Hot Line: The Feds are considering shipping spent nuclear fuel through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are they playing with fire?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Suneditorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Around the Block: The Colorful Past, Controversial Present, and Uncertain Future of Baltimore’s Red-Light District

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 2, 2000

Our values have changed,” Joanne Attman proclaims.

Attman and her husband, Ely Attman, own the building at 425 E. Baltimore St., and are thus the landlords of Club Harem, a strip club in Baltimore’s red-light district, the Block. “There’s nothing wrong with sex,” she says in a telephone interview. “There just isn’t. It’s an adult thing, and as long as it stays an adult thing, that’s all that’s important.

“You know,” she continues, “we’ve come a long way, and people do not view sex as a bad thing if they can do all that’s on the Internet, do what they do on TV, and on the phone. So, as far as the Block, the Block is benign.”

The Attmans, like most of the owners of Block property and businesses, do not live in Baltimore City. Their abode, most recently assessed at more than $225,000, is in a new development in Pikesville. Being a nice, suburban couple, the Attmans probably don’t often come down to the Block and look around; as Joanne Attman says, “We don’t really pay any attention to it.” Like most landlords, they just get a check from their tenants and make the necessary improvements to their property. End of story.

But if the Attmans were paying more attention to what’s happening on the Block, they’d know that its problems have little to do with the morality of sex among adults. The area is besieged by negative publicity over drug dealing, prostitution, employment of underage dancers, and the threatening atmosphere some civic and business leaders contend the Block creates in the middle of the downtown business district.

If they were paying attention, the Attmans would know that last May four pipe bombs were found and defused in the Diamond Lounge, a few doors down from their Block property. They’d know that a club next door to their building, the Circus Bar, was ordered to sell its liquor license last October after a former doorman, convicted of dealing drugs from the club, told the Baltimore City Board of License Commissioners (aka the liquor board) that he thought it was “part of my duties” to sell cocaine from the bar. They’d know that in July 1998, the 408 Club was cited by the liquor board for employing two 16-year-old Baltimore County high-school students as dancers and using three rooms above the bar for prostitution. And they’d know that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. (For a fuller accounting of Block property owners and the records of businesses there, see “What’s Around the Block”.)

But Joanne Attman doesn’t want to hear about it. “That’s ludicrous,” she says of the idea that a Block employee considered drug dealing part of his job. “You can go anywhere and buy drugs anywhere in the city. You can buy them at school. They’re being sold everywhere. So to focus in on the Block is absolutely ludicrous.” She is adamant that the action on the Block is essentially harmless: “You know, most of the people down there are there to make a living and that’s what they’re doing–a clean living.” With that, the interview ends abruptly.
The way people make their living on the Block isn’t causing ripples just in City Hall and law-enforcement circles; it is fast becoming a divisive issue within the red-light district’s business community itself. Today, two separate entities–Baltimore Entertainment Center Inc. (BEC) and Downtown Entertainment Inc.–claim to represent the interests of Block businesses. Both groups, at least on the face of it, share the same goal: to clean up the Block’s act so that its businesses can work with city leaders to promote the district as a destination for tourists and conventioneers. But their respective members don’t see eye to eye on how to achieve that aim, according to Block sources.

Today, Baltimore Entertainment Center is effectively defunct, although it is still recognized by many on the Block as an ongoing concern. BEC was formed in February 1997 and until a few months ago was represented by Baltimore attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, a confidant of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. At the time the group was launched, Hitchcock said it represented a “new breed of owner and operator on the Block” that is “trying to become better citizens and better neighbors.” Hitchcock resigned as BEC’s attorney in September; the following month, the group forfeited its right to operate in Maryland due to its failure to file property-tax returns–a rectifiable situation, should the taxes be brought up to date. (Attempts to speak with Frank Boston III, reportedly BEC’s new attorney, were unsuccessful.)

Days after Hitchcock left BEC, Downtown Entertainment was formed, with Hitchcock as its lawyer and Jacob “Jack” Gresser–the owner of the Gayety Building, a Block landmark, and another former BEC guiding force–as president. Gresser says Downtown Entertainment wants “to go in the direction of a partnership with the city, in respect of getting involved in the conventions that are coming to town, where the city will advertise these particular businesses in their convention brochures and throw the business our way, if possible.” Ultimately, Gresser says, he wants the Block to become like Bourbon Street, New Orleans’ famous playground of vice. So far, eight to 10 of the Block’s two dozen adult-entertainment establishments have joined the new group, he says.

Gresser says the splintering of BEC occurred over the course of last year, culminating about six months ago–“That’s when we decided to go our different ways.” While he’s loath to speak for those who haven’t joined Downtown Entertainment, he says there are “two distinct, different views of how people want to run their business down on the Block. Everybody runs their business differently. Everyone has a responsibility to run their business properly. I would just like to see everyone get together and go in one direction. We really don’t need this diversification.”

That “diversification” has created to some bad blood. “This has not been a walk in the park,” Hitchcock says. “I mean, I’ve gotten calls here in the office on my voice mail, you know, the use of the ‘N’ word, and ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ and all. One guy who was a part of [Downtown Entertainment] got his windows bashed in–both in his business and his car–and his family got threatening phone calls over the telephone at home. I’ve gotten it all. I mean, this has not been easy.”

Neither Gresser nor Hitchcock will go into detail about the causes of the split. Other sources familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are less cagey–they claim the split is between clubs that host prostitution and clubs that don’t.

“Apparently the difference is private rooms, no private rooms,” says one source. “If there are no private rooms, then you obviously can’t have prostitution on the site.” The clubs without private rooms are the ones moving into Downtown Entertainment, he says.

Sources say the new group also wants police officers currently on the Block beat rotated out. “The policemen around there have been around there for years and have a bunch of friendships,” one source says. “If you are there too long, familiarity can breed bad things.”

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment has “scheduled an appointment to talk with the new police commissioner [Ronald Daniel] to basically introduce this new organization to him, to give him a feel for what we intend to do, how we intend to run the businesses, [and] to affirm or reaffirm with him our willingness to be cooperative with the Baltimore City Police Department. In fact, we encourage the police department to be active–fair, but active–on the Block.”

Police spokesperson Robert Weinhold says Daniel “has had conversations with representatives from the Block” and recognizes that they want to make the red-light district as crime-free as possible. “We would expect the efforts of the Block representatives to continue, and that all of the establishments and the citizens who work there will be law-abiding in their business efforts.”

Eventually, Hitchcock says, Downtown Entertainment will seek a meeting with Mayor Martin O’Malley, but it has yet to broach the subject with him. For the time being, the new mayor’s approach to managing the situation on the Block remains a mystery. Despite assurances that he would grant an interview for this article, repeated attempts to set up such a meeting were unsuccessful. O’Malley’s press secretary, Tony White, eventually explained that the mayor has yet to formulate his opinions about the Block district and therefore would rather not discuss it at this time.

“Being the entertainment mogul that he is, he’s thinking about” the Block, White says, but this thinking “hasn’t come to fruition yet.”

It would be a stretch to suggest that contributions to O’Malley’s mayoral campaign last year will have a direct impact on his eventual stance. But several Block interests did pledge support for his candidacy, in all likelihood out of a desire to foster access to and good relations with their potent neighbor in City Hall.

Between July and October of 1999, Block interests donated $6,400 to O’Malley’s cause, according to campaign-finance reports. One of Gresser’s businesses, Custom House News, gave $1,000, as did PP&G, which co-owns the strip club Norma Jean’s and is headed by Pete Koroneos, secretary and treasurer of Downtown Entertainment. The law firm O’Malley worked for before he became mayor gave $2,000 to his campaign, and one of its partners, Joseph Omansky, has long represented Block interests. The remaining $2,400 came from other Block lawyers, owners, liquor licensees, and an accountant.
The Block’s generosity toward politicians is a long-established tradition–probably as old as the Block itself. The district sprang up almost immediately after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, with the Gayety Theater (opened in 1906 at its present site at 403 E. Baltimore St.) becoming its first landmark. Initially, penny arcades and vaudeville venues dominated, but after the repeal of Prohibition the area took off as a dense concentration of bars and burlesque houses.

During the World War II years and into the 1950s, the Block’s reputation spread nationally as striptease acts became the main attraction at many of the nightclubs and, as two out-of-town reporters wrote in 1951, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything, and it’s not much.”

With all of the fun and money being generated on the Block, heat from law enforcement was turned up. Various congressional inquiries and grand-jury investigations fingered the Block as an organized-crime stronghold in the 1950s and ’60s, a place where the rackets, gambling and prostitution in particular, thrived and fueled corruption and violence. Even during its heyday–so romanticized by a legion of old-time Baltimoreans and local scribes–the Block was a dangerous place that spawned crime sprees and fear and trepidation among hand-wringing city residents.

If the 1960s were bad on the Block from a criminal-justice standpoint, the ’70s were much worse. Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, the acknowledged king of Block rackets, was finally convicted on federal charges in 1969, only to flee the country the following year. (Never brought to justice, he remains a legendary fugitive.) But with the end of Salsbury’s reign–and perhaps because of the destabilizing effect of his absence–came an era of unprecedented violence in the district. When crime fighters did try to put the screws to the Block, they often ended up embarrassing themselves: A 1971 raid by federal agents produced little in the way of convictions and made law-enforcement appear groundlessly zealous in pursuit of justice for Block racketeers.

With downtown’s renewal into a modern entertainment district, however, the Block gained a sense of legitimacy, due largely to rose-colored memories of its former glory and its faded Damon Runyonesque character. Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer spared the Block from his wide-swinging wrecking ball as he rebuilt downtown, and in 1977 it received a special designation as an entertainment district. But the Block’s salad days were long gone; drugs and sleaziness continued to define its identity into the 1980s and ’90s.

As Schaefer moved from City Hall to the State House, his tolerance for the Block wore down. Late in his second term as governor, he ordered a four-month investigation of crime on the Block that culminated in a January 1994 Maryland State Police raid in which some 500 state troopers descended on the district and shut it down. Initially, the governor and his troopers made great claims–one drug kingpin and three distributors had been nabbed, an arsenal of guns had been confiscated, the back of criminal interests on the Block had been irreparably broken. But attempts to prosecute those arrested fell apart amid allegations of improprieties and faulty techniques among the investigators. Once again, law enforcement was left red-faced by its flawed attack on the tenderloin.

Schaefer’s raid occurred as his mayoral successor, Kurt Schmoke, was in the midst of his own attempt to put the Block out of his misery, by buying it out and relocating businesses. This economic attack failed, however–community leaders around the city feared porn shops and strip clubs would spring up in their backyards. Ultimately, after a flood of contributions to Schmoke’s campaign committee from Block interests in late 1996, a détente was reached. Fronted by the Schmoke-friendly Hitchcock–who had previously represented other downtown business interests that hoped to end the Block once and for all–Block operators received a respite as City Hall promised to await improvements promised by the newly formed Baltimore Entertainment Center.

The city held up its commitment, providing physical improvements such as new brick sidewalks in 1997, but so far the businesses haven’t held up their end of the bargain by substantially cleaning up their acts. If and how O’Malley reacts remains to be seen.

The mayor may still be forming his ideas on the future of the Block, but a new regulatory era is already underway. In November, the city liquor board started enforcing new rules that hold the threat of revocation of adult-entertainment licenses should club employees commit too many violations.

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment welcomes the restrictions. “We frankly saw it as tightening of the regulations in a fashion that we all agreed needed to happen,” he says. “We’ve had some very damaging rulings by the liquor board against some of those clubs down there. People are getting the message–you know, you do this stuff and you will lose your livelihood, period, end of story. You may be able to appeal it until it gets to some point of finality, but the liquor board’s not playing about this because they have taken on a responsibility and their credibility is on the line.”

Perhaps even more significant than the new regulations, from a business standpoint, is a January 1999 court ruling that full nudity is legal at adult-entertainment establishments that opened before 1993. The ruling arose when the Spectrum Gentlemen’s Club in East Baltimore appealed a nude-dancing violation and found a loophole in the law, which had been interpreted to require that dancers be partially clothed while performing. The decision was handed down by Circuit Court Judge Richard Rombro, in his last judicial act before retiring from the bench. (Unnoticed at the time was the fact that the judge’s nephew, Stuart Rombro, is an attorney who represents Gresser’s Custom House News.) Regardless, it’s been good for business on the Block.

Hitchcock downplays the ruling’s practical significance. “There’s no real difference,” he says. “I mean, yeah, rather than you put a little star on the nipple, you can take the star off now.” But he acknowledges that Baltimore strip clubs have become a “more marketable and a bigger revenue-generating business because you can basically say it’s nude dancing.”

And a more marketable Block is a boon for Baltimore, says City Council member Nicholas D’Adamo, a Democrat whose 1st District includes the Block and many other adult-entertainment venues.

“Let’s be honest,” asserts D’Adamo, who acknowledges that he patronizes Block establishments now and again. “Is it a plus for the city of Baltimore? I think it is. I think for out-of-towners to come to the city, it could be a stop on their agenda if they’re staying downtown.” He further maintains that Block businesses employ some 1,000 workers and should be recognized as job-providers.

Of the allegations of vice associated with Block clubs, the council member says, “I think the press has blown it out of proportion. Sure, there are problems down there. But I think there are problems in every bar. It’s just a matter of what you consider a problem. So why pick on the Block?

“You show me a person a week’s being killed on the Block, or a person a week’s being stabbed and almost died–you show me numbers like that, we got a problem,” D’Adamo continues. “But goddammit, there’s a lot of streets in this city that have these problems that are a lot worse than the Block. We need to address that first.” And, for the time being, it appears that’s exactly what the city’s going to do.

Reversal of Fortune: Two Years Ago, Martin O’Malley Was Lawrence Bell’s Political Sidekick. This Year, O’Malley Broke With Bell, Challenged Him for Mayor – and Won the Nomination. What Really Happened Between the Two That Led to Bell’s Downfall?

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore magazine, Nov. 1999

It’s a June day in 1995, and Batman and Robin are doing what they do best: grandstanding.

As anti-administration members of a pro-administration City Council, Lawrence Bell III (a.k.a. Batman) and Martin O’Malley (a.k.a. Robin) have few weapons in their political arsenal. So when the duo has a bone to pick with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, they call a press conference. Today, they’re in front of City Hall, decrying Schmoke’s racially tinged re-election campaign.

“We’re disturbed about the escalating racial and religious tensions that plague our city,” proclaims Bell, a slim black man who swims in his too-large suit. “What good is victory if what you’ve won is destroyed in the process?” At 33, Bell’s looks belie his experience: He has represented the largely black and poor Fourth District for eight years, and he’s running for City Council president.

Now it’s O’Malley’s turn. “One of the things people say to me often s that they like the way Lawrence and I work together,” the lanky white man muses. “That is where the future of this city lies.” O’Malley is finishing his first four years representing Northeast Baltimore’s racially integrated, middle-class Third District; he’s running for re-election.

The bond that earned these two men their nicknames does seem extraordinary, given the race-tinged minefield that is Baltimore politics. No wonder the duo’s other joint tags are “Salt’n’Pepa” and “Miami Vice.”

O’Malley plays clear second fiddle to Bell at this event. But some believe that it is he, not Bell, who is driving the Batmobile.

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Today, “Batman and Robin” is no more. On June 22 of this year, O’Malley drove the final nail in the team’s coffin by announcing that he would run for mayor against his long-time ally.

One brutal primary campaign later, O’Malley is the Democratic nominee, a near sure thing to win in this Democratic town. And Bell – once the front-runner – is a distant third-place finisher, packing up his things to move out of City Hall.

In the aftermath of O’Malley’s victory, some questions remain. What really happened to the Bell/O’Malley team? How did their years-long friendship erode into political and personal rancor? And how did O’Malley rise so fast while Bell fell so hard?

Lawrence A. Bell is a career politician. The son of a prominent dentist and a public-school teacher, Bell grew up at a coveted address – Auchentoroly Terrace, a tree-lined stretch of beautiful porchfront rowhouses near Druid Hill Park. He went to the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in government and politics and becoming the president of the Black Student Union. When Bell was elected to the City Council in 1987, he was 25, the youngest member ever. Bell was proud to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s first cousin, Kweisi Mfume, who had been Fourth District councilman before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986.

The 1987 elections also ushered Kurt Schmoke into the mayor’s office. Schmoke’s victory was seen as the end of the William Donald Schaefer machine, which for 14 years had overseen a nationally recognized downtown revival. Schmoke cast himself as the anti-Schaefer, promising to bring prosperity to neighborhoods untouched by the waterfront renaissance.

But instead, many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods underwent shocking deterioration. A crisis in the city’s public schools combined with a national crack-cocaine epidemic to overwhelm the administration’s attempts at revival. By the early 1990s, the annual murder rate had topped 300. The city’s police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, refused to acknowledge the role of vicious New York-based drug dealers in the bloodletting. Faith in law enforcement plummeted.

During Schmoke’s 1991 re-election campaign against former state’s attorney William Swisher, the mayor’s effectiveness was questioned, but there were few Democratic voices of open opposition. Schmoke was re-elected. But on the City Council, the stage was set for an organized anti-Schmoke faction.

