Smith seen dominating liquor board

Ehrlich appointee praised, criticized for tough stance

April 12, 2006|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

When Nathan C. Irby Jr., the recently deposed executive secretary of the city liquor board, took legal action this week to get his job back, he fingered board Commissioner Edward Smith Jr. as his nemesis. It was Smith, Irby argued, who was prejudiced against him and had used his power to unjustly terminate him.

In his short time at the liquor board, a state agency, Smith has become a dominating and polarizing figure. Community groups laud him as a hero for his efforts to crack down on problem bars and step up inspections. But a group of state senators from the city who recently tried to oust him, in part because he has curbed power they once wielded, call him incompetent.

Smith's idiosyncrasies have changed the way the board does business. He has used meetings to denounce the evils of alcohol and makes license holders squirm by grilling them about alleged infractions. His authoritative demeanor often eclipses board Chairman Mark S. Fosler.

"Whenever anyone talks about the liquor board these days, [Smith's] name comes up," said Ellsworth Jackson, the manager of D&M Liquors, who was fined $2,000 last year for serving beer to an underage police cadet. "He makes an impression on you because he puts you on trial. ... The guy is on a power trip."

Smith, a longtime defense attorney in the city who specializes in personal injury and criminal cases, dismisses such comments with a shrug. He has said he is determined to finish ferreting out alleged corruption at the liquor board, and with his position on the board protected for the present by some nimble political maneuvering on the part of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., it looks as if he will have the time to do so.

Smith declined to be interviewed for this article, but there are many who are eager to share opinions about him. Public records and newspaper clippings, many recounting high-profile court cases that he participated in, also provide a glimpse into his public and private life. Old friends are another source.

"Knowing Eddie, the liquor board would be a perfect challenge for him," said attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who has known Smith for about 25 years. Pettit says he thought Smith, who is 57, was ready to retire, but that an opportunity to make personnel and administrative changes at the liquor board was too good to pass up. "When I saw him in the middle of all of this, I joked with him and said: `Man, that's one hell of a retirement. You went from the smoke to the fire.'"

Since his appointment by the governor in July, Smith has been at the center of liquor board disputes. He was the force behind new rules requiring liquor inspectors to put in an eight-hour day, as well as Irby's termination March 24.

Irby, a former state senator and city councilman who headed up the administrative side of the liquor board for nearly a decade, filed a petition for judicial review Monday in an attempt to get his job back. In court documents, Irby argues that Smith never explained why he was being fired and denied him a proper hearing.

In addition, Smith's strict -- and possibly incorrect -- interpretation of a law regarding pending license transfers has resulted in the termination of several liquor licenses. The state senator who sponsored the law and the assistant attorney general assigned to the liquor board have warned of a possible misstep, but Smith has remained defiant.

At a board hearing this year, when an attorney for a client who had a license that was pending transfer questioned Smith's interpretation of the law, Smith snapped back that the attorney should subpoena state Sen. George W. Della Jr., the legislator responsible for the law, so that he could explain what he meant.

Since then, and in large part due to increasing questions regarding Smith's interpretation, Fosler, the board chairman, has requested an attorney general's opinion to clarify the intent of the law. A response is expected this week.

The relationship between Smith and Della is stormy. In January, Della voted with five other senators from the city to remove Smith and Fosler from the board.

At the time, senators said they were receiving too many complaints from bar owners. The senators did not, however, act to remove the third member of the liquor board, Commissioner Jeffrey B. Pope, who was appointed by one of their own, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden.

Smith and Fosler were Ehrlich picks, and when the governor found out they were close to being dumped, he quickly pulled their nominations from consideration by the legislature. The governor's ploy allows them to remain on the board at least until next year, if they choose.

Smith has been moving full speed ahead since the move to purge him. He has virtually taken control of board hearings, often playing judge and jury, and he has pushed for higher fines and more stringent penalties for violators.

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