Senator's ties with felon probed Fired liquor inspector raises questions


State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli is investigating a fired city liquor inspector's claims about the relationship between a state senator and a convicted felon seeking a liquor license for a lavish nightclub in downtown Baltimore last year.

The investigation involves questions about the role state Sen. Larry Young played in the controversial license application. At the same time, the fired inspector is challenging the city's time-honored patronage system in court.

Edward Smith Jr., a lawyer who represents the former inspector, Marion P. Turner, said yesterday he received a call from an investigator for the state prosecutor early this month, asking to speak with Turner about a court affidavit in which she made the claims.

In that affidavit, Turner claims she knew about the criminal background of Kenneth A. "Kenny Bird" Jackson, who operates the Eldorado Lounge, a strip club in downtown Baltimore. She said she asked Young "if he wanted to get involved with Mr. Jackson due to his record and reputation."

Young was supporting a liquor license application for the Royal Cafe, a jazz club and restaurant Jackson was hoping to open in the former Sons of Italy building last year. The District 44 Democrat has denied knowing about Jackson's background at the time he supported the application.

The affidavit also alleges that Turner was told by another liquor board employee that an aide to the senator was seen accepting money from Jackson after a liquor board hearing, and that Jackson gave passes to his birthday party to board employees.

Young was attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago yesterday. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. But others named in the affidavit said its allegations were untrue.

James I. Cabezas, an investigator in Montanarelli's office, pulled the licensing records for the Royal Cafe and the Eldorado Lounge in late March. Cabezas since has returned to the liquor board offices to talk to Jane Schroeder, the board's deputy executive secretary. Schroeder confirmed yesterday that she had spoken with Cabezas and that he had pulled records, but said she could not recall the date or any details of their conversation.

"No one has said to us there is an investigation concerning this application," she said.

Montanarelli would not discuss or confirm the investigation. "I'm not saying we're doing it; I'm not saying we're denying it," he said.

The investigation comes on the heels of an FBI query this spring into the relationship between Young, who sponsored Turner's hiring by the liquor board five years ago, and Jackson.

Jackson's criminal record includes a conviction on a felony weapons charge. In 1991, he was acquitted of murder.

Young recently defended his friendship with Jackson, telling the audience at a political fund-raiser: "Ken Jackson is a friend of mine, and I don't give a damn who knows about it."

Turner is suing the liquor board, claiming she was wrongfully discharged because of political fallout, not job performance, and that the system that allows Baltimore's eight senators to control who is hired and fired by the board violates state law and city personnel procedures. Assistant Attorney General Sheldon H. Laskin has filed a motion to dismiss Turner's suit. "It is not for the Court to second guess the wisdom or fairness of such a system," he wrote in court papers. "As a matter of law, the loss of patronage employment because of the loss of a patron is simply not unlawful." A hearing date has not been scheduled.

Turner claims Young abruptly withdrew his sponsorship of her after learning she had been called by an FBI agent inquiring about his activities. In the affidavit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, Turner wrote that she was fired shortly thereafter, even though she said she told the agent she "could not help him."

The application for the Royal Cafe's license was signed by Mary E. Collins, a city high school guidance counselor who said she was the sole owner. But she provided no information about how she would finance the business. While liquor board members denied knowing Jackson was going to run the business, he introduced himself to business leaders and politicians as the club's operator.

The board initially approved a liquor license for the establishment last fall, but has since asked for additional information before allowing the transfer of the license to the 410 W. Fayette St. address.

In her affidavit, Turner wrote that board employee Douglas K. Paige, another Young-sponsored worker, had told her that he witnessed Jackson giving money to Zachary Powell, an aide to )) Young, after a hearing on the application for Jackson's club.

She wrote that Paige also told her that several employees, including Aaron Stansbury, then executive secretary of the board, took passes from Jackson to a birthday party at the Baltimore Grand. She wrote that she refused an invitation to the party from Paige. Stansbury said yesterday that Jackson left passes to the party at the liquor board office, but that he did not accept them or attend the party. He said he did not give the passes to staff members. He recalled that the passes arrived long before the Royal Cafe's liquor license application.

Both Paige and Powell also denied Turner's allegations vigorously yesterday.

"Those are not true statements," said Paige, a board employee for the past six years. "I've got nothing to hide or run from."

Paige said Turner had forged his signature on a loan application and had threatened him before she was fired as an inspector. Turner could not be reached for comment about those claims.

Powell, an aide in Young's Annapolis office for 2 1/2 years, said Jackson "didn't give me anything."

"I don't know why [Turner] implicated me," he said. "I've always been a friend of hers. Maybe it might just be another tactic to get to Senator Young."

The liquor board's practices have been investigated before. A city grand jury launched a probe in 1994 after claims that inspectors took bribes from Block bar owners. A task force later appointed to review the board's activities recommended changes, but left the basic patronage system intact.

State Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who created the task force that reviewed the board's activities, strongly defended the tradition of state senators appointing liquor inspectors, and said he does not believe the liquor board requires wholesale reforms. "In terms of the patronage system, I don't see that it has created any problems," the District 43 Democrat said yesterday. "I'm not HTC aware of any abuses. That's the way it's been for, I believe, 70 years, and I see no reason to change it. I don't see any sense of urgency. To my knowledge, the only people who think there is a problem with the liquor board is the Sunpapers."

Pica responded sharply to questions about the investigation, saying, "I think [Montanarelli] operates on tips, and unfortunately politicians are often the target of rumor and innuendo. I seriously doubt it will amount to anything."

Pub Date: 8/28/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad