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

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.

The business, which holds a license allowing it to operate as a bar and a liquor store, was long a target of community complaints for issues including loud noise and loitering. It was also a generous campaign contributor, giving at least $3,150 to Johnson in his races for county executive in 2002 and 2006 and $1,500 to Johnson's wife, Leslie, who was elected Nov. 2 to the County Council.

Jack and Leslie Johnson were arrested Nov. 12 and charged with destroying evidence after authorities say he instructed her to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down a toilet and stuff $79,600 in her bra. Authorities have said the liquor case is related to the Johnson case but have not explained how.

In 2007, with great fanfare, Johnson announced that he was closing nine nightclubs, including Tick Tock, after violent incidents outside county bars.

Amrik Melhi was livid, said Alex Rodriguez, a lobbyist with whom Melhi consulted as he sought to reopen Tick Tock. Melhi's attitude, Rodriguez said, was that his campaign contributions to Johnson should have spared him such treatment. "He was like, 'I've paid these people,' " Rodriguez said, who added that he was not compensated for the advice. "There was this inflated sense that they could pay their way through."

Rodriguez said that as far as he knew, Melhi was referring to campaign contributions and not bribes. The business ultimately reopened and negotiated a plan with the county to increase security.

The Johnsons weren't the only candidates to receive donations from Tick Tock. Rushern L. Baker III, who succeeds Johnson as county executive on Dec. 6, received $1,500 in 2006. Sheriff Michael Jackson, who lost to Baker in the Democratic primary in September, has received $3,300 since 2003.

Those contributions were one small part of a huge lobbying effort by the alcohol industry in Maryland. A Washington Post analysis this year found that the industry's political action committees, employees, liquor distributors and wholesalers have donated more than $1.3 million to state lawmakers since 2000.

"The alcohol industry essentially has members of their organization in every neighborhood in the state," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D), who sponsored a bill in 2005 to force the county's liquor stores to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m. "They're among the most active givers in Maryland."

In Prince George's, there are more than 585 bars, restaurants, hotels and stores that hold liquor licenses. Each must get its license renewed periodically.

Because some license categories have been capped, the only way to get one may be to buy it from another establishment going out of business - a private and lucrative transaction that can take place only if the liquor board approves the transfer, giving its members significant power.

Watson said liquor establishments make donations because they understand the key role politicians play in choosing liquor board members and inspectors. They know, too, that county officials award business permits and control development of shopping centers, which often feature bars and restaurants.

Political process

Formally, the county's five liquor board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

But the governor is required by law to choose his appointments from among a list the local political party committees submit. Four seats are reserved for Democrats, the county's majority party, and one for a Republican; the commissioners receive $17,000 and full health benefits.

The Prince George's Democratic Central Committee interviews candidates based on the recommendation of the eight senators who represent the county.

"The process is they get recommended by the senate delegation," said Mel Franklin, who served on the Democratic committee for four years and was elected this month to the County Council. "Then the central committee vets them and forwards their names to the governor."

Liquor inspectors, most of whom are part time and paid $9,976, are chosen by the liquor board, said Jackson, the board's chairman.

He said the board interviews candidates based on recommendations from Norma Lindsay, the county's full-time chief liquor inspector. She is also the chairwoman of the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee.

Lindsay, in turn, chooses names put forward by senators, said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D), a senator-elect who anticipates naming three inspectors after she assumes office in January.

"I'm interested in those people who have integrity and who have a history of activism," Benson said.

Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D), whose husband, Earl Howard, serves on the liquor board, said she sees no problem with the tie. She said that they do not discuss cases and that she has never had a liquor establishment ask her to sway the board.

"We don't discuss liquor business," she said. "He's very private."

She countered that the spouses of many legislators work in areas of interest to the General Assembly and that a relationship alone does not taint the process. "People are going to try to put two and two together," she said. "The question is, what are the facts?"

Shaihi Mwalimu, who has served on the liquor board for six years, was recently elected by county Democrats to serve on the party's central committee.

He said that he has not yet decided whether to recuse himself when the committee recommends its appointees but that he sees no conflict between the two roles. "The state regulates alcohol for the local counties," he said. "We just implement the law."

As chief liquor inspector, Lindsay was hired through the county's personnel office, she said. She said that she recuses herself from the central committee's votes on liquor board candidates and that elected officials don't discuss liquor issues with her.

"Those are two different hats that I wear," she said. "One is a county job. The other is an elected position."

Some longtime liquor store owners agreed that commissioners and inspectors operate fairly. "I haven't had any problems with the inspectors," said Richard Futorvsky, who has owned Camelot Discount Liquors in Laurel since 1973. "As long as you're a straight shooter and you don't break the rules, you'll be fine."

But some say the inspector jobs are still considered an important patronage plum for state senators.

"Unofficially, they're there to do the bidding of the senators," said a central committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering elected leaders. "They staff the fundraisers, they put up the political signs. When the senator picks up the phone and says, 'I need something,' they're there."

Federal prosecutors opened a window into how they allege the liquor process works when they indicted longtime state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) in September.

They say Currie accepted bribes from Shoppers Food Warehouse in exchange for using the power of his office to help the grocer. He has denied wrongdoing.

One key task the authorities allege Currie accomplished for Shoppers: helping the store transfer a liquor license from one site to another.

Twice, authorities say, Currie met with the liquor board chairman and a top Shoppers executive to discuss the issue. Then he attended a 2005 hearing at which the liquor board considered the transfer. For hours, community members testified in opposition to the new Shoppers getting a liquor license.

Currie said nothing. And as he sat quietly, the board voted to grant the transfer.

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