Robert C. Lewis, former chairman of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control board, denied on the witness stand yesterday that he ever intended to profit from his efforts to help bar owner Tommy M. Motlagh obtain a liquor store lease at Hechinger Mall.
Lewis testified that contrary statements he made in secretly recorded conversations-- in which he claimed an interest of from 3 percent to 5 percent in the store and vowed it would be licensed over any opposition -- were a ruse he devised to convince a Hechinger Co. leasing agent that Motlagh could be trusted.
"I was telling him a story," said Lewis of his conversation with Hechinger executive Daniel Russell, who has testified that he pretended, as part of a federal probe into the alleged deal, to want a hidden partnership in the store. "And the story wasn't true."
Lewis, his former chief aide James E. Boardley, and Motlagh are on trial in U. S. District Court on conspiracy and bribery charges.
In his testimony yesterday, Lewis spoke of a secretly recorded meeting with Boardley, Russell, and an FBI agent posing as Russell's friend at Lewis' house -- a meeting at which, the prosecution contends, there was discussion of how Lewis and Boardley planned to receive profits from the liquor store: "I didn't view that discussion as a meeting. I saw that as a bunch of guys sitting around drinking a whole bunch of liquor and telling a whole bunch of lies."
Lewis was asked, in direct examination by defense attorney Robert Watkins, why he told Russell he could guarantee Motlagh a license for a store in Hechinger Mall even if the community protested it.
"I made those statements to make him Russell think I had all of this power and that I could use this power to make sure he got his money from Motlagh," Lewis said. "I wanted to be convincing to Mr. Russell. I wanted Russell and McKeever the FBI agent's assumed name to think we were involved, to lend credibility . . . I wanted to tell him that we trusted Motlagh."
After describing in the taped conversation having a secret interest in the store, Lewis told Russell he expected no money from Motlagh up front. He testified yesterday that he had said this because "I was not going to be involved with anyone sitting around a table pushing around money . . . There would be no way I would be involved in a situation where money was changing hands."
The defense contends that Lewis, Boardley and Motlagh were all friends, and that it was out of friendship that the two city officials sought to help Motlagh obtain a lease for a liquor store at the mall, located at Benning and Bladensburg roads in Northeast Washington. The defense maintains that Lewis and Boardley were entrapped into describing a financial arrangement that did not exist.
Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Beizer, Lewis acknowledged that as ABC chairman he had approved three liquor license applications for stores on property in which he had a 5 percent interest.
Lewis also said that from 1969 to 1972, he and in-laws owned a Southeast Washington liquor store that went bankrupt. His checks to pay off a $65,000 Small Business Administration loan for the store bounced in 1980 and 1981, he testified. The debt was paid last year, he said, when he took out an $85,000 second mortgage on his home in affluent North Portal Estates.
Lewis said he has been running a service station since last year.
Prosecutors contend that Lewis did several favors for Motlagh, including granting the transfer of a liquor license allowing Motlagh to sell a Northwest Washington go-go club called The Godfather.
Motlagh had appealed in court a previous ABC board decision barring the sale. The matter was sent back to the ABC board in early 1980 for a decision on whether the club fit into the neighborhood. Lewis said he understood the court action to mean the board was compelled to approve the sale.