Odell's owner is target of probe Federal grand jury is investigating bribery charges

September 12, 1992|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

A federal grand jury is investigating allegations that the president of Odell's nightclub, through a middle-man, attempted to bribe a member of the Baltimore zoning board to keep the troubled North Avenue nightspot open, law enforcement sources say.

According to the sources, Milton Tillman, president of 19-21 Inc., the corporate owner of Odell's, allegedly agreed to pay several thousand dollars to one of five members of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals for a favorable vote. The board denied the appeal last month, in effect closing the club.

Before the 3-1 vote, Mr. Tillman allegedly made the offer through an intermediary who approached zoning board member Gia A. Blattermann in an attempt to sway her vote. Ms. Blattermann then contacted federal authorities, the sources said.

Law enforcement officials stressed that Ms. Blattermann, who voted against the Odell's zoning proposal, is not the target of the grand jury probe and the investigation, which was undertaken last month, is limited in its scope. Ms. Blattermann refused to comment.

Edward Smith Jr., one of Mr. Tillman's lawyers, said yesterday that the U.S. attorney's office confirmed to him that Odell's president is the target of the probe. Mr. Smith said federal prosecutors have sketched out their investigation into Mr. Tillman's dealings, but he declined to discuss that portion of the probe until he spoke with his client.

At one point investigators were told the amount of the alleged bribe was as high as $50,000, but sources familiar with the probe said the amount actually offered to Ms. Blattermann was less.

A week after the board rejected Odell's appeal, FBI agents raided the nightclub, Mr. Tillman's Northeast Baltimore home and the offices of AAAA Bail Bond Corp., in the 2300 block of E. Monument St. Mr. Tillman, 36, is president of the bail bond firm.

FBI agents, executing a grand jury subpoena and two search warrants, went looking for two bags of cash containing a total of $20,000, but neither bag was found, according to federal records. Agents seized business records, computers, disks, two handguns and ammunition in the three separate raids on Sept. 1.

Federal authorities had a very clear idea of what they were seeking, according to the subpoena and search warrants. Those documents are sealed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but were obtained from Mr. Smith, Mr. Tillman's lawyer.

One of the bags -- a bright blue plastic bag containing $10,000 -- was supposed to be at Mr. Tillman's home, in the 2400 block of Pinewood Ave., but was not found, according to federal records.

The second bag -- a large orange and purple shopping bag containing another $10,000 -- was supposed to be at AAAA Bail Bond Corp., but the FBI did not find it there, according to the records.

It was unclear yesterday whether the $20,000 was the alleged bribe amount.

The grand jury subpoenaed business ownership and membership records, as well as bank and telephone records, from the club, located at 21 E. North Ave. FBI agents confiscated two boxes of documents and a computer in the raid on Odell's.

At Mr. Tillman's house agents seized two handguns -- a loaded, five-shot, .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol; and a loaded five-shot .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. They also seized two open boxes of ammunition -- 37 cartridges for a .38-caliber handgun; and 27 hollow-point cartridges for a .357-caliber Magnum pistol, records show.

At the Monument Street bail bond office, agents confiscated two computers, two boxes of diskettes, folders of documents, notebooks and other documents, records show.

FBI agents also have reviewed files at the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, officials said.

U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary P. Jordan, the lead prosecutor in the case, refused to comment on the investigation.

Efforts to reach Mr. Tillman were unsuccessful. Mr. Smith said Odell's president has gone "underground" until such time as federal authorities ask to talk to him.

The federal investigation caps a yearlong effort by Odell's to keep its doors open, after city officials found it in violation of its zoning permit and revoked it.

In the most recent development, the city zoning board voted Aug. 25 to deny Odell's application to remain open as a dance hall, basically shutting down the nightspot, which has been blamed for a rash of shootings and violence in the neighborhood around the club.

Three members -- Ms. Blattermann, Barbara A. Green and M. Scott Smith -- voted against the plan, while Herbert Brown voted for the proposal. The fifth board member, Chairman Lalit H. Gadhia, missed an earlier hearing on the Odell's plan and was absent from the vote.

Under the law, four votes in favor of the Odell's zoning proposal would have been necessary to keep the club open.

Mr. Tillman's lawyers in the zoning case are state Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, vice chairman of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, and Ira C. Cooke, one of the most high-powered lobbyists in Annapolis.

Eight days after the vote, on Sept. 2, Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen L. Hollander agreed to postpone a final ruling on the city's request to throw out an earlier court-approved agreement that allowed Odell's to stay open until resolution of the zoning case. Judge Hollander agreed to the delay -- provided that the club remain closed -- at the request of Odell's lawyers and over the objections of a city lawyer. She granted the postponement to give lawyers for both sides time to submit briefs supporting their arguments. She said she would rule Oct. 1.

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