A blog about the Baltimore City Liquor Board
Liquor Board back room decisions: a case study at 6701 Holabird Ave.
Written by Becky Witt
Last Thursday, the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City postponed a hearing on a transfer of ownership at Bill’s Cafe, located at 6701 Holabird Avenue. The BLLC revoked the license at this establishment at a public hearing on November 21, 2013 (a 2-1 vote to revoke, Chairman Fogleman dissenting), as punishment for persistent and open drug trafficking inside the bar. According to police testimony, they had spoken with the licensee, Mr. Nicolaos Trintis, many times about the problem.
So why is the BLLC holding a transfer of ownership hearing this Thursday for a revoked license?
The 6701 Holabird Avenue file contains Mr. Trintis’s request for reconsideration, dated 11/26, five days after the revocation. You can read Mr. Trintis’s request at the link; it mostly chronicles Mr. Trintis’s health problems and family hardships. In its final paragraph, Mr. Trintis says, “I am sure when you set standard penalties and exercise your powers as Commissioners of the Liquor Board with discretion, you did not envision destroying one man’s retirement because of another man’s illegal activity.”
Below Mr. Trintis’s signature is a notation that reads: “Granted by the Board 12/5/13 DKP.” DKP are the initials of Acting Executive Secretary Douglas Paige. There was nothing in the file on Thursday, April 3, 2014, that described the vote taken by the Board (if any), the issues discussed by the Board (if any), or the reasons for the reversal (if any).
Also in the file were two personal letters in support of reconsideration. Mr. John Gavrilis, Chief of Police of the Maryland Transit Administration Police Force, wrote one of the letters. Mr. Gavrilis concluded his letter with this sentence: “All the resources of law enforcement converged upon the area of Dundalk and Holabird Avenue and they have been unsuccessful to stop the drug trade in that neighborhood. How then can you hold a single business man accountable to stop it?” The letter does not explain, if the drug problem is so pervasive and unstoppable in this area, why the licensee should be allowed to sell the license to a new owner in the same building, who would presumably face identical struggles. Mr. Gavrilis is also the CEO of the Greektown Community Development Corporation (CDC) but wrote his letter on Maryland Transit Administration Police Force letterhead.
The second letter in the file was from Father Michael Pastrikos of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The letter, written as a personal recommendation, recounted Mr. Trintis’ life history and states that the licensee “is regarded as one of the elite personalities in the State of Maryland.”
6701 Holabird Avenue is not located in Greektown, so these two letters were personal recommendation letters on behalf of Mr. Trintis, not letters from the community where the bar was located.
During violation hearings, the Board consistently refuses to hear testimony from any person who did not witness or have personal knowledge of the violation in question. Why, then, did the Board accept and perhaps refer to these personal letters in the private reconsideration meeting when they would have never allowed Mr. Gavrilis or Mr. Pastrikos to testify during a public violation hearing?
Mr. Paige sent a letter to Mr. Trintis on January 14, 2014, informing him that “On December 6, 2013, the Board reversed the revocation of the license at the above location so that you may sell it.” There is an unexplained discrepancy between the December 5 date on Mr. Trintis’s letter and the December 6 date on Mr. Paige’s letter.
In his comments on the Baltimore Brew’s 4/4/14 post on the above-described private reconsideration of a decision made at a public hearing, Chairman Fogleman defended the Board’s practice, saying that “reconsiderations of sentences occur thousands of times a day in courthouses all across this country. A judge imposes a sentence, a lawyer later requests a reduction in sentence in writing and a judge signs an order without a hearing.” As the Chairman refers to judges and sentences, one can infer that he is referring to criminal procedure, which is not legally relevant to the civil administrative authority of the BLLC. Even so, though it does not apply directly to the case at hand, Maryland Rule of Criminal Causes 4-345 states that a “court may modify, reduce, correct, or vacate a sentence only on the record in open court…” The Maryland Rules of Appellate Review also allow a party to submit a motion for reconsideration, which would allow an appellate court to modify or to clarify its own opinion without reargument. Again, the Board is not an appellate court, so Rule 8-605 does not apply to the BLLC’s hearings.
The Liquor Board’s Rules and Regulations do not include any rules that describe or even refer to the Board’s back-room reconsideration process. Rule 2.15 describes the process for appeals to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City but does not mention reconsideration.
The 2013 Legislative Audit suggested that BLLC procedures like these private meetings may violate Maryland’s Open Meetings Act. The auditors recommended that the BLLC request advice from the Attorney General’s office on the matter. In response to the finding in the Audit, the Board has begun to announce individual votes of Commissioners at public hearings. However, in this case, there was no record in the file of any vote taken by the Board in reconsidering the revocation. And there were no meeting minutes from this private meeting in the file, though minutes may have been taken. A request for meeting minutes from this private December 5 (or 6?), 2013 BLLC meeting has so far gone unanswered.
Transparency and accountability require that the Board make its decisions on the record in a public hearing. Holding private closed door meetings in which the Board reverses previous public decisions and provides no record of its reasoning or even its vote taken will only attract suspicion of undue influence. The Maryland General Assembly recently passed legislation that would improve the Board’s transparency, but if the Board continues to make non-public decisions at these private meetings rather than at public hearings, reform will be much less effective.
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