City liquor board under investigation by state prosecutor

Sun Staff

The state prosecutor's office is investigating the Baltimore Board ofLiquor License Commissioners amid a factional dispute in the troubled stateagency.

Nathan C. Irby Jr., the board's executive secretary, who is scheduled tomeet with the state prosecutor today, said he thought the investigation wouldfocus on allegations made by the board's chief inspector, Samuel T. DanielsJr. In April, Daniels alleged that two commissioners and two boardadministrators had shielded some liquor establishments from sanctions.

The two commissioners accused by Daniels - Claudia L. Brown and John A.Green Sr. - denied the allegations and requested an investigation by the stateprosecutor to clear their names. Both have since been replaced on the board,which regulates roughly 1,400 city liquor establishments.

Irby said he was told to bring personal financial information, telephonerecords and copies of recent tax returns.

Daniels and board Chairman Mark S. Fosler also said they've been contactedby prosecutors.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh declined to comment on theinvestigation.

Fosler said the board has forwarded a list of "dozens" of liquor licensesto the state prosecutor's office for review. The list is made up of inactivelicenses that have not been voided in violation of a state law that requiressuch action after 180 days without an extension.

Recently, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reappointed Fosler and appointed twonew commissioners to replace Brown, who had moved to Texas, and Green.

The new commission has made it clear that it intends to clean up the liquorboard's image and respond more quickly to neighborhood complaints.

In its first day of hearings Thursday, the new board took issue with theproblem licenses, voiding three of them, including one held by a former cityzoning commissioner that had been inactive for almost five years.

It was Daniels' allegations that drew attention to the board'sshortcomings.

He also accused state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of trying to get him fired soher husband, a liquor inspector who works with Daniels, could take his job.Conway denied any involvement.

His accusations came in a lawsuit he filed after the board suspended himfor conducting investigations without its approval and talking to the mediawithout consent.

In June, the city's labor commissioner partially vindicated Daniels when heruled the inspector had been unfairly suspended. The lawsuit was eventuallydropped.

The liquor board, a bastion of political patronage, has been criticizedrecently by neighborhood groups who say it is not cracking down on problembars.

'Dysfunctional agency'

The board has also been hobbled by internal bickering between boardadministrators and commissioners, who are nominated by state senators from thecity and appointed by the governor. The origins of the board go back to therepeal of prohibition, and critics say it is hamstrung by an antiquatedinternal structure.

"This is the most dysfunctional agency I have ever seen," Fosler said.

He said that some of the problem licenses have been inactive for yearsdespite the fact that state law dictates that any license that has beendormant for more than 180 days must be voided unless the licensee gets anextension for another 180 days. After 360 days, the license is automatically"killed."

"If people are not in compliance with the law, then we have to do somethingabout it," Fosler said. "If there are any more of these licenses out there, wehave to track them down and take action."

The board has split over enforcement issues in the past, at times breakingdown into finger-pointing.

While not blaming Irby or Deputy Executive Secretary Jane M. Schroederdirectly for the problem licenses, Fosler said that communication between theadministrative side of the liquor board and commissioners has been an issuefor some time.

Irby said Schroeder put together a list of inactive licenses for the boardin March 2004 when it was headed by former Chairman Leonard Skolnik.

Skolnik said he, Fosler and former commissioner Brown asked for the listafter it came to their attention that some bars were closed and inoperativefor years. Skolnik said he got a short list of inactive licenses shortlybefore he left the board - Ehrlich decided not to reappoint him - and nevergot around to taking any action.

Irby said Skolnik and the board said it was all right to allow licenseeswho could show that they were making some progress to sidestep the 180-dayrule.

Skolnik denies ever making such a statement.

Skolnik, who keeps close ties to Fosler, said Irby and Schroeder are atodds with the new board. He said they are trying to save their jobs, which paythem each roughly $80,000 a year, and are scrambling to collect evidence toshow that they have done their jobs adequately. Irby and Schroeder are at-willemployees and if the commission can find cause to fire them, they can do so.

Irby was hired in 1997 to bring stability to the board after aninvestigation by the state prosecutor's office that resulted in some reform,including a change in the way inspectors were hired: instead of politicalappointees, they are civil servants.

Schroeder, a former liquor board chairwoman and commissioner, has served asthe board's deputy executive secretary for about 16 years. She is confined toa wheelchair and rarely attends board hearings.

"I told Fosler how to get rid of Irby," Skolnik said. "I told him that theboard needs to call him in and give him a week to retire. If he doesn'tretire, I think the board should throw him off the podium."

Irby said he has no plans to leave. He said he wants to stay in hisposition until the state prosecutor finishes his investigation.

"I am going to see this through to the end," Irby said. "I want to clearthe air because I want the public at large to know that this is not a corruptagency."

Lost license

One of those who lost a license last week was Giovanna Blattermann, aformer city zoning commissioner and Little Italy community activist, who saidIrby and Schroeder allowed her to hang on to an inactive liquor license forclose to five years. Blattermann said she paid $1,100 every year for fiveyears to renew the license and provided proof that she was working to open herpizza restaurant at 915 Fawn St.

When she found out state law prohibited such action, Blattermann said, shewas shocked. She said she had no idea she was violating the law and cried asshe recounted her tale of financial woe. She said a new license will cost her$75,000 to $100,000.

"I was never told every time I gave them $1,100 that it was for nothingbecause according to the law my license was worthless," said Blattermann, whoalso owns a beauty salon with her family called "Giovanna" in MountWashington. "I had no idea I had a time constraint."

Blattermann, who is trying to appeal the decision so that she can at leastget her $5,500 back, said she feels that she is a casualty of the board's newget-tough attitude. She said that although she understands that commissionershave to follow the letter of the law, some well-meaning business people couldget hurt as a result of the change in direction.

"I think I am just a victim in this transition from liquor board lethargyto `Now we are going to assault everyone' mentality," she said. "But it waswrong of them to extend the license. It was wrong of them to misguide me."

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