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Martin O’Malley first took his seat in the City Council in 1992, supplanting Bell as its youngest member. Then 29, O’Malley was steeped in politics. His suburban Montgomery County upbringing, education at Catholic University, and experience as an assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City had been peppered with political involvement. He had worked on Gary Hart’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 and on Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 election to the U.S. Senate. And O’Malley himself nearly denied state Senator John Pica Jr. re-elction in 1990; Pica won by only a few dozen votes. Even O’Malley’s 1990 marriage to Catherine Curran, the daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, strengthened his political connections.

O’Malley found Bell harder to get to know than some of his other new colleagues on the council. But he saw that Bell was a courageous legislator, never ducking a rough vote. Plus, Bell was black, and in a majority black city, a white politician needs all the black friends he can get.

To Bell, who was entering his second term, O’Malley was a political comrade. He was only one year younger than Bell and shared Bell’s taste for grandstanding. O’Malley also had friends in high places. Each saw a political opportunity in the other.

O’Malley got the alliance going by helping Bell gain the chairmanship of the council’s public-safety subcommittee, giving Bell a bully pulpit from which to denounce Commissioner Woods.

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It’s January, 1993, and Bell is ready to issue a public ultimatum to Woods. O’Malley and councilman Anthony Ambridge are on board.

The three meet at City Hall to discuss how to proceed. Ambridge, who is white, says the city’s racial realities dictate how it must go: “This should be put by you, Lawrence, rather than us, because of the politics.” If the white councilmen take the lead in denouncing a black mayor’s black police chief, it might look racially motivated.

So Bell pulls the event together solo and gives the men 10 minutes’ notice. When O’Malley gets the call, he drops what he’s doing and runs to City Hall.

Bell calls for Woods’ resignation if he fails to reduce the violent crime rate within six months. Then he protests “the near-total silence emanating from the leadership of our city” when it comes to crime. O’Malley chimes in: “I’d just like to see a little progress,” he declares.

The announcement makes headlines in The Sun for two days running. And when the six months are up, Bell and O’Malley are in the newspaper again. Woods resigns shortly thereafter.

Score one for the dynamic duo.

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After the Eddie Woods victory, Bell and O’Malley applied themselves to opposing the mayor. Together, they fought tax increases and pushed for tax cuts. They scrutinized police spending, tried to attract talent to the police commissioner’s post by increasing its salary, criticized the private management of public schools, helped to push through a curfew for juveniles, and decried the housing department’s awarding of no-bid repair contracts. In spring of 1995, council president Mary Pat Clarke reactivated the dormant Legislative Investigations Committee and made O’Malley its chair.

When campaign season 1995 rolled around, O’Malley again helped Bell, who was running for City Council President against fellow City Councilmembers Carl Stokes, Vera Hall, and Joe DiBlasi. Bell’s West Side base would support him, but he needed significant backing in other parts of the city.

He found it in the Third District, where O’Malley was running for re-election on a ticket with first-time council candidates Joan Carter Conway and Robert Curran, the uncle of O’Malley’s wife. Their ticket oversaw the Third District’s effort to get Bell elected. Of the city’s six districts, Bell led in only two: his own and O’Malley’s. In a crowded field, that was the margin he needed.

So it was no surprise when the new City Council president treated O’Malley well, handing him the chairmanships of the Taxation and Finance and Legislative Investigations committees. These two key assignments gave O’Malley the watchdog role he relished. Using the platform Bell gave him, O’Malley was able to broaden his reputation as a reform-minded, populist outsider.

Bell also treated O’Malley’s Northeast Baltimore neighbors well: First District Councilwoman Lois Garey became head of the Land Use Committee, while First District Councilman Nick D’Adamo was named chair of the Budget Committee.

Within Schmoke’s inner circle, this preferential treatment made it look like O’Malley was controlling Bell. At one point, Daniel P. Henson III, Schmoke’s housing commissioner – and no friend of the dynamic duo – tried to warn Bell to watch his back.

“Don’t be so sure everybody who says they’re your friend is your friend,” Henson told Bell outside City Hall.

“What do you mean?” the president asked.

“O’Malley – he’s running your show,” Henson said.

“No,” Bell responded, “I’m calling the shots.”

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But if Schmoke’s friends worried about O’Malley’s influence on the new president, they weren’t above trying for some of that influence themselves. The city’s political rainmakers started making overtures. Baker-developer John Paterakis, a strong and dependable financial backer of Schmoke, bought a table at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annapolis gala in the fall of 1995. In an augur of things to come, Bell sat at Paterakis’ table.

On Paterakis’ agenda was how to capitalize on his land holdings at Inner Harbor East, along the waterfront next to Little Italy. (Baltimore magazine’s offices are located in one of these properties.) A 50-story hotel at Inner Harbor East – though nearly a mile away from the newly expanded Convention Center – could help meet a growing demand for hotel rooms and also generate tremendous revenue for Paterakis. But such a large building was out of keeping with the community-developed plan for the area. Also, opponents of gambling feared that the hotel would one day be turned into a casino. To construct the building, Paterakis would need support from the mayor, approval from the Board of Estimates of which Bell was chair, and legislation from the Bell-led City Council.

Bell, meanwhile, had been left with a campaign debt of $111,000, so he kept his fundraising machine in gear. And Paterakis’ pro-hotel crowd ponied up. Between February 1996 and November 1997, more than $16,000 was contributed to the fund by Paterakis companies, members of the hotel-development team, or known supporters of Paterakis’s project.

“I’m in the big leagues now,” Bell told City Paper at the time. The donations, he said, represented his desire to garner support not only from his grass-roots base, but also from heavy-hitters.

The legislative battle was enormously controversial. The Sun played the hotel as a sweetheart deal for a privileged few. And while Little Italy residents were generally in favor of Paterakis’ project, Southeast Baltimore community leaders were adamantly opposed to it.

Ultimately, Bell and virtually all of the council, O’Malley included, approved the hotel project, though its height was reduced along the way to 31 stories. While it cannot be said that Bell sold his votes, the cash infusion into his coffers did signal the start of an inexorable process: his wooing by (and of) the city’s political moneybags.

Through all of this, Batman and Robin battled on. They opened 1996 with an attempt to derail the reconfirmation of Henson as housing chief, moved to stop Schmoke’s attempt to raise taxes, then devised a way the city could save money by offering workers retirement incentives. Bell sent O’Malley’s Legislative Investigations Committee to New York to study the city’s strict, “zero-tolerance” style of policing.

By 1997, O’Malley and then Bell turned on Commissioner Woods’ replacement, Thomas Frazier, and called for his dismissal over racial discrimination on the force.

Still, Bell seemed to be softening his stance against the mayor. “Bell, Schmoke Forge ‘Refreshing’ Relationship,” read a Sun headline from September of 1996. Many saw this as a detente – an agreement between superpowers to leave well enough alone.

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It’s spring of 1998. As usual, the council is faced with a budget proposal that cuts funding for city programs. The council cannot increase the mayor’s budget, but it can save programs by making cuts elsewhere. Ordinarily, the president takes the initiative, pushing individual amendments.

This time around, though, O’Malley suspects Bell isn’t with the program. It looks as if Bell has made a deal not to embarrass the mayor. O’Malley feels unsure about Bell, not knowing until the roll is called which way he will vote.

From Bell’s perspective, it feels like any other budget battle, with the president taking his share of the heat. The difference, if there is one, is that Bell has grown more presidential, compromising with the pro-Schmoke majority in order to gain ground. He isn’t just a councilman any longer; he is responsible for the work of the whole council. Lawrence thinks his friend Martin understands this.

The last day of the council session, after the final budget votes, O’Malley stays late in his city council office. Then he trundles under the City Hall dome.

He sees Bell walking his way. “Well, I think we did the best we could,” Bell says.

“No, Lawrence, I think I did the best I could,” O’Malley replies.

Bells seems incredulous. “What does that mean?” he asks.

“I really don’t f—in’ know,” O’Malley says before walking away. “Why don’t you take the summer and think about it?”

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During the summer of 1998, Bell’s list of backers started to look more like Schmoke’s. A prime example was attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, who tried to protect the housing department during the no-bid repair scandal and later became executive director of the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation, which administers a $100 million federal project.

In 1998, Hitchcock lobbied for two main clients: Phipps Construction Contractors, which wanted permission to use a Northeast Baltimore site for a rubble-crushing operation, and Baltimore Entertainment Center, which wanted bars on The Block on East Baltimore Street to be allowed to serve liquor past 2 a.m. Hitchcock and these clients began donating to the Bell campaign fund that summer.

Another name to appear on Bell campaign finance reports then was Gia Blatterman, a Little Italy power broker who has long been a staunch supporter and energetic fundraiser for Schmoke. As word spread of Hitchcock’s and Blatterman’s donations, some O’Malley allies got nervous.

