Old dealings come back to haunt former state delegate Billy Madonna
William J. Madonna's life has been a roller-coaster ride through the rough-and-tumble world of Baltimore's barroom politics. A former state delegate, bar-owner, and state-lottery administrator, Madonna in the late 1990s was indicted in state court for taking bribes to help bars evade liquor laws. His 1999 trial was cut short after he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of tipping off a bar owner to an impending raid, for which he was sentenced to probation. Now Madonna, 58, faces new charges, this time in federal court. On May 11, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein signed a two-page criminal information document, accusing Madonna of structuring cash transactions in 2003 and 2004 in order to evade reporting requirements under U.S. banking laws.
The alleged illegal transactions spelled out in the federal case against Madonna involve a loan from William D. Robison (identified as "WR" in the charging documents) derived from the sales proceeds of Robison's erstwhile Baltimore bar, Fran and Bill's, on Clement Street in Locust Point. Madonna is accused of deliberately depositing the resulting money in increments of less than $10,000, the amount that triggers requirements for banks to report the transactions to federal regulators.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland declined to comment on the case against Madonna. But court records suggest it is tied to another, recently concluded criminal case in Maryland--against Gary Toroni and Nicholas Baccala, who were charged last year with wire fraud in connection with fundraising for Fraternal Order of Police lodges through a company called Amera-Funding. Baccala pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution at Toroni's trial, which ended with a jury convicting Toroni on March 25.
Among the exhibits in the Toroni-Baccala case, court records show, were phone records and a photograph of Madonna. The court papers charging Madonna with structuring, meanwhile, state that Madonna was "an employee of Amera-Funding," and that the money lent by Robison in structured transactions were deposited in Toroni's bank account, from which checks were issued "for the benefit of Madonna."
Gary Bernstein, who is representing Madonna in the structuring case (and who also represented him in the 1990s bribery case) says Madonna has agreed to plead guilty at his arraignment, scheduled for June 4. Bernstein adds that what Madonna is accused of doing "is probably the least offensive conduct I've ever defended."
Madonna's alleged dealings, Bernstein says, are unlike those in most structuring cases, which involve hiding criminal proceeds. The structuring in Madonna's case "was not for an illegal purpose," Bernstein says. "The money was borrowed and paid legally. This was legitimate money, and there was no intelligent reason for it to be structured. They did it just because, why raise red flags? Nobody got harmed in this crime. The lesson here is, don't deliberately get [money] in pieces."
Bernstein, who said he would not permit Madonna to be interviewed for this article, confirmed that the loan money involved in the case came from the proceeds of the sale of Fran and Bill's by William Robison. A phone call to Robison's home in West Virginia was answered by Norma Robison, who said she was William Robison's wife and had been involved in running the bar.
When told of the charges against Madonna, Norma Robison said "we never lent any money to Mr. Madonna. I don't know where these lies are coming from," and said her husband would not speak about the matter. She acknowledged knowing Madonna and Toroni, and said "we had business" with Madonna before Fran and Bill's was sold, but, when asked what Madonna's involvement in the bar had been, she responded that "I really don't think that's anybody's business--that was our business, and our business only." She referred further questions to Baltimore attorney Frank Lidinsky, who did not return phone calls by press time.
Madonna's prior involvement with Fran and Bill's was spelled out in The Sun's 1997 coverage of state prosecutors' corruption probe of the liquor board that ultimately led to Madonna's indictment. The reporter, Walter Roche, shadowed Madonna's friend, Anthony Cianferano *, who at that time was the liquor board's chief inspector, as Cianferano visited Fran and Bill's. Madonna told Roche that Fran and Bill's was the last bar that used Madonna's poker machines.
Madonna also figured in a 1999 federal lawsuit against William Robison and Fran and Bill's. The suit, filed by National Satellite Sports, Inc., which broadcasts sporting events, resulted in a nearly $9,000 judgment in the plaintiff's favor. Court records show that Fran and Bill's liquor license, which had been seized by the U.S. Marshal as a result of the judgment, was ordered released to Madonna in 2000 on behalf of the debtors.
Norma Robison denied the bar's license was ever seized in the case, much less that it was released to Madonna. "I don't care what the court records say," she said, "it's not so."
Madonna's career couldn't be more colorful had it been the subject of a Damon Runyon novel. Back when he was in his 20s, he was a rising star in the Mount Royal Democratic Club when he was elected in 1975 to serve in the Maryland House of Delegates, representing a district that included his Hampden-Remington base, where his grandfather was a founder of one of the key Democratic clubs. After losing re-election after one term, Madonna went on to become a Waverly bar-owner--Billy's Bar, on Greenmount Avenue--and behind-the-scenes ward-heeler in the murky world of political patronage and get-out-the-vote drives.
In the 1990s, Madonna's political leverage landed him a title-less position as the de facto shot-caller at the Baltimore City liquor board, where, thanks to then-state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, he hand-picked and oversaw inspectors. When he was passed over as the liquor board's executive secretary in 1997, Hoffman helped him land a job with the Maryland Lottery, where he served as a liaison to businesses that sold lottery products. He resigned from that job just before his 1998 bribery indictment. Since his widely covered trial, the outcome of which cast a pall over the reputation of state prosecutors empowered to take on public corruption, Madonna has kept a low profile--until now, presumably much to his chagrin.
"Billy," Bernstein says, "has no capacity to be a criminal--you do something that's legal and you get charged. It's just ridiculous."
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