Arrests in Pr. George's probe expose ties between politicians, liquor officials

Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County's executive, was arrested Nov. 12 as federal investigators executed search warrants at the County Administration Building. His wife, Leslie Johnson, was also arrested. Each was charged with evidence tempering and destroying evidence.
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:19 AM

The arrests of a Prince George's County liquor store magnate and his wife by federal authorities last week as part of a broad corruption probe involving County Executive Jack B. Johnson has pulled back the curtain on the complex and often incestuous world of liquor and politics in the county.

The county's chief liquor inspector is also the head of the local Democratic Party. One of the five members on the Board of Liquor License Commissioners - responsible for granting and revoking liquor licenses - is also on the party's central committee, which helps choose the board members.

The liquor board's chairman was first appointed while his wife led the county Democrats in the mid-1990s. And a third board member is married to a senior state delegate.

The relationships open the licensing and inspection process to the perception of political influence and might lead some liquor store owners to think that they can curry favorable treatment by cozying up to elected leaders.

"Sometimes those things are fine. And sometimes they're not. Does it create more questions in people's minds? It does," said Micah Watson, a Cheverly Town Council member who watched the commissioner appointment process while serving on the county's Democratic Central Committee for four years. "It lets elected officials control liquor policy in the county, writ large. They're controlling who has a liquor license, who's selling what and when and how. And there's a lot of power in that."

Franklin Jackson, chairman of the liquor board since 2000, acknowledged the close ties between politicians and those who monitor liquor establishments. But he said that's because both emerge from a core of county activists involved in public life.

"The board is independent of everyone," said Jackson, who said that the inspectors are diligent and that the board applies the law fairly. In addition, he said, it's up to state regulators to monitor the products sold at liquor stores.

The owners of Tick Tock Liquors and Restaurant in Langley Park have been charged in a scheme to sell untaxed alcohol and cigarettes. But authorities have said they also overheard owner Amrik S. Melhi discussing bribes with public officials on wiretaps.

For Melhi and his wife, Ravinder K. Melhi, liquor licenses proved to be valuable commodities, all the more so because state law limits how many bars and stores can hold permits to sell alcohol. From more than a dozen liquor establishments, Melhi did so well that he once bragged on a wiretap that he couldn't hide all his assets, the authorities allege.

Love-hate relationship

Prince George's politicians have long maintained a love-hate relationship with the owners of the liquor stores and nightclubs that dot the county but are particularly prevalent in less-affluent neighborhoods.

While publicly railing against the establishments as community blight, many politicians also accept the store owners' campaign contributions.

Tick Tock Liquors, whose owners were arrested Monday by the FBI, is a good example.

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