George's and other parts of Maryland, held in the names of other people. The Melhis have gone to great lengths to hide their assets - including by sending people they know to India with large amounts of cash hidden under their clothes, the prosecutors said.
Copperthite said Amrik Melhi also tried to avoid paying a $900,000 civil judgment in a Maryland court by producing false liens to claim that his debts outweighed his assets. But, a wiretap recorded him saying, "I had so many assets, I can't hide them all," Copperthite said.
Amrik Melhi has also smuggled people into the country illegally through Mexico, using false documents, Copperthite alleged. In addition, in the late 1980s, Amrik Melhi was sentenced to five years in prison in South Carolina after he was found guilty of paying a prostitute $5,000 to marry him in an effort to obtain citizenship. Both Melhis are in the country legally.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day agreed that the Melhis were a flight risk and ordered both detained pending additional hearings.
During hearings for Amrik Melhi and Amir Milijkovic, 39, Copperthite described how the protection scheme worked.
At the Melhis's behest, Delabrer and Milijkovic would drive to southern Virginia to buy alcohol and cigarettes and bring them back to Maryland.
At times, Delabrer and Milijkovic rode together, Copperthite said, and at other times, they were in separate vehicles.
Delabrer and Milijkovic's roles were not only to transport the contraband but also to protect it from potential hijackers and police, Copperthite said.
The police sergeant and Milijkovic, who owns an auto glass store in College Park, split the fee for transporting and protecting the load, Copperthite said.
On "a couple of occasions," Melhi had Delabrer collect debts from people who had borrowed money from Melhi, Copperthite said. Another time, Delabrer offered to collect on a debt, but Melhi said he would take care of it himself.
Milijkovic was released after his detention hearing. Delabrer's hearing is later this week.
email@example.com Staff writers Akeya Dickson, Hamil R. Harris and Nathan Rott contributed to this report.