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Mobtown Beat

Creative Licensing

Examination of City Liquor Licenses Reveals Lack of Oversight

Jefferson Jackson Steele
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: Former City Councilwoman Pamela Carter was listed as a reference on Brian Winfield's application for a liquor license.

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 4/9/2008

The Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners recently took rare action, revoking the licenses of two bars tied to illegal drugs. On March 20 officials closed West Baltimore's Sugar Hill Tavern after police received a dozen reports of illicit drug activity and underage drinking; a week earlier the board revoked the liquor license at Chuck's Place, near Highlandtown, after police seized seven ounces of cocaine and $11,000 cash.

State law to the contrary, the Liquor License Board has a history of allowing convicted felons to obtain control of liquor licenses, and also of hiring them ("The High Life," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995; "Close Inspection," Mobtown Beat, July 3, 1996). The recent revocations appeared to be a sign that the agency in charge of the city's estimated 1,350 liquor establishments has gotten serious about cracking down on drug crime in the bar business.

However, a pair of liquor-license applications--one pending and another that has been approved--and interviews with top Liquor License Board officials expose policy discrepancies about the renewal of licenses for convicted felons. A passive approach to background checks leaves the door open for purchasers to front for individuals connected to the criminal world.

In one case the board approved two license renewals, a license revival, and a license transfer, despite written disclosure that the applicants were convicted drug dealers. Another case shows how the blasé attitude of some board officials with regard to straw-man purchasers makes it possible for convicted felons to influence the city's bar business.

Liquor License Board officials say they have no authority and show no interest in probing applicants' personal or business associations to ferret out illicit arrangements. Board spokesman Douglas Paige refers to the practice of having someone stand in for someone else on a liquor license as "shadow ownership" and says, "We're [OK] with that."

The liquor licenses reviewed by City Paper were owned or are being sought by individuals with close ties to prominent East Baltimore businessmen who have connections in the drug underworld: Milton Tillman Jr. and Noel Liverpool Sr. Both men, who loom in the background of the liquor-license transactions, had business interests in an apparel company called Total Male, which has a history associated with drug trafficking. (See "Flight Connections," Mobtown Beat, March 12.) Tillman also has criminal convictions for attempting to bribe a public official and tax evasion. Both license applications feature endorsements from prominent former public officials.

On paper, Liverpool's wife, Etta, was the owner of Club House Bar and Grill, at 4217 Erdman Ave., until last year. But court records and interviews with the bar's previous owners--who are convicted drug felons--suggest that both of the Liverpools had an interest in the establishment. Noel Liverpool has no criminal record, but he did, according to the attorney who drew up incorporation papers, establish Total Male II in the mid-1990s on behalf of Shawn Michael Green, a fugitive indicted for drug trafficking and an alleged associate of the Phillips Cocaine Organization, an allegedly violent $31 million drug ring.

At Lucky's Tavern, at 1601 N. Milton Ave., a mortgage broker with business ties to Tillman--who also had an interest in Total Male and says he commands 80 percent of the city's bail-bonds market--is seeking a license transfer from a relative of Tillman's.

Samuel Daniels, executive secretary of the Liquor License Board, says the board does not investigate applicants or their associates, short of a cursory background check to rule out applicants' felony convictions. "We do not have capability to address that," he says. "I'm not even sure if we can subpoena bank records."

But he stresses that the board has broad discretion to review a matter should irregularities pertinent to an applicant's background or associates come to its attention, much of which is available through online public-records databases. Daniels further contends the Liquor License Board is improving its standards for vetting applications but concedes, "It's still possible for things to slide through via incompetence--or worse."

The license history at Club House Bar and Grill presents a murky scenario that Daniels would like to avoid. Since 1990, the license belonged to Robert Charles Meek Jr., known as "Chuckie," and his wife, Jacqueline Lynn Meek. In 1998, they transferred the license to William T. Bickford, known as "Little Bill." The Meeks pleaded guilty in 2000 to conspiracy to distribute 126 kilograms of cocaine. The following year, Bickford pleaded guilty to drug charges and later defaulted on a purchase agreement, which led to a legal battle and allowed the Meeks to remain secured creditors on the license despite their drug conviction.

Liquor License Board officials now disagree about whether the Meeks, as convicted felons, were entitled to be on that license, which the board nevertheless renewed in 2002 and '03.

Daniels says the board screwed up: "There's two ways that happens," he says. "Either someone knew and looked the other way, or someone was incompetent and didn't notice."

Paige, however, insists secured creditors can remain on a liquor license even if they do have criminal pasts because they are prevented from operating the bar.

Current Liquor License Board chair Stephan Fogleman, who did not preside at the time of the Meeks' situation, offers a compromise interpretation: "The license is both a piece of paper worth value and a right to operate a bar. And since a secured creditor will never actually operate a bar, the longstanding policy of the board is that secured creditors can retain the license for its monetary value."

Jacqueline Meek recalls that after her conviction, while her husband was incarcerated, she lined up a buyer for the bar: Noel Liverpool. But by the time a legal battle over the bar's ownership was resolved, the license had lapsed because the bar had been closed for more than 180 days. Meek contends that after a closed-door meeting with board officials she was allowed to revive the license and give it to her mother-in-law, who promptly sold it to Liverpool's wife, Etta. Court records show that the Meeks dealt with both Noel and Etta Liverpool in collecting their mortgage payments and later sued them both for untimely payment.

Etta M. Liverpool, according to her liquor license application, is a former employee of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and Justice Resources Inc., a defunct Baltimore-based nonprofit group that worked with troubled youth. In late 2004, the liquor board issued her license application for Club House. Her application states that it excludes her husband because the couple was expecting a divorce. (City Paper could find no records that show the couple ever divorced.)

Neither Liverpool has a criminal record.

The application further states that Noel Liverpool was unemployed at the time, but was previously employed at Five Mile House, a Reisterstown Road tavern frequented in the 1990s by politicians, police officers, and businesspeople; a company called Inner City Gear, which he founded in the mid-1990s; and Total Male, the popular men's clothing store located at 2330 E. Monument St., which also had a location called Total Male II, for which Shawn Green served as president.

Total Male has a questionable history, and is a business intersection for Green, Liverpool, and Milton Tillman, a founding board member of the company that owned the trade name. Law enforcement documents show one of Shawn Green's addresses as 2330 E. Monument St., also the current location of a pair of Tillman's businesses: Four Aces Bail Bonds and New Trend Development. In 1997, Total Male was the subject of a Baltimore Police Department special investigation into drug trafficking, according to court records and Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman with the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office. At least two of the company's former employees have federal drug convictions.

The Liverpools are politically active, and through Liverpool Enterprises Inc., which lists Etta as sole director, gave $4,000 to both state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and city Comptroller Joan Pratt from 2001 to '04. Etta Liverpool also enjoys the support of former state delegate and former assistant chief liquor inspector Kenneth Webster--Conway's former campaign manager--who appears on her liquor-license application as a character reference. Conway's husband, Vernon Conway, works at the Liquor License Board.

Late in 2006, Etta Liverpool sold the Club House bar, and when contacted by City Paper she declined to answer questions.

Fogleman calls the history at Club House "unusual." When asked to comment about the questions it raises about the associations of those in the bar business, he offers, "It's too bad it took so long for this to come out."

A different scenario is unfolding at Lucky's Tavern--one that the Liquor License Board appears ill-equipped to sort out. Again, a politician has vouched for an applicant with no criminal convictions. But the applicant also has apparent business ties to Tillman, whose family currently owns Lucky's.

The current license at Lucky's is held by Patricia Brown, as executor of the estate of her mother, Patricia Black, who also is Tillman's mother. According to a 1998 appeals court ruling, Tillman was convicted of tax evasion in a scheme that included taking a cut of payroll checks cashed at the bar by his mother.

Black died in 2002. Brown has handled licensing affairs at Lucky's Tavern since then and also became vice president of Tillman's Four Aces Bail Bonds in 2006.

The new applicant for the license at Lucky's Tavern is Brian Winfield, a mortgage broker who purchased the bar and is awaiting license approval. During a 2007 criminal trial in which Tillman was acquitted of posting fraudulent property bonds, a defense lawyer argued there is no evidence of a business relationship between the two men. Winfield says they are just friends, and that he has no intention of fronting for anyone in the bar business.

However, public records show that Tillman and Winfield have both signed on behalf of Principals of Debt Consolidation Inc., a company Winfield formed in 2000. In 2006, Tillman signed a consent decree on behalf of the company, which was a co-defendant with several Tillman companies, in a dispute over lead paint in 108 residential rental properties, court records show. Winfield says he has no knowledge of the lawsuit and was never served with papers.

In January 2007, state property records show Winfield's company also entered into a deed of trust along with a number of Tillman companies to secure a blanket loan of $850,000. Winfield says his company is dissolved, and that he no longer owns the property that was used to partially secure that loan.

Former city councilwoman Pamela Carter, director of the Dawson Family Safe Haven Center, a government-funded community center located at the site of the arson that killed neighborhood activist Angela Dawson and her family, is a character reference on Winfield's liquor-license application.

Of her relationship with Winfield, Carter says, "He asked me to support his application. I've known him to be a hard-working young man, interested in real estate. I couldn't say anything bad about him. He always calls to wish me a happy birthday."

Daniels, the Liquor License Board's executive secretary, says that political figures who support liquor-license applications are offering a stamp of approval that does not go unnoticed. "You could surmise such references are offered for testimonial value."

Additional Reporting By Chris Landers

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Tags: milton tillman jr., liquor licensing, noel liverpool sr., shadow economy

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