“It just appeared that he was surrounding himself with individuals that some of us believe weren’t in the best interests of the city – and/or Lawrence,” recalls Third District councilman Robert Curran. “And it just seemed that Lawrence was much, much less accessible to Martin.”

O’Malley agrees. In fact, he says Bell flat-out told him he’d been advised to distance himself from his old partner. “[Bell] said African-American opinion leaders would say to him things like, ‘You can’t appear to be controlled by people like Martin O’Malley and [former Bell aide] Jody Landers and Mary Pat Clarke,” he recalls. O’Malley remembers understanding this, telling himself, “He’s doing what he needs to do.”

Bell doesn’t remember it that way; in fact, he seems amazed at the suggestion. “He’s making that up,” says Bell. “Nobody ever said that.” As for his shutting O’Malley out, Bell says “it was always an open-door policy. He could call me at home whenever he wanted.”

Adds Bell’s brother Marshall, who worked on the campaign: “Martin wanted to think he could control Lawrence Bell in the presidency. Martin has a certain arrogance about him, a kind of paternalistic feel: ‘Sure, you’re my brother on the one hand, but I’m smarter than you, so do what I say.'”

 

Meanwhile, people close to O’Malley began to lose faith in Bell. “I broke camp probably July or August of last year,” recalls O’Malley’s old running mate Joan Carter Conway, who was appointed to the state Senate in 1997. “I knew something wasn’t right.” Conway warned O’Malley in the fall: “He’s gone, Martin, he’s sold out.”

With Bell seeming destined for a shot at the mayor’s office, O’Malley had his eye on the City Council presidency. He wanted to run on a ticket with Bell and suggested to Conway that the three of them sit down to work out their differences. But their meetings in November and December did not go well.

As O’Malley recalls it, “[Bell] said, ‘No, I don’t want you running for council president. Maybe some sort of public-safety liaison person.’ And I thought it was very strange that all of a sudden he wants me to take over some sort of middle-management duties.”

Bell recalls the meetings very differently. He never denied O’Malley a spot on his ticket, Bell says, because O’Malley never asked for one: “On many occasions, he was asked what he wanted, and he never would say.”

According to Marshall Bell, it would have been foolish for Bell to join forces with O’Malley so early, especially with city councilwoman Sheila Dixon contemplating a run for president of Bell’s West Side home base. Marshall says his brother told O’Malley, “Whatever you want, Martin, but as far as an endorsement goes, it would be political suicide.”

 

Then, Bell was buffeted by major changes in the political landscape. Schmoke announced in December that he would not run for re-election. Shortly afterward, Bell’s former colleague Carl Stokes entered the race, as did crusader A. Robert Kaufmann. Bell’s cousin Kweisi Mfume, rumored to be considering a run, announced that he would remain as head of the national NAACP. Almost immediately, important politicians began pleading with Mfume to reconsider. And it seemed like Mfume was doing so.

The impact of the “draft Mfume” effort on Bell was huge, says Mary Pat Clarke, who knows both men well: “This is a hero to Lawrence Bell, and a member of the family. And instead of helping Lawrence Bell, it turns out that he may run for the job du jour. That was the wound that would not heal for Lawrence Bell. He was never the same after that.”

Bell got caught up in legislative wrangling over whether to amend the city charter to allow an Mfume candidacy. (The NAACP chief had not lived within city limits for the required year.) Bell took heat first for failing to introduce the amendment and then for introducing it.

As Mfume mulled, Bell reeled, and his reputation for independence frayed. Word spread that Bell’s father was fielding political advice from his longtime friend Larry Gibson, an advisor to Schmoke, and that Bell himself was spotted at lunch with housing commissioner Henson, another Schmoke intimate. A look at Bell’s campaign-finance reports shows evidence that Schmoke’s Department of Public Works director George Balog, who made his name as a rainmaker by steering DPW contractor donations to political candidates, was actively raising funds on Bell’s behalf.

In March, before either man had announced his candidacy, O’Malley organized a fundraiser for himself at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden. As FOP president Gary McLhinney understood it, O’Malley was planning to run for city council president on a ticket with Bell and incumbent City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

But Bell’s personal relations with O’Malley continued to cool. O’Malley suspected that the Schmoke crowd was supporting Bell on the condition that he ditch his old friend.

The issue of Bell’s closeness to a Schmoke ally came to a head in April. The Phipps rubble-crusher proposal had been winding through the council process for more than a year. Expected to be a noisy and dusty enterprise in a residential area, the proposal angered environmentalists an Northeast Baltimore community groups – both important constituencies for O’Malley and his colleagues in the First and Third districts. On the other side was Phipps, a black-owned firm seeking to operate a business on its own land. In the end, the council split on the matter, and Bell cast the deciding vote. He voted in favor of Phipps – a stinging blow to some of his long-term allies.

“[Bell] was trying to be too much to too many people,” says city real-estate officer Anthony Ambridge, who supported Bell in the mayor’s race. “He called it the ‘big tent theory.’ He was trying to bring everybody into the tent. And by doing that he was excluding some of his closest friends.”

City Councilwoman Lois Garey describes her disappointment more pointedly: “[Bell] kicked every friend he had in the head.”

Marshall Bell says that his brother’s Phipps vote involved issues broader than the wishes of O’Malley and his neighbors. That it came to be seen as a breaking point between Bell and O’Malley reveals the assumptions behind the friendship, he adds: “These kind of people, if you don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time, they start saying you sold out.”

 

The day after Bell’s tie-breaking vote, Bell and O’Malley sit down to lunch at Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy with the FOP’s McLhinney and Marshall Bell. Lawrence Bell is just about to announce his candidacy, and McLhinney has brokered a summit, hoping to mend the breach between them.

It’s the first time in about a year that McLhinney has seen to two men in a room together, and he senses major problems between them. Nevertheless, he lays out the case for a Bell-O’Malley-Pratt ticket. Then, he turns to Bell. “What do you think, Lawrence?” he asks.

“I don’t want to make any commitment until after the filing deadline,” Bell responds.

O’Malley goes on the offensive, asking Bell to explain his ties to Schmoke’s “old warhorses.” “How you win also dictates how you are able to govern,” he says, “and if you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.”

Bell gets defensive, asking why he’s not getting more support from O’Malley’s allies. Then he cuts to the chase. “What are you going to do?” Bell asks.

“Well, my sense is that you are dropping like a rock,” O’Malley says.

Marshall Bell chimes in: “See, there you go again, you’re always negative.”

Lawrence Bell agrees, saying O’Malley’s negativity is what cooled the friendship.

“I’ve always told you the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not,” O’Malley retorts. “If you were my friend, you’d always tell me the truth.”

“It was how you said it,” Bell says. “I don’t need my friends being negative. All this stuff puts me under a lot of pressure.”

“Well, what do you think it will be like when you’re mayor?” O’Malley asks.

“I don’t need a lecture from you about what it’s going to be like to be mayor,” Bell shoots back.

At the end of the lunch, Bell asks O’Malley what office he’s planning to seek.

O’Malley says he doesn’t know. He’ll do a poll to see if he has a chance of winning the mayor’s race. If he can win, he’ll run; otherwise, he’ll run for City Council president if the polls show a win is possible. “And if I can’t win either of those things, then I’m going to get out altogether,” O’Malley says. “And I’ll let you know.”

 

In late May, cousin Kweisi finally announced that he definitely would not run. The Annapolis powers who had pursued him immediately switched their attentions to former city Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson. And a score of other candidates joined the Democratic race.

Meantime, O’Malley’s poll showed him at 7 percent in a mayor’s race, compared to Bell’s 36 and Stokes’s 27. It also indicated that most of Stokes’s supporters could also support Bell and vice versa. O’Malley concluded that voters weren’t committed to either one of them, meaning he could cut into their bases. O’Malley announced his candidacy in late June.

Even without an O’Malley candidacy to contend with, though, Bell’s campaign was in crisis. Powerful friends could fill his coffers, but they could not dictate how he ran his race. In the first three months of 1999, the Bell campaign took in nearly $200,000 and spent more than $130,000, paying out half that amount to five costly advisers: Marshall Bell, Tammy Hawley, Julius Henson, and fundraisers Lona Rhoades-Ba and James Cauley, who was on loan from O’Malley. Another $10,000 was spent on debt from his 1995 campaign.

O’Malley, by comparison, raised $45,000 and spent $35,000 from late March through late June. During these months of campaign-building, O’Malley had no paid advisors except for his long-time fundraiser Cauley, who received $4,096.

