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Harford liquor board fines four businesses for underage alcohol sales

Contact Reporterdaanderson@baltsun.com

A combined $5,750 in fines were levied last week by the Harford County Liquor Control Board against four local businesses that failed compliance tests by selling alcohol to an underage Maryland State Police employee.

The five-person board unanimously approved the fines after show cause hearings were held for each violator during the board’s regular meeting last Wednesday afternoon at the its headquarters in downtown Bel Air.

The four businesses included Acappella Italian Restaurant in Fallston and Herb’s Wine & Spirits, Pat’s Pizzeria and Venetian Palace, all of Edgewood. They were among 19 businesses visited during the June 8 compliance test by liquor board Inspector Louis Reichart, Maryland State Police Sgt. Zi Shum, TFC Steven Pollack and David Claridge, an MSP police communications operator who made the alcohol purchases.

A fifth business, Ice House Liquors, of Aberdeen, also failed, but paid a $2,000 fine rather than appear for the show cause hearing, according to Reichart. The other 14 businesses passed, Reichart said.

After the cases had been heard, Board Chairman C. John Sullivan Jr. urged the licensees to be “more cautious, more careful with your employees,” noting that “we all have distractions in life.”

“Please be very careful in the future,” Sullivan said. “We wish you good luck.”

The businesses that passed the June 8 test include Bel Air Liquors, the 7-Eleven store on Baltimore Pike in Bel Air, Villa Italian Kitchen in Harford Mall, Birroteca, Fallston Liquors, Italian Sensation in Fallston, Mountain Road Deli & Spirits in Joppa, Freddie’s Fine Wines in Joppa, Towne Grill & Pub in Joppatowne, Baldwin’s Crab House, Fortunato Brothers Pizza in Edgewood, K & G Liquors, 3rd Base Wine & Spirits in Creswell and Beards Hill Liquors in Aberdeen, according to Reichart.

Pat’s Pizzeria was up first during Wednesday’s hearings. No licensee or employee attended the hearing.

“There’s really no ability to present a defense on behalf of the licensee, if the licensee is not here,” Pilar Gracia, the liquor board administrator and chief counsel, said.

Reichart read his report of the June 8 test into the record. Claridge and Pollack entered the restaurant at 7:11 p.m., were seated, and Clardige ordered a draft beer.

The server, identified in the report as Melissa McClosky, asked Claridge for his identification. He showed her his vertical driver’s license, which Maryland issues to people younger than 21.

McClosky told Claridge “she was not supposed to take a vertical license, but since you are old enough, I will serve you,” according to the inspector’s report.

Reichart later confirmed Claridge is not 21, and the server had not looked at his identification carefully enough.

Reichart and Shum entered the restaurant and talked with the manager on duty, Peter Hill. They informed him of the test and that an underage police employee had been served, according to the report.

The liquor license, which was issued June 12, 2008, is held by Efstathios Kotanidis, according to the inspector’s report and liquor board staff. The board levied a $2,000 fine for the single charge of selling alcohol to a minor and an additional $250 for the licensee’s failure to appear at the hearing. Pat’s has one prior violation, from when it failed a compliance test in April 2015, according to staff.

Representatives of the other three businesses did appear for their hearings.

Etien Bregasi, identified in the inspector’s report as the co-licensee for Acappella, appeared along with Connor Ritchey, the server who provided a bottle of beer to Claridge during the test.

The second licensee, Mihallaq Rapo, could not attend, as he was traveling out of state Wednesday. Failing to appear for a hearing without an excused absence draws an automatic $250 fine, according to Gracia.

Ritchey did not ask Claridge for his identification after he and Pollack were seated and gave the server their order. He served Claridge a bottle of beer, according to Reichart’s report.

Bregasi was the on-duty manager that day, and Reichart and Shum informed him that the restaurant had failed the compliance test.

“Thank you guys for allowing me and Etien to come before you,” Ritchey told board members.

He said he had been helping a customer with special needs and was also dealing with personal issues at the time Claridge and Pollack came in.

“Personally, my head was not in the right place [that day],” he said.

The 20-year-old Towson University student stressed he was not trying to make excuses for his actions.

Bregasi said Ritchey is still employed by Acappella; he has been there for three years and worked his way up from being a busboy. He said the server failed restaurant protocol by not asking for identification, but noted he thinks it was “an isolated incident.”

“He’s a very good kid, and that’s one of the main reasons we didn’t want to let him go,” Bregasi said.

Acappella has had its license since June 5, 2014, and it has one prior compliance test failure, in August 2014. The board issued a $1,000 fine for selling alcohol to a minor, plus the $250 for Rapo’s failure to appear.

Herb’s Wine & Spirits

Claridge and Pollack entered Herb’s Wine & Spirits at 7:31 p.m. on June 8. Clardige took a six-pack of beer from a store cooler and was able to purchase it without the clerk asking for his identification, according to the inspector’s report.

Shum told the clerk, identified as Brandon Dennis, that he had sold beer to the underage police employee, according to the report.

Licensee and store owner Daniel Lose appeared for the hearing Wednesday. He said his employees “all know they should definitely” ask for customers’ identification. Dennis, who is assigned to stock duties, was not authorized to operate a register, though, Lose said.

He said Dennis “is always trying to be helpful” and assist his co-workers and customers. The clerk has since been restricted to stock duties.

“He is instructed he is not to be running the register at all,” Lose said.

The owner said he has been dealing with significant employee turnover in the past year. He has six employees, and the longest-tenured worker has been there for six months.

That turnover makes it challenging for him to ensure all employees have Training for Intervention Procedures, or TIPS, training in alcohol service through the state. Lose said he spends “a small fortune” to get employees certified, only to have them leave after a few months.

He later said it costs $80 to $90 per person, per class, to send an employee to TIPS training.

Lose has been the licensee for Herb’s since Aug. 22, 2012. The store has had two prior compliance violations, in August 2014 and April 2015. The board issued a $2,000 fine.

Venetian Palace

The final business, Venetian Palace, was tested around 7 p.m. on June 8, according to the inspector’s report. Claridge ordered a draft beer and the server, identified as Taylor Thompson, did not ask for his identification before bringing it to him.

The troopers and inspector informed the restaurant’s co-licensee, Emmanuel Hapsis, that an underage police employee had been served, according to the report.

Hapsis provided a written statement and information prior to Wednesday’s hearing that he would be in Greece on vacation, meaning he received an excused absence. His co-licensee and brother, John Hapsis, did attend.

Hapsis said the server, who was terminated, had forgotten to check Claridge’s ID. He said all employees, including bussing staff, have since been certified in alcohol serving protocols.

“We do not take this matter lightly,” Hapsis said.

Venetian Palace has had its license since July 20, 1981. It has not had any violations in the past five years, according to Gracia.

The board issued a $500 fine for serving alcohol to an underage person.

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