A former Baltimore bar operator, who is a paid FBI informant and an admitted arsonist, testified yesterday that he witnessed the payment of a cash bribe to the chief inspector of the city liquor board.
Charles Wilhelm, who testified under immunity from prosecution for his role in the bribes, said he saw an envelope containing "a couple hundred" dollars being handed to Anthony J. Cianferano while the two were sitting at a table with friends at Kislings Tavern on Fleet Street. He said the meeting occurred shortly after he learned Cianferano was being promoted to the chief inspector's job.
Wilhelm, who came under immediate attack from defense attorneys for his long criminal record, was one of two key witnesses to testify yesterday in the bribery and conspiracy trial of Cianferano and William J. Madonna Jr., a former state delegate. The two are charged with running an alleged 10-year conspiracy to thwart enforcement of state liquor laws.
"I've done a little bit of everything," said Wilhelm, when asked by defense attorney Gary Bernstein to specify what crimes he had committed before becoming a paid informant.
A second witness, Joy Nickey, former partner in a Frederick Avenue after-hours club, told jurors and Circuit Judge Mabel Houze Hubbard that Cianferano came to her club in 1994 with a liquor inspector to sell tickets to a fund-raiser for former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. She said neither Cianferano nor the inspector took any action against the club although they witnessed it operating after 2 a.m. in violation of liquor laws.
Wilhelm, who acknowledged to being a bookmaker and loan shark and recently testified in a Baltimore County homicide case, said Madonna once boasted about his control over the city liquor board.
"Billy told me he was the liquor board," said Wilhelm, recounting the conversation he said took place in Madonna's Waverly bar. "He hired and fired the liquor inspectors. He was the boss."
The first contact
Wilhelm said he first came into contact with city liquor officials when he and Ricky Payne took over the operation of Joe's Bar at 1006 Dundalk Ave. from William R. Isaac. Isaac was convicted of a 1978 killing last year, in large part based on Wilhelm's testimony.
"I gave money to Ricky in cash to give to [liquor inspector] Donald Cassell and Tony Cianferano," Wilhelm said, adding that on one occasion he witnessed the money changing hands in the kitchen of Doughboys, another bar run by Payne.
He said the payments to Cassell, sometimes once a week and sometimes once a month, were made to keep operating without concern for state liquor laws.
He said, for instance, that he was able to keep the bar open all night if he wanted. He said he routinely provided part of the bribe money to Payne, who passed it along to Cassell.
Wilhelm said he witnessed the payment to Cianferano when he, Payne and a friend met Cianferano at Kislings after Cianferano's appointment to the top inspector's job. He said he was sitting directly across from Cianferano when Payne handed an envelope with "a couple hundred" dollars to Cianferano.
He said Cianferano told he and Payne to "let him know" if they ever needed anything at the liquor board.
Wilhelm said he was called on periodically to buy tickets to political fund-raisers for Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. of Baltimore and state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County.
Wilhelm is the second witness in the two-week trial to testify to being present when an envelope of cash was passed to Cianferano. The other was former inspector Donald J. Harlow, who also testified under immunity.
Bernstein, on cross-examination, grilled Wilhelm about the payments he has received from the federal government since becoming an informant in late 1995.
Paid $2,500 a month
An FBI agent testified that Wilhelm was, at one point, being paid $2,500 a month to cover his living expenses. Overall, the FBI agent said, $140,705 had been paid for relocation and other expenses on Wilhelm's behalf.
Asked what he was promised in return for his testimony in the liquor board case, Wilhelm said he wasn't promised "anything."
The former bar operator said he decided to become an informant after police raided his house, and his young son became distraught and started crying.
"It just tore his heart out," said Wilhelm.
Bernstein then asked Wilhelm if it wasn't the same son who, a few months earlier, called police to report that Wilhelm was beating the child's mother.
Wilhelm denied beating his wife, but acknowledged that his son called police.
Earlier yesterday, Nickey, the former partner in the Twilight Social Club, testified that Cianferano and Inspector John B. "Bernie" Martin showed up at the club at 3 a.m. one day. She said she saw them pull up in a car, and she went to the door and said hello to Cianferano.
She said the two came to the club to deliver tickets to a political fund-raiser for Pica. She said buying the tickets was part of the club's agreement to be allowed to operate illegally from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.
"If Bernie had tickets, we would buy them," Nickey said.
She said the club also purchased tickets for other politicians, including Hoffman.
Asked if any action was ever taken against the club for being open illegally on the night Cianferano showed up, Nickey said, "None. We stayed open."
Nickey corroborated the previous testimony of Harlow.
Unannounced 1994 visit
She said she was surprised when Harlow and another inspector showed up unannounced in March 1994, and that she called Harlow aside and said, "You're not supposed to be here. We're protected. Go talk to your boss. He knows we're here."
She said Harlow told her, "You better be telling the truth."
Subsequently, she said, the bar was not cited even though it was operating illegally at the time of the visit.
Nickey said that after the club was caught operating illegally a few months later in August 1994, she and her partner went with John A. Pica Sr., the father of then-state Senator Pica, to a meeting at Madonna's bar on Greenmount Avenue. After a private conversation between the elder Pica and Madonna, Nickey said she was told "we wouldn't have any more problems."
Bribes began at $50
Nickey said she and her partner began paying cash bribes of about $50 to liquor inspector Martin shortly after they took over ownership of the club about eight years ago.
"We paid Bernie every time we seen him," Nickey said, adding that they also picked up the cost of Martin's meals when they met, usually at the Cross Street Market. In return, she said, it was Martin who warned the club of planned raids.
Harlow, the former inspector, began harassing and intimidating her while on the liquor board payroll, Nickey testified. She said Harlow would come into the bar regularly and never paid for his drinks.
"He was already whacked out when he came in," she said
Under cross-examination by defense lawyers, Nickey said she had never paid any money to either Cianferano or Madonna.
Pub Date: 1/15/99