Matters other than money hurt Bell. His campaign was marked by missteps, such as the candidate’s propensity to arrive late to forums or not show up at all; his workers’ attempt to disrupt a rally at which Mfume’s Annapolis suitors endorsed O’Malley; and his workers’ copying racist flyers attributed to white supremacists. Every time Bell was embarrassed in the media – for example, by reports that he left his wrecked Mustang at the body shop until it was repossessed and that he failed to pay his Belvedere condo fees – he would disappear from the campaign trail. He seemed to take each setback to heart rather than letting it go.

When Bell did appear, he made race an issue in a way his opponents did not, explicitly offering himself as a role model for young African Americans. More than once, Bell attacked O’Malley for refusing the censure Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum, which had been accused of racist practices in Texas. (O’Malley’s response was that Crown had not been invited to defend itself.)

As if to symbolize how far he had traveled from his partnership with O’Malley, Bell spent election day with Marion Barry, the disgraced and redeemed former mayor of Washington, D.C.

 

In the end, O’Malley won 53 percent of the vote to Bell’s 17 percent. Carl Stokes came in second, with 28 percent of the vote.

If it’s true, as O’Malley said, that how you win also dictates how you govern, then an O’Malley administration would be marked by efficient fundraising and spending, a motivated and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from state leaders, and support from an energized public.

But these aren’t the only factors that propelled O’Malley to victory.

Though he ran on the campaign pledge “for change and reform,” O’Malley’s campaign also relied on old warhorses, and his horses were even older than Bell’s. Some of O’Malley’s key change agents hail from the days of once-mayor, now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose endorsement also brought many Schaefer cronies into the O’Malley camp. Even the head of O’Malley’s transition team, Downtown Partnership’s Laurie Schwartz, began her career as one of Schaefer’s best and brightest.

Another old-fashioned factor in O’Malley’s win may have been the use of “walk-around money” – money paid to get “volunteers” to electioneer near polling places. It is against state law to pay workers on election day, and O’Malley denies that anyone was paid to electioneer for him on that day. Nevertheless, polling places throughout the city seemed to have multiple O’Malley workers for every Stokes or Bell worker, and word on the street was that they were being paid. One O’Malley poll worker said he received $35 to stand on the corner wearing an O’Malley T-shirt and handing out literature. Another worker, who said he had not been paid, said he’d heard that other were receiving $35 to $60 for their efforts, depending on the neighborhood. Whoever funds such payments funds them directly, without reporting them, so if O’Malley’s campaign did benefit from such largesse, persons unknown did him a big favor.

But if O’Malley needed old-time backers to win the primary, he also needed Bell. Without the high-profile alliance of Salt’n’Pepa, O’Malley might have been just another white Northeast Baltimore politician, not one of a new, race-blind generation of leaders. After his partnership with Bell crumbled, O’Malley used its rubble as the launching pad for his own ambitious campaign.

This month, O’Malley faces Republican underdog David Tufaro, a millionaire developer with strong credentials as a community builder. Unless Tufaro pulls off an upset immeasurably more stunning than O’Malley’s primary victory, Baltimore can look forward to Mayor O’Malley.

But can O’Malley govern independently? Is he more resistant than he thinks Bell was to the siren song of the city’s moneyed players?

When these questions are put to him, O’Malley’s answer is nearly identical to one of Bell’s stock campaign lines: “All I can say is, look at my record,” he says. “Look at what I’ve done on the council; look at my politics.”

Scouting Report: Going for the Poolitzer

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Mar. 10, 1999

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I got a phone message from a close friend, a school teacher in the Bronx, who for good or ill keeps up with the nitty-gritties of my life. “I’m just curious as to how far that rod got jammed up your asshole, Van,” my friend said. “And, you know, what kind of roughage – what kind of whatever you call it, excess – you had. … So please give me the details when you can. Thank you.”

Ah, the details. It started a few weeks ago when another friend of mine, an artist and photographer from Baltimore, came to town to keep an appointment with Maya Goldenberg, a certified iridologist and colon therapist who runs the Natural Health & Nutrition Center in the Homecrest neighborhood of Brooklyn. My friend ponied up $50 to use Goldenberg’s Libbe colonic hydrotherapy machine. This convenient device is, as my friend described it, essentially a self-service colon-cleanser. Plug yourself in, let the water work its magic and watch huge volumes of effluvial night soil parade through clear and backlit plastic plumbing.

He said it was supposed to be good for you. Knowing that he’s a scatalogically obsessed Virgo, I had other, more psychological theories about why he might go for radical bowel treatment, but I kept them to myself.

That’s about all I kept to myself, though, since I myself am somewhat scatalogically obsessed, and there’s nothing I like more than telling a good story involving the GI tract. So on a recent Saturday afternoon I crossed the threshold of Goldenberg’s office, gripped with mild, butt-clenching anxiety over the impending penetration of my rectum. Accompanying me for moral support was a close companion. The first thing I noticed about Goldenberg’s office, on the second floor of a rowhouse on Ocean Ave., was that its walls are pink. Like the inside of a newly flushed colon. New-age music floated quietly through the air in rhythmic drips and drops. The atmosphere was conducive to the peaceful release of whatever’s binding you up.

Goldenberg, a prim and proper white-clad Russian immigrant reminiscent of a young Dr. Ruth, greeted me warmly and handed me a questionnaire. I answered all the usuals – name, address, date of birth, height, weight, etc. – and then came to the one question that I briefly thought might put the kibosh on the assignment. “Have you ever had surgery? If so, where?”

When I was 18, I perforated my intestines in a moped accident. Massive infection had resulted, so the doctors had opened me up like a baked potato to clean out the pus and stitch up the cut. I thought that that session under the knife might cause Goldenberg to cancel on me. But she just perused my questionnaire, made a few asides (“A writer? I get writers, movie stars …”) and proceeded to explain the procedure, without once asking me about my intestinal surgery. With the preliminaries out of the way, she escorted me through a door that bore a sign: “Colonic irrigation.”

Inside was the Libbe machine. Goldenberg kept up a singsong banter about the device, which is made of blue molded plastic and looks like a combination of a La-Z-Boy and a bidet. As she spoke, she ripped open a packet of lube, greased up a nozzle sticking up out of the bowl and fitted a clear, disposable plastic tube over it. Then she handed me the packet and told me I would need to take off my pants, lubricate the tip of the tube and my anus, and insert the former into the latter while making myself comfortable in the Libbe’s reclining seat. She placed a folded sheet and a blue splatter-cover on the table next to the machine. Then she instructed me to cover my private parts with the sheet, and the Libbe’s bowl with the splatter-cover, once everything was in place. When I was ready, she said, I was to push the buzzer, and she’d come in and kick the Libbe into gear.

Now, some people say it’s a playground down there, but I’m not one to make fun with my brown eye. Except for some routine care and maintenance, I’m pretty adamant about leaving the sucker alone. Thus, as I probed a greasy finger around the ring and tried to relax and let the tip of the tube make its entry, I felt profoundly embarrassed, even a touch humiliated. I took small comfort in knowing that Maya Goldenberg wasn’t taking care of this end of things, at least.

Once all the parts were in their proper places and I was decent according to such dictates of modesty as still apply when you’re plugged in for a colonic, I buzzed for Goldenberg to enter. On the wall next to me was a cabinet, which she opened to reveal a series of clear tubes filled with filtered water. She explained that the water was warmed to just below body temperature for cleansing comfort. She turned a knob and, as the water level in the tube descended, by bowels distended.

According to Goldenberg, the Libbe’s great advance in colon-cleansing technology is that it ends the need to insert a painfully oversized tube in order to carry away the flushed bowels’ contents. Instead, the built-up mess just rushes out of the anus around the slim, inserted tube. This, she explained, makes for a much more comfortable ride, since the patient controls the rate and timing of release.

Having explained all this while my guts were slowly filling, Goldenberg left me in peace to contemplate the strange sensations and to worry about the inevitably loud sounds that would result from the release. The waiting room, after all, is just outside the thin door. As if reading my mind, Goldenberg offered to turn up the new-age music before she left.

Then came the deluge. I watched the clear drainpipe with great anticipation and fascination. Wave after wave of effluent left my body, but all I saw was fecal matter in suspension, some dark – some of it even black – and some of it shades of light brown to yellow. One thought dominated my mind as I watched: God, if all that was inside me, I really needed this.

I spent a little over a half-hour in the room. After I cleaned myself up with some paper towels (despite the splatter-cover, a little backwash tends to hit you in the cheeks and thighs) and got my pants and boots back on. I opened the door. Another patron awaiting use of the machine successfully avoided looking at me. It dawned on me that the music doesn’t quite cut it. What Goldenberg needs to play is a little G.G. Allin or some other shitty punk music. As my companion said later, “I heard the whole thing – every bit of it.”

