Gerard F. Holcomb, a prominent Prince George's County banker, Republican fund-raiser and member of the county liquor board, acted as a business promoter and financial advisor for more than two years for a pizza parlor licensed and regulated by the board.
During this time, Holcomb received cash payments of up to $100 a week and was involved in assisting the owners of the business obtain $577,000 in loans. He also led a vote on the liquor board against giving a beer and wine license to a potential competitor of the pizza parlor.
Two of the former partners of the business, Little Italy Inc., in Marlow Heights, allege in on-the-record interviews that Holcomb actually had a hidden interest in the business and that the payments were his share of the profits as a partner. Holcomb denied that he was a partner in the business, a partnership that wouldhave placed him in violation of state and county ethics rules. The dispute over this alleged partnership has surfaced recently in a lawsuit.
Holcomb acknowledges that he received the cash payments, which also were paid to the four partners in the business. But he defends his actions by explaining that the payments varied in amount and were simply reimbursements for expenses he incurred while helping the business expand to another location in Virginia Beach. He insists that he never used his position on the Board of License Commissioners, known as the liquor board, to help the pizza parlor or himself.
"I've got a good reputation. I'm straight," Holcomb said in a recent interview. Later, he added: "I did help them, there's no question about it. I did lend them money, there's no question about it."
According to records and interviews with the partners in Little Italy, Holcomb helped arrange a $247,000 loan to Little Italy from John Hanson Savings and Loan, where he serves on the board of directors; cosigned and thereby became liable for a $145,000 loan to the Virginia Beach branch of the business; helped arrange a second $150,000 loan there, and personally loaned the business partners $35,000. Holcomb also said that he received, in addition to the expense reimbursements, regular monthly cash payments of $250 from Little Italy to help him pay off $24,000 that he said he had loaned to the Virginia Beach operation.
A dispute over that $24,000 is the subject of a suit by Holcomb in Prince George's Circuit Court against one of the former Little Italy partners. A further inquiry into the matter by The Washington Post shows the close relationship between Holcomb and the owners that lasted until 1980, after the Virginia Beach Little Italy failed, at great expense to everyone involved.
The relationship between Holcomb, 45, the longest-tenured member of the three-member liquor board, and the owners of Little Italy began in 1978, a year after Little Italy was licensed by the county liquor board to sell beer and wine. The pizza parlor was built as a family business by two brothers, Andrew A. and Joseph M. Chiacchieri, and was to include their sister JoAnn.
At the time they met, Holcomb had been on the board for ten years, since being appointed in 1968 by Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. A prominent county Republican, who long has been a confidant and fund-raiser for Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, Holcomb fills the board's lone "Republican" seat. The members of the liquor board have authority to grant and revoke lucrative liquor licenses and oversee the inspection of liquor establishments.
Andrew Chiacchieri says that he was introduced to Holcomb by a county liquor inspector. Holcomb said he does not remember how he first got involved with Little Italy. Both Holcomb and Chiacchieri said that they quickly became friends and almost immediately began discussing Little Italy's plans for expanding into a chain of pizza parlors.
"At the time, it was thought that Little Italy would become the next McDonalds," recalled JoAnn Chiacchieri.
The Chiacchieris were then introduced to John P. Kelly, a friend of Holcomb's and a young businessman who had money to invest.
"He [Holcomb] knew how much money I had and that I was looking for places to invest in," Kelly recalled.
In the summer of 1978, Kelly agreed to become a partner with Andrew, Joseph and JoAnn Chiacchieri, eventually investing more than $100,000 in Little Italy and its various expansion efforts.
According to court papers filed by Andrew Chiacchieri and backed up by Kelly in an interview, Holcomb also was asked at this time to become a partner for $100,000. They said that he agreed, and was to pay off his share at a later date.
