By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Mar. 2, 2005
Anthony B. Leonard’s Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on North Howard Street’s Antique Row had a meteoric run starting in 2002, drawing a clientele of local notables, including many in politics. But today, the Howard Street location is closed, and Leonard and his restaurant businesses (Leonard’s Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown remains open) are allegedly part of a violent drug conspiracy called the Rice Organization, which prosecutors say operated in Baltimore for the past decade. The federal trial in the case is scheduled for next January.
Shades of politics color the background of the Rice Organization case, but they are not spelled out in the 41-page indictment, which was made public on Feb. 2. In fact, very little detail is revealed in that document, other than names and some addresses associated with those charged. From campaign-finance and other public records, though, it’s clear that Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, and at least two other Rice Organization defendants played the political game, and, in Leonard’s case, entered it on the heels of an earlier chapter in Baltimore’s history of overlapping political and drug-world cultures.
That earlier chapter centered on Leonard’s Howard Street landlord, K.A.J. Enterprises, Kenneth Antonio Jackson’s family company. Jackson is an ex-con strip-club owner whose drug-world past has made his political activities controversial. This time, though, the political dealings of Leonard and others allegedly involved in the Rice Organization occurred while prosecutors say they were running drugs.
The indictment claims that 35-year-old Leonard and his 12 co-defendants, including brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32, raked in $27 million as they distributed more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to Baltimore’s streets since 1995. Other co-conspirators include 30-year-old George Butler, a character from the now-infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, which warns viewers against cooperating with law enforcement, and Chet Pajardo, 36, co-owner with movie actress Jada Pinkett Smith of an East Baltimore corner-store property (“Star Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16). The federal government seeks forfeiture of defendants’ assets, including vehicles, the Pajardo-Pinkett property, other real estate, and whatever is left of Leonard’s two restaurant businesses.
The Rice Organization allegations make the political ties of Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, Pajardo, and 26-year-old co-defendant Eric Clash symbols of how the drug economy is embedded in modern civic life. When Downtown Southern Blues sought a liquor license in 2002, then-state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-44th District) and former state senator Larry Young (D-44th District) were copied on administrative correspondence. Shortly after the restaurant opened that year, political business came its way. The financial details show only that political money changed hands in ’02 and ’03 involving businesses and people who only recently were accused of being part of the Rice Organization. There is nothing to suggest that any of the parties to the transactions have any other links to the drug world. Here the are details:
> In ’02 Antonio Hayes, the legislative-affairs director for City Council President Sheila Dixon (D), ran and lost in the race for the 40th District Democratic State Central Committee seat; he spent $1,200 on a June 2002 fund raiser at Downtown Southern Blues.
> Democrats for Ehrlich, a campaign committee supporting then-Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich’s successful 2002 bid for governor, spent $4,000 at Downtown Southern Blues in November of that year for a post-victory reception in honor of Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele.
> In 2002, Leonard and the restaurant made donations to the campaign committees of Mitchell ($250) and Rodney Orange Sr. ($200), the former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter. Mitchell and Orange were running primary campaigns for senator and delegate, respectively, for the West Baltimore’s 44th District. Orange’s campaign also received $80 from Eric Clash. Mitchell and Orange both lost.
> In 2003, the campaign of City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who was running uncontested in the city’s Democratic primary, spent $2,200 on catering from Downtown Southern Blues. Pratt’s campaign also received $200 from Pajardo. The committee of then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh (D), who was mounting an unsuccessful campaign to unseat council President Sheila Dixon (D), spent $600 on a party for Larry Young at Downtown Southern Blues.
> Also in 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary.
In a Feb. 28 phone call with City Paper, Rodney Orange Sr. said Leonard and Clash are related to him—they are both second cousins, he explained—so he is not surprised that they donated to his campaign in 2002. At the time of the donations, he continued, “there was no knowledge on my part of any activity on their part that was illegal.” Hayes said he’d booked his fundraiser with Downtown Southern Blues’ predecessor, Britton’s, and he went ahead with the scheduled event anyway. “Fortunately,” he added, “he didn’t contribute to my campaign.”
