By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Jan. 30, 2008
“The law is very clear that the licensee can’t be a convicted felon,” explains Douglas Paige, spokesman for the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners. He’s fielding questions about a newly filed application to transfer a liquor license from the closed Red Lyon Tavern in Canton to the old Hammerjacks nightclub property, downtown at 316 Guilford Ave. The plan is to open a large club called Heaven, but a convicted felon who is not the proposed licensee is listed in the application as its full-time operator. Felons are barred from holding liquor licenses, Paige says, but full-time operators of liquor-licensed businesses can have a felony background, as long as they’re not on the liquor license.
Having paid the $400 filing fee and filled out the necessary paperwork, he says, “the applicants are entitled to a hearing.” Valentine’s Day is the scheduled date of the hearing in the Pressman Board Room in City Hall, Paige says, and the three-member Liquor Board then will decide what to do about the proposed transfer.
“The board would have grave concerns about this, I’m sure,” he predicts. “They will have to look over this application closely to see how this is going to be operated.”
The application lists Leroy M. Brown, 50, and Joanne Giorgilli, 63, as the would-be owners of Heaven’s liquor license, and the full-time operator of Heaven would be Joanne Giorgilli’s 41-year-old son, John Americo Giorgilli.
Known to many as “Johnny G,” Giorgilli’s career as a nightlife impresario includes Club 101 in Towson, which closed in the mid-1990s amid controversy, and the China Room, a downtown club that operated at Uncle Lee’s Szechuan Restaurant and closed down in the early 2000s. He is currently under indictment in Baltimore County for first- and second-degree assault and false imprisonment, and since the mid-1990s he’s racked up charges and convictions for drugs and violence and served at least one stint in jail. The state’s online court-case database lists 85 cases dating back to 1993 in which Giorgilli was a criminal defendant.
On Jan. 25, Liquor Board Chairman Stephan Fogleman told City Paper that “the Liquor Board, in addition to making sure that licensees aren’t felons, wants to make sure the actual operators aren’t felons, too. . . . There are numerous ways we can look at applications such as this, and we will do just that at the hearing.”
One issue raised by information in the Heaven liquor-license application is the source of funds for starting up the club. The application shows that Brown has no money in it, but, since the Giorgillis live in Baltimore County, he satisfies board requirements that a resident city taxpayer be on the license. Joanne Giorgilli, a 29-year employee of Maryland School for the Blind, is listed as 100 percent owner, with the money for the club coming from her Bank of America savings account. Not mentioned in the application is the fact that Joanne Giorgilli is listed as co-debtor in her husband’s 2005 filing for bankruptcy protection. Two others listed in the license application–John Goertler and Ron Jones–are named as each having $200,000 available to pay for remodeling, should the club need financial assistance.
“If the question is, do I have that kind of money, the answer is yes,” says Goertler, one of John Giorgilli’s former partners in the China Room. “If the question is, have I committed fully to [putting $200,000 into Heaven], the answer is, not at this time. I’m thinking about it.”
Jones declined to be interviewed, but sources who spoke to him about it say he, like Goertler, is considering the Heaven proposal. Jones, a former Baltimore City police officer whose interests over the years include for-amusement-only gambling devices, dry cleaning, used cars, bars, and strip clubs. (“Mob Rules,” Oct. 6, 2004).
The Hammerjacks property is owned by 316 Guilford Avenue LLC, controlled by Richard W. Naing, and is on the footprint of a proposed skyscraper. Lonnie Fisher, project manager for RWN Development Group, says “we do not care to make any comment on the liquor application at this time.” The license application states Heaven has a three-year lease on the building for $15,000 per month.
John Giorgilli would not answer questions about Heaven during a phone interview on Jan. 28 unless, he said, City Paper gave him “final proof and approval of whatever is written” about the deal. When asked if he had a financial stake in the proposed club, his response was, “No, not at this time.”