 

The Zippo Kid: I’ve Quit Smoking … Many Times

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Feb. 17, 1999

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I wish I could remember what was going on in my mind when I decided to start smoking. My reasoning escapes recollection, though, perhaps because I was too young and those memories are lost somewhere in my mind’s dark and dusty attic. The circumstances, though, I recall.

I was in third grade at the time and attending a public elementary school in suburban Baltimore. I would pilfer packs of Kent Multifilters from my dad (who apparently made no attempt at keeping an inventory) and take said contraband to school, where I and a small group of similarly bad-minded tykes would stoke up as many as possible in the nearby woods during recess or while playing hooky. If we lacked matches or a lighter, we would intensify the sun’s rays though a magnifying glass to light up.

We rarely inhaled, just held the smoke in our mouths the requisite second or two before blowing it out. When I on occasion did inhale, though, the rush of narcotic sensations to my brain would cause exquisite disorientation and numbness. This high spurred me to continue smoking experimentally. By sixth grade, unbeknownst to my parents (they must have been in denial), I was a regular, though secret, smoker.

Perhaps it was the Ritalin that contributed to my enjoyment of preteen smoking. Since I was loath to sit through an entire elementary-school period without causing some sort of disruption, the school officials, my parents and a psychologist conspired to put me on a regular regime of the potent antihyperactivity drug. These doses, I presume, inured me to the shock of chemically induced altered states; in fact, I grew to desire them. Somewhere I still have a school picture from those early years. I looked like a seven-year-old pothead, heavy lidded and mouth agape. I looked like I could use a cigarette.

Even at my young and confused age, though, I probably should have recognized the ravaging effects smoking has on the lungs. One of my grandfathers, a college track star in the 1920s and a World War II hero, died of emphysema brought on by a lifetime of smoking. He smoked right up to his dying breath. The other was given to wheezy, cough-ridden fits of laughter between sips of cocktails and drags of non-filter Chesterfields until he quit the habit when his wife died, a year before his own quiet, lonely and purposeful demise in the early 1980s. His wife, too, smoked Chesterfields. The two would buy boxes of cartons, rip them open for the coupons and stuff the bounty of fresh butts into tin cans they kept in each room of their house. That way they never had to know the unpleasant reality of precisely how many they smoked each day.

Despite my grandparents’ ill health from smoking, though, I persisted. My habit became an adventure, almost a competition with myself to see how far I would go. In junior high,  I got into smoking clove cigarettes. Swisher Sweet cigars, even pipes. I’d buy fancy European cigarettes like Gauloises. In high school, I got to know the tobacco geeks who worked at the three fancy tobacco stores in the Baltimore area. I tried to participate fully in the local tobacco culture and economy behind my parents’ backs and, for the most part, I succeeded.

My father, a physician and for much of his life an avid smoker, was acutely aware of the health risks of smoking. But he continued to puff away happily until after I moved out of the house at the legal age of 18, by which time I was already a hopeless addict. Dad successfully kicked the habit in the mid-1980s, using a combination of nicotine gum and increasingly clean filters in a special cigarette holder designed for quitting. After he quit and once he realized that I had picked up the habit, he became relentlessly self-righteous about my smoking problem. A visit with him was never complete without a zealous admonition to fight my addiction.

When I was 19, shortly after moving out of my parents’ house, I had a little scare that caused me to quit for a while. My first year of college had been a doozy, with lots of hard drinking and drugging that lead to weight loss, freaky hairstyles, perpetual bags under my eyes and – this was the puzzler – a voice that degenerated over a period of a couple of months into nothing more than sequences of raspy, guttural sounds.

Before my voice became so mysteriously afflicted, I had been smoking Merits in the morning (setting my alarm clock to an hour early just to have a pre-waking cigarette), Marlboro reds in the afternoons and evenings, and any of a number of brands of non-filters while carousing late at night. When short on cash, I sometimes rolled my own from tobacco scavenged out of discarded butts. To regain that nicotine rush I had come to love in elementary school, I learned to do ‘chillums,’ the popular name of a clay tube with a fluted, ribbed core that was used to smoke an entire cigarette in one hit. The doctor’s diagnosis was infected cysts on my left vocal cord, a problem that required corrective surgery.

After the vocal-cord surgery, I was told not to speak for a month. That wasn’t the hard part, though. The hard part was following the doctor’s instructions not to smoke. The surgeon told me my chances of throat cancer had gone up exponentially with the arrive of the vocal-cord cysts, so any more smoking and I might as well start digging an early grave. I believed him and quit.

 

And I stayed quit for about two years until I had spent three months in Bologna – in Italy, where it seems everyone smokes without any apparent adverse affect on their health. What the hell, I figured, and settled happily and comfortably back into a moderate habit of about a pack a day, which habit I brought with me back to Baltimore months later.

My father was supremely disappointed in me and continued his campaign to shame my addiction back to the penalty box for the duration of the game. Eventually, he found a line of argument that worked with me. He told me that men who smoke have a pretty good chance of rejuvenating their smoke-ravaged lungs as long as they quit while their bodies are still developing, which happens, he said, up until you turn 27. Once you turn 27, he said, your body will start its inevitable decline toward the Great Hereafter and your lungs will never really pink up again even if you quit.

His theory sounded like a bunch of well-intentioned balderdash to me. It reminded me of a theory his mother, also a doctor, had conveniently invented to justify her continued habit of smoking non-filtered Chesterfields; once she reached her 70s, she would say with great authority that it had been scientifically proven that it is not healthy for women over 70 who smoke to quit their addiction. Despite my misgivings about Dad’s facts, I took his advice to heart. On my 27th birthday I quit again, cold turkey.

Once again, I quit for about two years. This time, though, it wasn’t the fashionable smokers of Northern Italy who wooed me back. It was merely this: the sight of my good friend’s Swedish girlfriend having a long drag from a delicious-looking Marlboro red – the first taken from a freshly opened pack – in the dark, angst-ridden atmosphere of the now-defunct D.C. Space in Washington, D.C., where a group of us had gone after a many-course meal with lots of wine. While watching her smoke, I ordered a shot of whiskey, which I gulped down before asking her for a drag. Then I asked the bartender to please give me change for the cigarette machine, which he obligingly did. I was back where I began.

 

Round three of the quitting game was on my 30th birthday, when I hinged my hopes of staying quit on the idea that smoking was something I did before I turned 30 – an idea that I thought would become more precious to me the longer I stayed quit. Lo and behold, after about 18 months, I took a drag off a friend’s cigarette during the course of a long night of cavorting around Baltimore. Within two weeks I was buying packs again.

Now I’m into round four. It started early last November, shortly after moving to New York. My lungs already hurt and thoughts of quitting had already been nagging at me when I grew sick from an upper respiratory infection. The pain and suffering from this sickness were bad enough that I couldn’t smoke a cigarette. As I got better, my desire to smoke lessened, so I decided to just quit.

I can’t say I have much confidence anymore that I won’t start smoking again, but in the meantime I take comfort in the fact that I’m taking some time off. At the very least, resuming smoking will be a pleasure worth the wait.

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The Shy Pornographer: Show World’s Owner May Be Times Square’s Last Man Standing

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Apr. 7, 1999

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Richard Basciano, a 73-year-old Times Square real estate investor, is said to be a personable, intelligent, gracious and charitable gentleman, but he can’t seem to shake his sinister reputation. That’s because he’s also a wealthy pornographer whose longtime business partner, Robert DiBernardo, was a Gambino captain who was whacked by Sammy “The Bull” Graviano on John Gotti’s orders in 1986. With friends like that, it’s hard to be seen as Mr. Clean.

But “Mr Clean” is exactly how some people in law enforcement and other regulators describe Basciano, who owns Show World, Times Square’s sex-selling centerpiece. A veteran FBI agent who claims to have thoroughly scrutinized Basciano says the man is definitely not Mob connected, and that the Basciano surname – which has popped up attached to five other men in New York Mafia circles for the last two generations – is a red herring in reference to Richard Basciano, who comes from Baltimore.

The agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes Basciano’s great success in real estate – in which he built up his Times Square holdings and has been collecting condemnation fees from the state as the area’s redevelopment advances – is due to a combination of luck and uncanny instinct, not to any nebulous underworld connections. Rather, Basciano’s rise since the early 1970s was aided by Samuel Rappaport, a controversial Philadelphia land speculator. Rapport, DiBernardo and Basciano held pornography interests together in Philly; Rapport, who was originally from New York, purchased the Show World property in the mid-1970s and then “flipped it within a year to Basciano,” says another government official, who has followed Basciano’s career for the last 20 years. Rappaport named Basciano one of the two executors of his estate when he died in 1994.

As Basciano’s unbroken asent in the heat-drawing New York pornography industry has endured for almost three decades, his partners and competitors have fallen prey to criminal prosecution. A government anti-smut campaign snared Basciano partners DiBernardo and Theodore Rothstein. Another big Times Square peepster, Martin Hodas, and other less prominent sex salesmen – including Show World employee Clemente D’Alessio – also have been nabbed by the law.

