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Baltimore liquor case sees quick end; Judge throws out bribery charge out, 2 plead guilty to conspiracy; State didn't back up case


The Baltimore city liquor board corruption case came to a virtual end yesterday when a Circuit Court judge threw out bribery charges for lack of evidence and the defendants agreed to plead guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge.

Effectively ending a high-profile trial that had stretched for more than two weeks, Judge Mabel Houze Hubbard ruled that the state prosecutor had failed to provide independent corroboration needed to make the bribery charges stick.

After Hubbard's decision, lawyers for William J. Madonna Jr. and former chief liquor inspector Anthony J. Cianferano said that their clients would enter guilty pleas to the remaining charge of conspiring to thwart enforcement of state liquor laws. In fact, the lawyers said, they had offered to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge before the trial began.

The maximum sentence for the conspiracy charge is a two-year prison term. The defendants could have faced 14-year sentences on the bribery charge.

Madonna, a former Democratic state delegate from Baltimore, and Cianferano were indicted in May by a city grand jury after a probe of more than a year by state Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

Both were forced from their jobs -- Madonna at the Maryland Lottery and Cianferano at the liquor board -- as a result of the indictments.

In her ruling, which she read after the jury had been sent home for the day, Hubbard was particularly critical of a key prosecution witness, Donald J. Harlow, whom she called "bad news" and "a shakedown artist who made things up as he went along."

Madonna and Cianferano are scheduled to return to court today to formally enter guilty pleas. Still to be determined are the fates of two other co-defendants, liquor inspector Michael Hyde and former liquor inspector and bar owner Donald J. Cassell. Some were predicting yesterday that those cases were likely to be dropped.

"Thanks be to God," said Madonna when asked for his reaction as he left the courtroom. Cianferano declined to comment.

While the decision appeared to surprise prosecutors, defense lawyers said they had predicted the outcome. Neither Madonna nor Cianferano testified in his own defense.

As a result of Hubbard's decision and the guilty pleas, the 12 jurors and two alternates who have been hearing testimony in the case will be sent home today without having to deliberate.

Hubbard's ruling paralleled arguments made earlier in the day by Gary S. Bernstein, Madonna's lawyer. Bernstein had noted that the two major prosecution witnesses to testify about the alleged bribery scheme were former liquor inspector Harlow, testifying under immunity, and Charles Wilhelm, a convicted arsonist and paid federal informant, who was also granted immunity.

Bernstein said those witnesses and the bar owners who testified that they paid the bribes were part of the bribery scheme and could not provide the needed independent verification required under a series of state court rulings.

"The only evidence was from accomplices or co-conspirators," Bernstein said, adding that the wiretapped conversations contained "not one word" of evidence about bribes. In fact, he said, Madonna actually told a club owner on one tape, "I wouldn't do it for the money."

Samuel Blibaum, Cianferano's lawyer, noted that one prosecution witness, a worker in Madonna's bar who was supposed to corroborate the bribery testimony, was never even called.

Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough argued that a series of wiretapped telephone conversations provided the needed independent verification of the alleged bribery scheme. More than a half-dozen tapes of those conversations were played to the jurors during the trial, which began Jan. 4.

It was those tapes, Madonna and Cianferano's lawyers openly conceded, that proved the prosecution's case on the second charge: that Madonna and Cianferano engaged in a 10-year conspiracy to thwart enforcement of state liquor laws.

In one tape played last week, Cianferano told liquor inspector Hyde to warn the operators of the Fells Point Cafe that police were planning an undercover investigation to catch the bar serving underage drinkers.

On a series of other tapes, Madonna and Cianferano were heard discussing their efforts to help warn the owners of a Frederick Avenue after-hours club of impending raids.

McDonough also argued yesterday that the bribery scheme in- cluded the liquor board jobs that Madonna got for people like Harlow and Cassell. Testimony during the trial showed that liquor inspectors also routinely called on bar owners to buy tickets to political fund-raisers. One bar owner said he bought 50 tickets to a single event for former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr.

An early prosecution witness in the case was state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who testified that she routinely accepted Madonna's nominations for appointments to jobs at the liquor board. It was Hoffman who backed Cianferano's appointment to chief inspector.

Other witnesses in the case included Joy J. Nickey, a former partner in the Twilight Social Club, the Frederick Avenue bar that played a key role in the prosecution's case. Nickey and her partner, Michael J. Swidowich, have pleaded guilty to liquor law violations as a result of the probe.

In testimony before the judge's ruling yesterday, Blibaum called several defense witnesses, including former liquor inspector Joan Martin and Americo Madonna, a longtime family friend of Cianferano's, who is also related to William Madonna.

Both were questioned about a series of checks from William Madonna that were made out to Cianferano and deposited in a joint bank account held by Cianferano and Americo Madonna. Martin, who said she had a personal relationship with William Madonna, said the checks were written in an effort to keep his various business interests afloat.

Americo Madonna said that he considered Cianferano to be like a son and that the former chief inspector eventually made good on most of the checks from William Madonna that bounced.

After the judge's decision, Bernstein and Blibaum said they had offered to enter a guilty plea to the liquor laws violation during preliminary hearings in the case in early December.

Blibaum said the judge's decision on the bribery charge should force Montanarelli's office to reconsider the pending charges against Hyde and Cassell. To pursue those charges after Hubbard's ruling, Blibaum said, would be "an absolute miscarriage of justice."

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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