Brown says the plan for Heaven is for it to be like Hammerjacks was–a place for large crowds to gather for a good time. “It’s going to be just basically like it was before,” he explains, “for enjoyment, for partying.” Brown refuses to say whether he has a monetary stake in the club, stating only that “I’m going to be a part of it. As for John Giorgilli, Brown says, “we’re friends, business friends.”
For 12 years, Brown’s job has been, as he explains it, to “assist, teach, and counsel mildly mentally challenged adults” for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Woodlawn-based nonprofit that promotes ways other than incarceration and institutionalization to help troubled people. Brown says he’s never before been on a liquor license and is not entirely familiar with what the requirements are.
“As a juvenile, there was some stuff,” Brown says of his own criminal record. “But I thought that was expunged.” When reminded that public records indicate that a man with his name and birthday was convicted of breaking and entering, in 1986, and of theft, twice, in 1993–long after Brown passed his juvenile years–he exclaims, “You have a computer there and you can look that up?” He asks for the web address, says, “I’m going to look that up,” and abruptly ends the phone call.
Subsequent attempts to reach Brown for this article were unsuccessful. Whether his record of criminal convictions came up in the Liquor Board’s required review of his background was unclear as of press time, as was the question of whether Brown’s theft-related background, which includes a history of incarceration, bars him from being on a liquor license.
“Leroy Brown, I didn’t know he didn’t have a clean record, and that pisses me off,” Giorgilli says. As for his own background, Girogilli owns up to having one felony conviction–“and that’s under appeal,” he says, “so that doesn’t even really count, according to my lawyer. I served jail time, I paid restitution, I paid my debt to society, and it’s under appeal.”
Giorgilli refused to discuss or confirm details of his criminal charges and declined to have an attorney explain any possible discrepancies in the online court records, which show he was guilty of second-degree assault and false imprisonment in 1997, drug possession and telephone misuse in 1998, a traffic violation with $14,000 in court costs and fines in 2000, and theft and passing a bad check in 2005. A pending sentence-modification motion was filed in the drug case in 2005. His arraignment on the open assault charges was held on Jan. 7, though no court date had been set as of Jan. 28.
Melvin Kodenski, a veteran lawyer for clients appearing before the Liquor Board, is the attorney for both parties in the license transfer for Heaven. At a Jan. 24 hearing, Kodenski appeared before the board with Craig Stanton, the current owner of the Red Lyon liquor license that owners are hoping to move to Heaven. The Red Lyon shut its doors last July, Kodenski told the board. Since inactive licenses die for good after 180 days of disuse, unless a 180-day “hardship extension” is granted, Kodenski asked the board to extend the license’s life for another six months.
“This is the license that’s up for transfer to John Giorgilli for the old Hammerjacks,” Kodenski said. “So while the board’s mulling that, we’re asking you to give [Stanton] an extension.”
The board agreed, pushing back the deadline for transferring the license to July 9. Thus, if Stanton’s Red Lyon license does not go to Giorgilli, as proposed, Stanton still has time to find another buyer.
In the Liquor Board’s conference room the day after the Red Lyon’s extension, board spokesman Paige is reminded that the circumstances surrounding Giorgilli’s application for Heaven are similar to a case uncovered by City Paper 12 years ago. That situation involved a large club called the Royal Café slated for the old Sons of Italy Building on West Fayette Street downtown. In that case (“The High Life,” Jan. 3, 1996), Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, owner of the Eldorado Gentleman’s Club and a felon and former lieutenant in “Little Melvin” Williams’ drug organization, appeared to be the co-owner (with his mother, Rosalie Jackson) of the proposed club, but a high-school guidance counselor named Mary Collins applied for the license. Though the Liquor Board approved the Sons of Italy license, the club never opened and Jackson eventually sold the building to the University of Maryland.
Why, Paige is asked, is there a prohibition on felons being on liquor licenses when felons are permitted to own and operate liquor-licensed businesses? Isn’t the point to keep felons from owning and running nightclubs, whether they are on the license or not?
“That’s a matter for the legislature,” Paige responds. “The law is the law. We just administer it.”