The other politicians or campaigns whose ties are disclosed above could not be reached for comment by press time.
By 2002, when Leonard leased the space for Downtown Southern Blues from K.A.J. Enterprises, the property’s ties to 47-year-old Kenny “Bird” Jackson were already well known. From 2001 until Leonard took over, the location was used by another Jackson-related company, Universal LLC, to house Britton’s, a restaurant where politicians spent nearly $1,500 in ’01 and ’02 combined, according to state campaign-finance reports. The manager of Britton’s, James Britton, owns Class Act Catering, which has gotten $120,000 worth of business from Maryland political committees since 1999. Britton, like Jackson, earned a drug-related criminal record when he was younger: He pled guilty in 1983 to pot and handgun charges in Baltimore city.
Jackson’s days in the drug business in the 1980s were summed up by The Wire producer David Simon, a former newspaper reporter, in a 1987 Sun series about a famous Baltimore drug trafficker, “Little” Melvin Williams.
“Wholesale exchanges of narcotics were carefully controlled, according to detectives,” Simon wrote, “with Williams represented by tested lieutenants such as Glen Hawkins or Kenny ‘Bird’ Jackson—men identified in court papers as Williams’ most trusted surrogates, men who allegedly had the authority and knowledge to carry large amounts of cash and make purchases without being cheated. The loyalty of such lieutenants was unquestioned.”
Jackson’s convictions in 1978 (manslaughter), 1979 (resisting arrest), and 1984 (a gun charge) were accompanied by dozens of other criminal charges in numerous jurisdictions that didn’t stick. In 1992, Jackson faced bribery charges in New Jersey, but pleaded down to one count of giving false information to a state trooper who had stopped him with nearly $700,000 in cash in his car. Meanwhile, Jackson sought to establish himself as a legitimate manager of his family’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, and as an accepted figure in the city’s political circles. In 1995, Jackson was a major backer of a short-lived political-action committee called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which was run by one of Orange’s sons. A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which sought to give political voice to inner-city residents, made a total of $8,000 in contributions to city candidates in 1995, including Pratt, Dixon, Orange, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D).
Later, after the 1999 city elections, as the city’s plans for redeveloping the west side of downtown forced the Eldorado to move, Jackson’s contributions to politicians again became a public issue. Dixon got $2,500 and Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), ducking controversy, returned $2,000 he’d received from Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson. In 1999, Jackson had former governor Marvin Mandel represent him in a paternity case, a measure of Jackson’s access to politically connected help. Meanwhile, donations from Jackson and those tied to him continued at the federal level. In 1999, Rosalie Jackson gave $1,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore’s committee in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary. More recently, in 2003, Kenneth Jackson gave $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2004 Universal LLC, which operated Britton’s, donated $250 to Lt. Gov. Steele’s campaign.
Leonard, in his 2002 city liquor-license application to fill the vacancy left by the closing of Britton’s, wrote that he had been self-employed since 1999, and had previously worked from ’95 to ’99 at the Starlite Lounge, a West Baltimore bar. The sources of funds for starting Downtown Southern Blues were disclosed as proceeds from the Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown and from Raphael Barber Shop, also in Randallstown Plaza. The purchase price for the restaurant was $350,000, with $3,394-per-month payments to K.A.J. Enterprises. Under Leonard’s proprietorship, violence struck at Downtown Southern Blues in October 2003, when an argument that started in the restaurant spilled outside, resulting in four men shot and another stabbed. Today, a new restaurant called Gambrino’s of Spain is preparing to open up there, with owners who moved here recently from Elizabeth, N.J., and a letter in the files on the property kept by the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners indicates that K.A.J. Enterprises is considering selling building.