After an uproar
about a liquor license that was returned to an alleged child rapist, the Baltimore City Liquor License Board is changing its policy to make reconsideration of license revocations public. For the last 80 years, such considerations had been done in a back room, out of public view.
"We said no reason we can't put this on the record; we're on live television," says outgoing chairman Stephan Fogleman, who presided over his last liquor-license hearing on April 10. Fogleman has been appointed a judge of the Orphan's Court and will begin work there any day now, he says.
The policy change came after criticism from Becky Lundberg Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center, who last week blogged about the board's decision to reinstate the license of Bill's Café on Holabird Avenue so its owner, Nicolaos Trintis, could sell it. "We've been told it's not a violation [of state open-meetings law]," says Fogleman. "But just because it's legal doesn't mean it's necessarily the best way."
The liquor board has long endured criticism of its policy on license revocations and so-called "dead" licenses. A liquor license is supposed to die 180 days after the bar it's tied to has ceased operations-360 days if the board allows an extension. In practice, however, many licenses live on, sometimes for years after the establishment closes. A 2013 state audit questioned the legality of the practice and advised the liquor board to follow the letter of state law. The board said no: "The Board disagrees with the premise of this recommendation, and shall continue to rely upon balanced judgment, case law and appellate review, until instructed to do otherwise by an appropriate legal authority."
In the Trintis case, the board voted 2-1 over Fogleman's dissent to revoke the license on Nov. 21, 2013, after police told the board about drug dealing in and around the bar. "The dealer's girlfriend was actually the bartender," one cop told the board, according to the videotaped testimony. "And pretty much it was in plain-it was in view of everything at the bar."
At the hearing Trintis said he had already closed the bar due to health reasons. He had hired a realtor to sell the premises.
Shortly thereafter Trintis, who did not appear to have a lawyer at the hearing, wrote the board to ask it to reconsider its decision. He cited his and close family members' harrowing medical conditions-including diabetes, heart disease, vision problems (all Trintis' own) and cancer (two siblings). Also submitted were two letters-from John Gavrilis, who is both the Greektown Community Development Corporation CEO and the Maryland Transit Administration Police Force's chief of police; and from Father Michael Pastrikos of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, attesting to Trintis' good character. On Dec. 5 the board reversed itself, though the vote was not apparently recorded. The only sign that the board had made the decision was the initials DKP-those of executive secretary Douglas Paige, who did not vote-at the bottom of Trintis' letter. Both Witt's blog and the Baltimore Brew broke the story after the liquor board's April 3 hearing, in which the board postponed a decision on the transfer of the license they had publicly revoked four months earlier.
"It is unclear how or why the Board accepted an application for the transfer of ownership of a license that the Board, under no uncertain terms . . . had revoked," Witt wrote.
Fogleman says the practice of reconsidering licenses out of public view was eight decades old and limited to cases brought by the board itself. "So if we denied a transfer and then had a reconsider-which the community had argued . . . or in a protest of renewal-where it is triggered by the community protest itself-then absolutely we'd have to have a public hearing," Fogleman says. "The only time it's our case and our case alone is in these violation hearings-where it's police and our own inspectors coming in [to testify]."
This longstanding policy is set to change, Fogleman says, owing to recent state legislation that will require the board to do basically everything in public. "That could become a new rule, and could be a rule for a long time," he says.
The day after the board gave Trintis his liquor license back, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Trintis was arrested on rape charges on Dec. 11 and in January indicted on 36 separate sexual-assault counts relating to alleged rape of a child from 1979 through 1982. The woman, who was 10 when the abuse started, was the daughter of the night manager of the bar, who lived in the apartment above the establishment.
In comments to
, Trintis denied the charge and attributed them to a disgruntled employee. His lawyer, A. Dwight Petit, says he's asked for "extensive additional discovery" in the case, which has been postponed. "We're concerned with whether it was previously investigated and maybe closed on two prior occasions," Petit says.
The case is remarkably similar to one involving another east-side bar owner two years ago. Douglas L. Sexton, then owner of the JHJ Saloon at 2036 Eastern Ave., was charged with raping two women when they were girls in the '70s and early 1980s ("Keeping Secrets," Feature, March 14, 2012). Sexton was at first found incompetent to stand trial, but that finding was later reversed and he later pled guilty ("Sexton Pleads Guilty," Mobtown Beat, July 25, 2012)
Upon learning Sexton's mental status, the liquor board moved to revoke the liquor license but relented on that matter after the bar's ownership passed to Sexton's wife. Fogleman tweeted that decision.
The Bill's case is different because the owner is voluntarily getting out of the bar business and will not be allowed to hold a liquor license again, Fogleman says.
In the April 10 liquor board hearing, the board voted to allow Trintis' license to be sold to new owners. In an interview, Fogleman likened the temporary revocation to a "wake-up call" judges sometimes impose on defendants or others, sentencing them to 30 days in jail but reconsidering after a few days. "We're not there to nick people for $40,000 or $50,000 or $60,000," Fogleman says, referring to the typical price of a liquor license. "The issue was, 'Let's get this man out of the bar business.' And that's what we've done."
At the same hearing, the board publicly voted to restore the license of Voltage nightclub at 5625 O'Donnell St. if it moves; the board had revoked the license on March 12 after a man was shot on the dancefloor and the club's owner was reported to have shot pepper spray into a crowd while riding on a golf cart.
The board, without Fogleman, then killed another license, this one belonging to Barbara Bollack. Her bar, Bab's at 617 Oldham St., has been closed for a while. She asked the board for a hardship extension while she tries to sell the bar and its license.
"I have concerns about your time line," the Brew quoted interim chairwoman Elizabeth Smith telling Bollack. "Long gone are the days you can just hold the license and keep it in your back pocket." She then cited the 180-day rule and told Bollack her license is dead "as a matter of law."
Fogleman says the board still has discretion, and will use it to promote its top priority, which is public safety. "We don't have quotas [about how many licenses to revoke]," he says. "What this board has, is, we're going to use every legal tool we have, including revocations, and including reconsiderations, to make sure the public is safe."