City liquor board under investigation by state prosecutor

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

Nathan C. Irby Jr., the board's executive secretary, who is scheduled to meet with the state prosecutor today, said he thought the investigation would focus on allegations made by the board's chief inspector, Samuel T. Daniels Jr. In April, Daniels alleged that two commissioners and two board administrators 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 state prosecutor 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, telephone records and copies of recent tax returns.

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

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh declined to comment on the investigation.

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

Recently, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reappointed Fosler and appointed two new 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 liquor board's image and respond more quickly to neighborhood complaints.

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

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

He also accused state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of trying to get him fired so her 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 him for conducting investigations without its approval and talking to the media without consent.

In June, the city's labor commissioner partially vindicated Daniels when he ruled the inspector had been unfairly suspended. The lawsuit was eventually dropped.

The liquor board, a bastion of political patronage, has been criticized recently by neighborhood groups who say it is not cracking down on problem bars.

'Dysfunctional agency'

The board has also been hobbled by internal bickering between board administrators and commissioners, who are nominated by state senators from the city and appointed by the governor. The origins of the board go back to the repeal of prohibition, and critics say it is hamstrung by an antiquated internal 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 years despite the fact that state law dictates that any license that has been dormant for more than 180 days must be voided unless the licensee gets an extension 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 something about it," Fosler said. "If there are any more of these licenses out there, we have to track them down and take action."

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

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

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

Skolnik said he, Fosler and former commissioner Brown asked for the list after it came to their attention that some bars were closed and inoperative for years. Skolnik said he got a short list of inactive licenses shortly before he left the board - Ehrlich decided not to reappoint him - and never got around to taking any action.

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

Skolnik denies ever making such a statement.

Skolnik, who keeps close ties to Fosler, said Irby and Schroeder are at odds with the new board. He said they are trying to save their jobs, which pay them each roughly $80,000 a year, and are scrambling to collect evidence to show that they have done their jobs adequately. Irby and Schroeder are at-will employees 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 an investigation by the state prosecutor's office that resulted in some reform, including a change in the way inspectors were hired: instead of political appointees, they are civil servants.

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

"I told Fosler how to get rid of Irby," Skolnik said. "I told him that the board needs to call him in and give him a week to retire. If he doesn't retire, 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 his position until the state prosecutor finishes his investigation.

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

Lost license

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

When she found out state law prohibited such action, Blattermann said, she was shocked. She said she had no idea she was violating the law and cried as she 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 nothing because according to the law my license was worthless," said Blattermann, who also owns a beauty salon with her family called "Giovanna" in Mount Washington. "I had no idea I had a time constraint."

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

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