"You're talking about five people: Jack, me, Joe, JoAnn and Jerry. Equal on the stock and the property," said Andrew Chiacchieri, the architect of the partnership and its expansion efforts. In an affidavit, he said that each person was to receive a 1/5th interest in the business, although Holcomb's interest was to remain in Andrew Chiacchieri's name until Holcomb stepped off the liquor board.
Land records for Litte Italy of Marlow Heights and Virginia Beach show that the property owners were Andrew, Joseph and JoAnn Chiacchiari and John Kelly. On the records, everyone had a 1/5th interest except Andrew Chiacchieri, who is shown with 2/5ths.
Joseph Chiacchieri, who now is the sole owner of Little Italy and holds the liquor license and John Hanson mortgage, said that he recalled discussions about Holcomb becoming a partner, but could not remember any final decision being made on that subject.
"I assume he [Holcomb] probably considered himself a partner in some respects or maybe an up-and-coming partner," Chiacchieri said. But he said that he personally never considered Holcomb a partner, explaining: "He never put anything in my pocket"
Holcomb denies that he was a partner in Little Italy.
"I was never a partner. I paid no money, I accepted no stock, my name was not on the titles of ownership of the land," he said, "If they perceive me to be a partner, that was their problem not mine."
Holcomb said that he discussed the possibility of becoming a partner in the Virginia Beach branch of Little Italy, but never acted on the proposal.
"At that time, I thought I'd probably resign from the liquor board when I took an equity position at Virginia Beach or anyplace else," Holcomb said.
The Maryland ethics regulations in effect at the time of Holcomb's involvement with Little Italy prohibit a public official from being a partner or having a financial interest in any business affected by the official's decision. The Prince George's ethics rules have similar provisions.
There also is a set of laws involving alcoholic beverage regulation in the state. These laws differ from one county to another. The laws in Prince George's do not prohibit liquor board members from owning an interest in a licensed establishment, unlike several other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County.
All of the partners agree that Holcomb, a prominent and well-connected banker, was consulted regularly on business matters from mid-1978 on.
"He was always there to give advice," JoAnn Chiacchieri said. "They the partners ran everything by him to get his opinion."
Holcomb first assisted the partners in November, 1978, when he helped arrange a $247,000 mortgage from John Hanson Savings and Loan, where he is a director and president of one of its subsidiaries, John Hanson Service Corporation.
After the partnership was formed and it was agreed that Little Italy would set up a branch on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, Holcomb helped find property for the new place and negotiated a contract for it. Holcomb said he thinks that he signed the initial option to purchase the land and may have contributed to a $1,000 deposit at that time. He did not sign the final purchase agreement.
Later, after the Virginia Beach property was purchased, Holcomb cosigned a $145,000 construction loan from the National Bank of Washington, where he served on an advisory board, and helped obtain a $150,000 loan from another bank. He also cosigned and used his personal finances to help guarantee a $165,000 lease for pizza parlor equipment. According to Holcomb's own assessment he also personally advanced $35,000 for the Virginia Beach operation.
While Holcomb was helping with these arrangements in Virginia Beach, he and all the partners were receiving regular payments from the petty cash coffers of Little Italy in Marlow Heights.
According to Andrew Chiacchieri and Jack Kelly, who handed out the payments, all five business associates received $100 a week for about six months.
"Joe got a check, Andy got a check, I got mine in a check, Jerry's was always cash, and I believe that JoAnn was always cash," Kelly said. Joe Chiacchieri confirmed that petty cash payments were made, but said that they occurred for "a very short period of time."
Holcomb said that in late 1978 and early 1979 Little Italy paid him some money in cash and checks to reimburse him for expenses incurred while helping the partners in Virginia Beach. Holcomb said that he cannot remember how much he received each week -- saying that it may have been $100 or more at various times -- but he insisted that there was no regular stipend and that the only purpose of the payments was to cover "out of pocket expenses," such as meals, gas and hotel rooms.
In February 1979, while he was involved in the Virginia Beach negotiations, Holcomb purchased a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro through Little Italy in Marlow Heights after Andrew Chiacchieri told Holcomb that Little Italy could get him a discount.
