A Prince George's County liquor inspector received $4,000 from an owner of a county pizza parlor at a time when the inspector was responsible for helping enforce liquor laws at the restaurant.
The money was given to the inspector, Fred J. Nocente, in 1978 by a partner in the Little Italy pizza parlor, in the form of a check that Nocente cashed. The partner, Andrew A. Chiacchieri, confirmed that he wrote the check and said that Nocente was helping Little Italy obtain another liquor license for a new location at the time the payment was made.
Chiacchieri said that Nocente had first asked for the money as a loan to help pay the medical bills of a relative. When he then asked the inspector about the need for the loan, Chiacchieri recalled, he was told by Nocente that Little Italy would later have to pay him a finder's fee anyway for his help in obtaining the second liquor license. Chiacchieri said he then gave Nocente the $4,000 check, concluding that such transactions were "the way business was done in the county."
A bank copy of the check, dated Nov. 13, 1978, was recently obtained by The Washington Post.
Nocente, one of eight patronage-appointed full-time liquor inspectors in the county, acknowledged that he received and cashed the check, but stated that it "had nothing to do with the liquor business or Little Italy." He said the check was repayment for cash he invested in an unsuccessful real estate deal he had planned with Chiacchieri during his official and unofficial visits to the Marlow Heights restaurant. He said he would have resigned as a liquor inspector had his business venture with Chiacchieri succeeded.
Two other Little Italy partners familiar with the transaction said they were told at the time the check was written that Nocente needed a loan to help pay some medical expenses. Both partners, Joseph M. Chiacchieri and John P. Kelly, said they were not directly involved with the transaction but they knew the check Andrew Chiacchieri gave Nocente was not a refund on a real estate deal. "I'd take an oath on that," said Joseph Chiacchieri.
Joseph Chiacchieri added that when he became Little Italy's sole owner in 1980, he tried to collect the $4,000 from Nocente. "I talked to Fred a couple of times," he said. "I felt it was a legitimate debt to Little Italy . He wanted to pay it back . He was broke. He kept saying the IRS has liens on him. He said, I owe this money to Andy." The money was never repaid, according to Joseph and Andrew Chiacchieri.
Maryland and Prince George's conflict of interest laws prohibit government employes from engaging in business dealings or receiving loans or gifts from a person or firm the employes help regulate. The county liquor board was established by state law but is funded through the county government. State and county officials have said they are uncertain which laws govern the actions of liquor board employes.
Nocente's involvement with the Little Italy partner is the second case recently in which conflict of interest questions have been raised regarding a liquor board official. Last month it was revealed that Gerard F. Holcomb, one of the liquor board's three commissioners, acted as a business adviser for Little Italy for more than two years. He received cash payments from Little Italy and helped arrange $577,000 in loans before the Little Italy partnership finally split up in 1980.
Holcomb's relationship with the pizza parlor, including an allegation that he was a hidden partner, is currently under investigation by Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall. Holcomb has said he was not a partner in the pizza parlor and that his involvement with Little Italy was a proper business relationship. He said the payments were for expenses he incurred while helping arrange an expansion of the business in Virginia Beach.
Nocente, too, said his involvement with Chiacchieri was proper. "If it's a business deal there's no problem," he said. "That was a business deal between he and I," said Nocente. "It was in Ocean City. We invested in something and it didn't work."
Nocente did not produce any documentation of a real estate deal and said he could not remember the name of the seller, whom he described as an old man trying to sell a vacant lot without a real estate agent. When shown a copy of the check during an interview, he initially indicated that he had not seen it before and indicated that his signature endorsing it might be a forgery. Later he acknowledged cashing the check and said, "Yeah, that's mine," when again asked whether the endorsement on it was authentic.
At the time Nocente received the $4,000 check, he had just lost his house in a bank foreclosure and had accumulated more than $200,000 in debts, according to records he submitted when filing for bankruptcy in 1980. In addition, six months before he received the check Nocente was demoted from chief inspector and suffered a $2,600 pay cut, county personnel files show. Nocente served as chief inspector for two years, supervising 20 full- and part-time inspectors.
Inspectors for the county liquor board are among the few patronage workers left in the Democratic-controlled Prince George's. Unlike most county employes, who are hired by the personnel department, inspectors are screened by the county Democratic Party Central Committee and are hired directly by the politically appointed commissioners. Several inspectors, including the chief, are members of the Democratic Central Committee or are longtime party stalwarts.