Only Basciano has remained upright and unsullied. This situation, in conjunction with the fact that Basciano’s daughter worked for FBI headquarters until her early retirement in 1981, prompts a question: Did Basciano ever cooperate with the government’s push against porn and organized crime?

Basciano’s lawyer, First Amendment attorney Herald Price Fahringer, bristles at the suggestion that his client was a rat. “Richard Basciano has never cooperated with any law-enforcement agency whatsoever,” he states emphatically. He says his client’s record is easily explained: “The reason he’s still standing is that he’s always stayed well on this side of the law.”

Fahringer points out that when Mayor Rudoph Guiliani instituted new zoning laws as a way to shut down city sex shops, Basciano “immediately complied.” While leading the fight against the new regulations in court, Basciano is also making plans to end adult entertainment at Show World and turn it into a virtual-reality arcade. “We want to become completely, totally non-adult,” Fahringer proclaims.

Top-notch fellow, mobster-associating pornographer, scrupulously law-abiding citizen: This guy Basciano is a bundle of contradictions. Because he’s an intensely private individual who hasn’t spoken to the press since 1982 (when he made the still-remembered statement that pornography is “a deterrent to rape”), trying to pry loose some truth about Basciano and learn how such oxymoronic descriptions apply to him are difficult tasks. By sifting through the records and accounts of his life, and by speaking with those who know him – and are also willing to talk – it is still possible to sketch a portrait of Basciano. Whether the picture that emerges is of a scoundrel or a saint, or of something in between, depends on your perspective. But Basciano’s life has been nothing short of epic.

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Richard Carmello Basciano was born July 16, 1925, in Baltimore, the son of Nicholas Joseph Basciano and Margaret Ranzino, the sister of a boxer known as “the original Baltimore Dundee.” Richard’s father was a boxer, too. According to a Veterans Boxing Association tribute to Nicholas Basciano, in 1920 he moved from Philadelphia, where he had “mastered bare knuckle fighting on the rough and tumble streets of South Philly,” to join his brother-in-law in a tailor-shop business in Baltimore’s Little Italy. He came to be known in the fight world as Nick “Double KO” Bass for a memorable fight in DC when he knocked out two opponents in a row. He won the Middleweight Championship of the South in 1930.

Later in life, Richard’s father was active in the International Ladies Garment Union and worked as a bouncer for clubs in Baltimore’s red-light district, The Block. In 1976 Nick Bass was named to the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame, and annual awards are still conferred in his name by Ring 101, Maryland’s boxing association, thanks in part to Richard Basciano’s financial support.

The chairman of the board of Ring 101, Ray Leonard, explains that “Richard has contributed a lot of money, he gives about $1000 every year [to Ring 101] and he set up a fund in his father’s name. There’s a showcase [of boxing memorabilia] that he set up there” at Martin’s West, a large Baltimore catering hall that often hosts boxing, political fundraisers and gala social events. “If anybody’s having some hard times, he just slips you the money, does it out of his pocket. He does it for guys who are down on their luck.”

Leonard says Richard Basciano “was the businessman of the family, a very nice man, very distinguished.” Asked if Richard ever boxed in Baltimore, Leonard says he “more or less fooled around, sparring in the ring. He never fought competitively, I don’t think, but he stayed in very good shape.”

 

Richard Basciano’s nephew – also named Nicholas Joseph Basciano, after Richard’s father – is a defense contractor in Anne Arundel County, MD. He remembers in his childhood thinking his uncle was “the strongest man I’d ever seen.” Recalling what he knows about his uncle’s life in Baltimore, he says Richard never went to high school; economic hardship pushed Richard and his brother, John, into the workforce as early as possible. They hawked copies of the Baltimore Sun from street corners together, Nicholas remembers, and Richard later worked in the paper’s distribution department until the late 1950s or early 1960s.

After leaving the Sun, Richard Basciano ran a newspaper and magazine distribution company. He also got into commercial real estate and the restaurant business. As his nephew explains, “his first entree into business was he bought some buildings and started a restaurant, Ricardo’s,” in the Baltimore suburbs. “He was flinging pizzas” even as he was the boss and building owner, Nicholas recalls.

During this period, Richard ran afoul of the law for the first and only time in his life. In 1966, when he was 41 years old, Basciano was indicted for mail fraud in U.S. district court in Baltimore for participating in a scheme involving the sale, at half price, of thousands of food coupons to grocery store owners, who would redeem them for their full cash value from the manufacturers even though the coupons hadn’t been used to purchase merchandise. In 1968, Basciano pleaded nolo contendere to the charges and received a $750 fine and three years’ probation, according to court records. He was released from probation early, September 1969, the records show.

“He brings that up often,” Basciano’s nephew says of the coupon-fraud conviction. “Talk about the blood pressure going up – he just hates that! He always wishes he fought that, because he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t have any money, couldn’t fight it.” Getting caught in the scheme was due “either to ignorance or an anomaly in his character,” Nicholas Basciano asserts.

After the fraud bust, Basciano ended his entrepreneurial foray in his hometown. According to his nephew, Basciano may have been inspired by the success of Baltimore’s Block, which was booming in the 1960s and early 1970s, in deciding to go to Philadelphia and enter the pornography business. Sometime during this transition, Nicholas says, Richard “ended up giving that whole block [he owned, where his restaurant was located] to charity.”

In Philadelphia, Basciano met Sam Rappaport. “He was building his business in Philly, and he rented some property from Sam,” Nicholas recalls, and they struck up a close relationship. “I think Sam just felt sorry for him,” Richard’s nephew says. Perhaps their common background in the criminal justice system – Rappaport, too, was convicted of mail fraud by the feds, but he actually served some time – contributed to their sense of fraternity.

Also during the early 1970s, Basciano and Rappaport joined forces with Robert DiBernardo in pornography enterprises in Philadelphia and New York. How and where they met and why they chose to join together in business are questions that no one contacted for this article had answers to. Since Rappaport and DiBernardo are dead, and Basciano isn’t talking, this key piece of information about Richard Basciano remains a secret.

From what is known about DiBernardo, who was often called “Debe,” he wasn’t exactly a savory character. He reportedly came from the Sam DeCavalcante family in New Jersey and handled the Gambino’s substantial pornography interests. A partner with Theodore Rothstein and Nathan Grama (both Basciano business partners as well) in the porn distributors Astro News and Star Distributors, DiBernardo also had ties to mobster-pornographer Michael Zaffarano, who had a heart attack and died in 1980 when he heard he was being indicted on obscenity charges in the same early 1980s antiporn campaign – MIPORN – that tripped up both DiBernardo and Rothstein. Zaffarano was the landlord for Basciano’s first New York peepshow outlet, 1605 Book Center at 1605 Broadway, which was licensed for peeps in 1972, according to a New York Times account.

Al Goldstein has used Astro and Star for the entire 31-year history of his magazine Screw. “The people who distribute Screw,” Goldstein explains, “are like Damon Runyon characters … Do I know they are Mafia? No. I read The New York Times and I was talked to by the FBI, but how would I know? Was there ever a threat from these people to carry me? No. But is it coincidental that no one else has ever come to me in 30 years to distribute Screw? There must be arrangements. You have a cut. Things are carved out.”

Still, Goldstein has a warm spot in his heart for DeBe. “I loved DeBe, because he was classy,” he says. “DeBe dressed well. He had a style about him. And then when he was going to John Gotti’s club all the time, it was even more exciting.”

But it wasn’t just DiBernardo’s wardrobe and personality that makes Goldstein speak well of the dead mobster. “The one time in my life there was a contract on me, DeBe rescinded it,” Goldstein recalls. “It had to do with a girl I was dating who was the ex-wife of a hitman. And I didn’t realize – I met her through a dating service. Basically, the guy was a typical Italian; he lived with a blonde bimbo in a high-rent building, but he didn’t want anyone to date his ex-wife. And I called DeBe when I heard about it and I said, ‘DeBe, there are reasons to kill me, but this isn’t one of them.’ And DeBe had to sit down with Gotti and it was rescinded.”

Goldstein’s edgy stories about DeBe stand in stark contrast to his recollections of DeBe’s longtime business partner, Richard Basciano. “All I could tell you about him is when I ran for sheriff [of Broward County, Fla., which Goldstein has done twice, unsuccessfully], he was very generous. He gave me a very nice contribution, $1000.” Other than that, Goldstein says he once put the hard sell on Basciano to take ads out in Screw for Show World. “I yelled at him – well, you don’t yell at these guys too loudly. I said, how come you don’t advertise in Screw … I was very frustrated. Nobody at Times Square spends a penny with me. Why do they hate me? Because I have a big mouth. I’m nasty and no one owns me.”