"The idea was that we would all go in together and get a volume deal," Holcomb said. "It made sense to me that if you're buying all this machinery you take advantage of a good deal."
Holcomb said that he paid for the car, which was to go to his daughter Patricia. According to state motor vehicle records, Little Italy got title to the Camaro and obtained a new car loan on it. Holcomb said that the car loan was negotiated by Andrew Chiacchieri and that initially he made payments for the car to Chiacchieri. Although Holcomb said he began paying for the car immediately after it was purchased in early 1979, the title on it was not transferred from Little Italy to his daughter until September 1980, a year and a half delay that Holcomb termed an oversight.
Around this time, two of Holcomb's children obtained jobs at Little Italy of Marlow Heights. Holcomb also was involved with some of the Little Italy partners in starting Bronco Billy's Good Time Saloon on L Street NW in Washington, and a third Little Italy proposed for Georgetown. In the latter case, Holcomb cosigned a sublease with Andrew Chiacchieri.
In March 1980, Holcomb led a vote on the Prince George's liquor board to refuse a beer and wine license for Mr. Crab Seafood House, a potential competitor located near Little Italy. The unanimous liquor board vote followed public testimony against Mr. Crab by JoAnn Chiacchieri.
A year later, months after the Little Italy partnership acrimoniously split up, Holcomb voted with the other two members of the board to give Mr. Crab a beer and wine license.
Holcomb said that his initial vote against Mr. Crab had nothing to do with his relationship to Little Italy. There was only one license available and he felt that another applicant was more qualified, he said. The liquor board minutes confirm that there was only one license available.
"The fact that she [JoAnn Chiacchieri] came up and testified against it was not a factor," he said. A year later, when he voted to give Mr. Crab a license, there was not a more qualified applicant, Holcomb said.
JoAnn Chiacchieri said that she did not talk to Holcomb about Mr. Crab before testifying. She said she came before the liquor board in order to call attention to a potential rodent problem Mr. Crab might cause in the area.
"I wasn't afraid of competition," she said. "I didn't care if they sold beer or wine, or even if they sold pizza."
JoAnn Chiacchieri is the only partner to remain involved with Holcomb. She is the sole owner of Filomena -- the planned Little Italy of Georgetown -- and has received substantial sums of money from Holcomb for the restaurant, which is not yet opened.
In mid-1980, after the Little Italy partnership was dissolved with the forced closing of the Virginia Beach operation, Joseph Chiacchieri, the sole partner remaining in Little Italy of Marlow Heights, began paying Holcomb $250 a month in cash. Joseph Chiacchieri said that he made the payments from September 1980 through last June and, gave Holcomb a total of $2,500, to help him pay off the $24,000 loan Holcomb had obtained from Suburban Trust Company and had then given to Andrew Chiacchieri for use in Virginia Beach.
Andrew Chiacchieri has not repaid Holcomb's money, contending that the $24,000 was Holcomb's investment as a partner. This issue is the focus of the Prince George's court suit brought by Holcomb against Andrew Chiacchieri.
Although Joseph Chiacchieri was not a party to the contested loan, he said that he willingly offered to help Holcomb repay the loan.
"I offered -- he [Holcomb] did not ask -- to carry half the interest," Joseph Chiacchieri said. "I was only doing it to keep the peace in the thing. Jerry put no pressure on me."
Holcomb said he believes that he only got six payments totaling $1,500 from Chiacchieri but doesn't have a record of the payments, since they were in cash. Joseph Chiacchieri said that the $250 payments were hand-delivered each month to Holcomb's Oxon Hill office in a white, Little Italy envelope.
Chiacchieri said he took the unusual step of paying Holcomb in cash to avoid putting Holcomb's name in the Little Italy checkbook because of possible suits over the partnership. Instead, Chiacchieri said, he wrote a check out to "cash" with the notation, "Interest VB [Virginia Beach]," and then cashed it at a bank before giving it to Holcomb.