Nocente, 51, a longtime associate of former Democratic state Sen. Peter Bozick, operated two barber shops and was involved in real estate development before he was hired in 1975 as a liquor inspector.
Nocente first met the owners of Little Italy in 1977, when he was chief liquor inspector, the most powerful staff position under the board of commissioners, who have the final authority to issue or revoke liquor licenses.
"It's absolutely a very, very powerful position," Nocente said of the chief inspector's job. "If I felt a place was endangering the safety and lives of the community, I closed them down."
Soon after the pizza parlor opened in 1977 with a license to sell beer and wine, Nocente became a regular visitor, the two Chiacchieri brothers said. According to Nocente, not long after he became friendly with the Chiacchieris he introduced them to Holcomb, who soon afterwards began a two-year relationship with the business. Nocente also said that two of his children went to work for Little Italy.
In 1978 the Little Italy partners began making plans to expand Little Italy into a chain of pizza parlors. As part of those expansion efforts they hoped to convert a building next door to a gourmet liquor and cheese store, a project that prompted the search for a second liquor license.
The gourmet liquor store would require a package liquor store license, one of the most difficult to obtain. Such licenses, which can be highly profitable to operate, are rarely obtained directly from the liquor board but are usually purchased from a business that already has one. Licenses purchased this way can cost $40,000 to $50,000.
According to Andrew Chiacchieri, he contacted Nocente for help with the license after Holcomb suggested he do so because Nocente, as a liquor inspector, would know which stores wanted to sell their licenses at a reasonable price. Holcomb has denied any involvement in the gourmet liquor store effort and said he did not send Chiacchieri to see Nocente.
Chiacchieri said Nocente took him to see several businesses in the Indian Head Highway area that were closing and wanted to sell their package store licenses for $10,000 to $15,000. "I think he showed me three different places," Chiacchieri said.
Nocente said he refused to help the Little Italy partners find a license. "They asked me a couple of times whether I knew of anyone interested in selling a license ," Nocente said. "I don't get involved with that."
About a month after that one-day license hunt, Chiacchieri said, Nocente paid a trip to the pizza parlor and made his pitch for the loan. "I said I'm not in a position to do that," Chiacchieri said. At that point, according to Chiacchieri, Nocente said they were going to have to pay him anyway for his help in obtaining a package store liquor license.
Chiacchieri said he consulted with his partners and then gave Nocente a $4,000 personal check. Chiaccheri said he later reimbursed himself by taking $4,000 out of a business account the Little Italy partners kept for real estate development.
A $4,000 corporate debt shows up in Little Italy financial records that Chiacchieri has filed in connection with a suit against him by Holcomb over some money for Little Italy's expansion effort. The record, an in-house accounting of expenditures in the expansion efforts, lists one item that says "Fred" and next to it"$4,000." According to the partners, "Fred" referred to Fred Nocente.
Nocente said the only discussion he had with the partners that involved the package store occurred when he was asked to become a partner in the proposed establishment without having to put up any money for his share. Nocente said he declined the offer because of his job with the liquor board. Later, Nocente said, he did agree to get involved with Chiacchieri in a land deal in Ocean City and that led to his receiving the $4,000 check while serving as a liquor inspector.
During a long interview last week, Nocente was reluctant to discuss the specifics of the transaction.
When initially asked about his relationship with the Little Italy partners, he said he did not receive any money from them. "Why would I take any money from these guys?" he asked, adding that his only relationship with them was in his official capacity as a liquor inspector.
After he was shown a copy of the check made out to him and endorsed with a signature in his name, Nocente indicated that he had not seen it before.
When asked whether the check was authentic and the signature was his, he responded: "Have to check it out."
Finally, after examining the check for several seconds more, he said: "It's personal and none of your business."
Nocente then explained that the check was authentic and was tied to a business deal he had with Andrew Chiacchieri.
"We invested in something and it didn't work out," Nocente said. "We put up the money and the money was refunded. I gave it to him in cash. That's the way he wanted it. Why not?"
Nocente said he was unsure whether he had any record of the transaction. "If we wrote anything, it was just a piece of paper really," he said. "I might have it in my files. It might even have the name of the old man" who was trying to sell the property.
Nocente did not produce any records.