In answer to the question of whether Basciano is associated with the mob, Goldstein demurs. “What can I tell you? Is he Mafia? Well, of course, I’ve read that he is, but when I’ve met him, he didn’t have a sign saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mafia.'”

Richard’s nephew Nicholas was shocked when told of his uncle’s ties to DiBernardo. “I never knew that!” he exclaims, and explains that Richard “doesn’t need” to be tied in with organized crime since “he knows, because of the nature of his business, he’s being looked at with a microscope” by law enforcement. Nicholas Basciano admits, though, to having a certain jocular wariness of Richard’s potential for menace; he says jokingly that he hopes he doesn’t end up in the East River for talking to a reporter and that “I know if he wanted to he could probably have some legs broken, but I don’t think he does that.”

 

There’s a difference of opinion among law enforcement people regarding the question of Basciano’s possible Mafia ties. While a veteran FBI agent who took a long close look at Basciano earlier in his career says there is nothing to suggest that Basciano is a mobster, another FBI agent familiar with Basciano concludes “he’s obviously in with the family, I’d say.” And another government official who’s scrutinized Basciano over the years says, “It’s the first time I’ve heard it that he’s not mobbed up. You don’t do business like that if you’re not mobbed up.” Regarding Basciano’s specific Mafia origins, this official reports that “everybody always says he’s from the Bruno family in Philly, but that’s just speculation.”

No one in law enforcement contacted for this article had any information linking Richard Basciano to the several Mafia-related New Yorkers also named Basciano. Gennaro Basciano and Jerry Basciano were casualties of the Gallo-Colombo mob wars of the 1970s. Gennaro’s son, Dino Basciano, an extremely large, red-haired, tattooed gangster, was accused in the 1990s of a murder conspiracy, of providing guns to infighting Colombo gang members and of cocaine trafficking; he turned informant. Vincent Basciano was implicated, then acquitted of involvement in the Blue Thunder heroin ring in the early 1990s, and is a reputed Mafia associate who turned up recently in John Gotti Jr.’s Mafia roster. Ferdinand Basciano in 1980 was arrested for auto-insurance fraud with the son of convicted mobster John Masiello.

Richard Basciano, though, has no known connection to any of these New York underworld figures.

Herald Fahringer, Basciano’s attorney, says categorically that “the allegations of organized crime, that’s never been true of Richard Basciano. He has never in any way been connected with organized crime.” Fahringer does not see Basciano’s long association with DiBernardo as a mob connection.

Fahringer has been a staunch ally of Basciano for years. And his advocacy is more than your typical lawyer-client relationship. In 1978 Fahringer gave Basciano a sentimental holiday gift. He explained the gift in a letter.

“Dear Richie: I wanted to give you something very special for Christmas that would have meaning and would convey my very deep affection for you. I chose this medal of St. Joan of Arc … St. Joan has been an emblem of courage and faith. I cannot think of any other characteristic that fits you better. You deserve to wear this medal more than anyone else I know, and I hope it brings you good fortune.”

 

Whether due to this good-luck charm or not, Basciano has indeed enjoyed good fortune. After he left Baltimore to set up porn operations in Philadelphia and New York, and joined forces with Rappaport and DiBernardo – which didn’t happen until he was well into his 40s, had a federal conviction under his belt and had failed in more mainstream business enterprises – the gods of free enterprise finally shined on him.

Starting with his initial foothold in the New York porn industry – the peep show licensed in his name in 1972 at 1605 Broadway, where the Crowne Plaza Hotel now sits – Basciano by the late 1970s was seen as the main competitor of Martin Hodas, “King of the Peeps.” Public records show he was owner or part-owner of at least eight Times Square buildings hosting porn businesses. Basciano’s Show World emporium – the largest of these – quickly became famous for its live sex shows and performances by giants of the adult biz.

During this heyday of Show World, Basciano’s nephew recalls, he brought a famous name up from Baltimore. “He knew the owner of the 2 O’Clock Club,” the famous Blaze Starr, the queen of Baltimore’s Block. “He had her come up to New York just as a special event, I think she was a little worse for wear by then.” (A phone message left for Starr at her home in Maryland was not returned by press time.)

Basciano quickly started cashing in on his real estate holdings. In the 1970s, according to a government official, Basciano had a stake in three porn businesses across from the Citicorp headquarters building on E. 53rd St. The porn shops so annoyed the Citicorp CEO that the bank eventually acquired the properties for a reported $4 million, providing a tidy profit for Basciano.

A pattern suggestive of Basciano’s real estate strategy was thereby started: Buy up properties with porn businesses, run them well and profitably until prevailing, buttoned-down interests in midtown Manhattan seek to improve the neighborhood, then sell high – or wait for state condemnation and initiate protracted, court-adjudicated negotiations to obtain the highest price possible as compensation. In this way, Basciano since the mid-1980s has netted millions.

The strategy is pure Rappaport, who did a similar thing on a much larger scale in Philadelphia – and to much more public outrage, since Rappaport was infamous for letting his Center City properties slide into disrepair. “Basciano probably learned it at Rappaport’s knee, or at his side,” says a government official.

Today, according to Fahringer, “all Richard has left is Show World; he’s sold off or leased out” all the other properties in his empire. Still, he awaits condemnation payments from the state for three properties that have been incorporated in the massive retail-and-entertainment overhaul of 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves.

According to Maura Gallucci, a spokeswoman for the quasi-public Empire State Development Corp., negotiated payments for three former Basciano properties, now slated for development by Forest City Ratner and Tishman Construction, are pending from the state. The combined assessment for the properties, which were condemned in 1994 and 1995, is $5.2 million. This is on top of the $8.4 million in condemnation fees he received in 1996 for 210 W. 42nd St., the former site of Video World Center. And the future looks bright. Says one government official, “He stands to make a lot of money from Show World, eventually.”

 

While Richard Basciano has accumulated much wealth from his real estate dealings, he’s reportedly maintained for much of his life a certain salt-of-the-Earth humility, the result of a low-key nature. Not one for a lot of flash, Basciano has kept his ranch home in suburban Baltimore, a property currently assessed at $158,000. He also has a small condominium in Ft. Lauderdale. His only bow to conspicuous luxury seems to have been a home he built on property he acquired in a suburban neighborhood outside Baltimore in 1993. Now assessed at nearly $1 million, it sits on an acre and a quarter and features tennis courts. “This thing is way out of line for the neighborhood it’s in,” Basciano’s nephew says of the property. “But he wanted to be close to his daughters,” who already lived in the solidly middle-class community.

Many of those interviewed for this article said Basciano seems almost completely uninterested in his porn operations. His were commercial enterprises selling a simple, profitable commodity, they say, and Basciano had no particular affection for the product.

Alex Michelini, a former Daily News reporter now based in Arizona and the last newsman to talk to Basciano, for a 1982 article about a church protest against Show Worlds, says, “His love was boxing. His main claim was that he was trying to develop young boxers, keeping his practice ring in Show World open for disadvantaged teens. He sounded to me like he had absolutely no interest in the other thing. One thing’s for sure, he knew how to stay straight and narrow, at least for the record.”

“He is not a connoisseur of pornography,” says Nicholas Basciano. “It is something his interest in is zero. And he’s very much against any of that stuff getting to minors and the major media.”

Nicholas says his uncle’s poor reputation deriving from his status as a pornographer is completely unfair. “Because of the nature of his business, he’s gotten bad press.” Referring to a public outcry that resulted from a Wall Street Journal report that Show World was the beneficiary of a Small Business Administration loan in the late 1970s, Nicholas says, “He made improvements to his business, and the press jumped all over him. In my opinion, that’s bullshit. He’s never done an illegal thing in his life. His is a closely monitored business. Apparently, pornography is okay on tv, but if you have it closed off and closely monitored, as in Richard’s places, it’s bad.”

Nicholas has deep admiration for his uncle. “What he is is a natural born leader. He’s very intelligent and has a business sense about him – he works 18 hours a day. He’s charitable, anonymously so, and he’s not ostentatious, not a showboat. Even though he has no formal education, he’s got an incredible amount of common sense and he’s a very fair individual.

“I’ve never really heard anybody say anything bad about him,” Nicholas says. “He knows a lot of powerful people in New York, people who respect him, but they would be ashamed to admit it because of his association with pornography.

“I’m not putting the man on a pedestal,” Nicholas Basciano concludes. “I just think he’s getting a bum rap.”

But while he considers his uncle’s poor reputation unfair, Nicholas seems to understand that that’s life for a pornographer. And perhaps it’s a small price to pay for the riches the sex biz has brought to Richard Basciano.