Liquor board to focus on The Block

But head of new inspection unit accused of harassing club owner

He says that won't cloud his judgment

September 16, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

A special team of liquor inspectors has been formed to crack down on The Block, Baltimore's adult entertainment hub, and it will be headed by an inspector who has been accused of harassing a strip club owner.

Chief liquor inspector Samuel T. Daniels Jr. will head the team even though he's named in a complaint filed by Peter Ireland Sr., who owns two clubs on The Block. Ireland filed the complaint in February accusing Daniels of trying to dig up information to hurt his business. Ireland also alleged that liquor inspector Umar Abdul-Hamid, another member of the new team, harassed one of his female employees.

Daniels and Abdul-Hamid have denied the allegations, which are under investigation. The complaint was recently turned over to the state prosecutor as part of a grand jury investigation into the state agency's activities and policies.

Liquor board commissioners outlined the new policy regarding The Block in a memo distributed to staffers Monday. The next day, board Chairman Mark S. Fosler told a reporter that the board didn't have a problem with putting Daniels in charge of the new team.

"I am confident that the chief inspector hasn't done anything wrong," Fosler said.

Ireland declined to comment on his complaint, but his attorney, Isaiah "Ike" Dixon III, voiced concern.

"It seems like an odd move," Dixon said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

As a result of the Ireland complaint, members of a former liquor board banned Daniels from The Block. He returned to the area in July, after a new board was installed and cited one of Ireland's businesses, Norma Jean's Show Bar, at 10 Custom House Ave. Daniels alleged that a pornographic video was shown in the bar, a violation of Ireland's adult entertainment license.

Daniels did not enter the bar - another inspector went in - but Daniels wrote up a report in which he complained about the ban as well as Ireland's complaint, which he called "unfounded."

The complaint states that Daniels tried to get other people to give him information about Ireland that might hurt the club owner's reputation.

Ireland is considered the unofficial "mayor" of The Block and is equally admired and maligned by competitors. His complaint also alleges that an intoxicated Abdul-Hamid came into Norma Jean's in June 2004 and insisted that a female employee give him her phone number. When she refused, he started yelling.

Abdul-Hamid maintains that the incident described in the club owner's complaint never happened.

In a recent interview, Daniels said he wouldn't let the complaint cloud his judgment, but added that he would stay out of Ireland's bars, Norma Jean's and Tiffany's at 408 E. Baltimore St., until the complaint has been resolved or more time has passed.

The complaint is being reviewed by prosecutors along with thousands of other documents, including personal financial information from several key liquor board officials. Also forwarded to prosecutors were files for Ireland's Norma Jean's club and Power Plant Live, a popular downtown entertainment venue managed by developer David Cordish.

The liquor board has been in a state of chaos for months, but feelings of anxiety intensified last week when Fosler announced a new policy that he said would force inspectors to work a full, eight-hour work day. Fosler said he and two other commissioners worried that inspectors weren't doing enough work and that some of them might be spending too much time at second jobs.

The new inspection team has also raised questions. It is unclear exactly who will serve on the team, although Fosler said Daniels, Abdul-Hamid and inspector Jeff Ray will be part of the group. Fosler said other inspectors could be added to the team in the future.

Fosler said he and commissioners Jeffrey B. Pope and Edward Smith Jr. created the new enforcement team because they didn't think enough businesses on The Block were being inspected.

"We weren't seeing enough activity, at least in our opinion, from our staff," Fosler said. "So we wanted to initiate something like this."

Fosler said that the inspection team would also review other adult entertainment venues scattered throughout the city. There are 38 adult entertainment licenses in the city, but all but about 10 of them are on The Block, in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.

"We are starting with The Block because in the past that has been an area of prostitution and drug activity," Fosler said. "But that doesn't mean we are going to ignore other places."

At a liquor board hearing last week, liquor commissioners heard from a half-dozen residents of upper Fells Point who complained about a striptease club at 2000 Eastern Ave. called Chubbie's.

Residents said they avoided the club because bouncers and strippers simulated sex on the sidewalk in view of passing vehicles and pedestrians. Other complaints included allegations of prostitution, and lewd advances by bar patrons and employees aimed at female residents.

After about six hours of testimony, commissioner Smith said he would void club owner Aaron Shulman's adult entertainment license - a valuable commodity - if it were not for the fact that Shulman had filed for bankruptcy the same day. Federal court proceedings supercede local judgments.

Fosler said that he hopes recent actions by the new liquor board would send a message to the larger community that the state agency is serious about doing right.

"The perception of the liquor board is that we always have been and always will be corrupt," he said. "And to change that perception you have to change reality."

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