Club's liquor license stirs controversy Board members OK'd project with few questions, they say

January 11, 1996|By Joan Jacobson and Marcia Myers | Joan Jacobson and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

With perfunctory approval, the Baltimore liquor board last fall issued a license for a lavish new downtown nightclub to open this spring in the former Sons of Italy Building. Its backers promised top-drawer entertainers for upscale clientele.

After few questions -- and with no investigation -- the board voted unanimously for the project, which had the endorsements of state Sen. Larry Young and City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III.

What appeared to be a routine liquor license action, however, was anything but. Liquor board members now say they had no idea that:

* The club -- to be called the Royal Cafe -- will be operated by Kenneth A. Jackson, a convicted felon whose Eldorado Lounge in downtown Baltimore features nude dancing. The same liquor board, which approved the license Sept. 28, banned Mr. Jackson from even entering the Eldorado four years ago because of criminal allegations.

* Mary E. Collins, a city high school guidance counselor who says she is the sole owner of the Royal Cafe and received the liquor license, failed to provide basic information required by the board. For instance, she left blank all questions about how she would finance the business.

Board members now acknowledge they overlooked the incomplete application, which is in their files at the board's South Street office.

* An FBI investigation -- conducted last year of suspected money laundering in Baltimore -- revealed that a man claiming to be a friend of Mr. Jackson's was promoting the new nightclub as a good place to hide drug proceeds.

* According to one Baltimore businessman, Senator Young threatened city business leaders who opposed the nightclub, saying he would cut off state funds for a downtown business group if the opposition did not vanish. Mr.Young denies the allegation.

Liquor board members said that if they had known Mr. Jackson was to operate the club, they might have rejected the liquor license application.

Even now, board members say they are in the dark about his role in the nightclub, although Mr. Jackson introduced himself to business leaders and politicians as the club's operator.

"Whether Mr. Jackson is an operator of this place, we don't know," said liquor board Chairman George G. Brown.

"We still don't have knowledge that he's running the business," said Curtis H, Baer, another liquor board member who approved the license.

The board's third and final member, Charles E. Thompson, also said he was unaware of the connection.

All three described Mr. Jackson as the building's "landlord."

During interviews for this article, board members said they now will seek the missing financial information from Ms. Collins, who earns $49,500 a year at Frederick Douglass High School.

Through lawyers in Baltimore and New York City, Mr. Jackson denied requests for interviews, and did not respond to a letter left for him Tuesday at the Eldorado Lounge. Attorney Robert Simels of New York said his client did not want to be interviewed.

Ms. Collins refused to comment on the liquor license or to say how she will be involved in the business. In her application, Ms. Collins stated that she owns "100 %" of the business and will be the full-time operator.

Mr. Jackson's connection to the club was first reported last week in the Baltimore City Paper.

Just days before the Sons of Italy Building was sold April 28, documents were filed with the state listing Mr. Jackson as a director of the corporation that purchased the building. In mortgage papers, his mother, Rosalie Jackson, was named as the corporation's president.

Since the purchase, Mr. Jackson has applied for one of the building permits to renovate the property, at 410 W. Fayette St.

Senator Young and Councilman Bell -- who wrote a letter to the liquor board supporting the club license -- say they met with Mr. Jackson to discuss the nightclub and were under the impression that it was his undertaking. Mr. Jackson's two lawyers, George Russell of Baltimore and Mr. Simels, say he is the manager of the Royal Cafe.

Both Mr. Young and Mr. Bell, however, said they knew nothing of Mr. Jackson's criminal background and had supported the nightclub because they wanted to help establish a reputable black-owned club in an otherwise abandoned building.

Mr. Jackson's arrest record spans 20 years and includes a conviction on a felony weapons charge and dozens of arrests, but no convictions, for alleged drug dealing, bribery and harboring a fugitive. He was acquitted in 1991 of murder.

Since his felony conviction, Mr. Jackson has been able to remain active in the Eldorado Lounge, in the 300 block of W. Baltimore St., by keeping a legal distance from its liquor license. His mother has held the license for 14 years.

And Mr. Jackson's attempt to manage the Royal Cafe is similar, his lawyers say. Mr. Russell said his client will "manage the property and operate the entertainment aspect of the business, but he will not have any interest in the liquor operation."

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