City liquor board pressed to enforce laws after trial

Groups seek changes to stop corruption, lose confidence in panel

Some policies put in effect

January 23, 1999|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Now we know why.

That's what members of many neighborhood organizations across the city are saying in the aftermath of the 2 1/2-week liquor board corruption trial that ended this week.

Though the results for prosecutors were decidedly mixed, the trial of former chief liquor inspector Anthony J. Cianferano and former Del. William J. Madonna Jr. was highlighted by testimony about liquor law violations being ignored and bar owners handing cash to liquor inspectors.

The verdicts left unanswered the question of where the money ended up, but the undisputed testimony sent a clear message to community activists who say they have been frustrated in their attempts to have the liquor laws enforced.

The system is "riddled with the opportunity for corruption," said Stephen George of Park Heights.

"Even in the future, it's going to be difficult to have any confidence in the liquor board," said Stephens Bunker of the Fells Point Community Organization.

Madonna and Cianferano pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to thwart enforcement of state liquor laws. Circuit Judge Mabel Houze Hubbard, citing a lack of sufficient evidence, threw out bribery charges against the two.

Lawyers for Cianferano and Madonna did not dispute that payoffs were made to liquor in- spectors, but they argued, and the judge agreed, that Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough had failed to provide the necessary proof that bribe money got to Cianferano or Madonna.

What prosecutors did prove, through hours and hours of wiretapped telephone conversations, was that liquor laws were not being enforced. Bar and club owners were warned in advance of impending raids or undercover operations.

`Shakedown artist'

Former liquor inspector Donald J. Harlow, testifying under a grant of immunity, told of collecting thousands of dollars in protection money from bar owners. The bar owners testified that they gave money to Harlow and other inspectors.

Hubbard described Harlow as "bad news a shakedown artist who made things up as he went along."

Nathan C. Irby Jr., executive secretary of the liquor board, said in an interview this week that board members have set policies to guard against abuses.

Liquor inspectors have been told not to sell tickets to political fund-raisers and multiple copies of complaints are kept to ensure that they won't be altered or disappear, he said.

Under a new state law, Irby said, liquor inspectors are no longer appointed by state senators. They are in the civil service system that governs most city workers.

The changes have not gone unnoticed.

George Collins, a Park Heights activist, credits Irby and the board with being more responsive to neighborhood concerns.

`Tip of the iceberg'

Others remain skeptical.

Bunker of the Fells Point group said the testimony in the case was discouraging but predictable. "It may be just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

George and other Park Heights activists plan to use the revelations in the trial to push for reforms in the General Assembly.

For instance, he said, the ban on inspectors' selling tickets to fund-raisers should be in the law. He said other needed changes include legislation to further regulate liquor license holders who sell package goods and operate bars at the same site.

Testimony in the trial centered on efforts to force the holders of those licenses to keep the bars open. An inspector at the corruption trial testified that he was refused entrance to the bars in several Park Heights establishments.

George said the laws and regulations should be tightened to require the operators of the bar-package goods stores to keep separate records of liquor sold for consumption on-site and off-site. Other loopholes in the law should be eliminated, he said. For example, he said, the law should clarify what other goods may be sold in the dual-purpose liquor stores.

The law also should be changed to allow community groups to file formal complaints against license holders that would result in fines or other action by the liquor board, George said. Now, he said, it takes a police complaint to get action.

He said that in other cities, including New York, a complaint by a citizen or a community group about underage drinking, if verified, can lead to punitive action.

`Long way to go'

George also said the liquor board and its employees should be barred from accepting gifts from those they regulate.

During the trial, a liquor board official said holiday deli platters were routinely provided at board headquarters by liquor license holders. She also testified that wholesalers sent bottles of liquor to board employees during the holidays.

"The guilty plea is just a start," George said. "We've got a long way to go."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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