Tax Break: A yet-to-be-released study concludes that the City isn’t getting its full share from property taxes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 13, 2004

This spring—as happens almost every spring—Baltimore confronted a budget crisis. City Hall’s $2.1 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2005 entailed cutting 533 government jobs and curtailing city services to pay for it. On April 14, Mayor Martin O’Malley proposed an alternative: a suite of new taxes and fees that would preserve the jobs and services with $48 million in revenue.

Five weeks later, with the budget process complete, the City Council had trimmed O’Malley’s tax proposal down to three elements that would generate $30 million from taxpayers: doubling levies on real-estate sales and imposing new fees on phones and energy use.

“It happened so fast,” City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-4th) says in summing up this year’s open-and-shut budget battle in Baltimore, the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in Maryland. Mitchell chairs the council’s Taxation Committee and thus led the legislative body’s tax debate. In a recent interview, he remembered how he and his council colleagues felt as if “we had our backs against the wall” when confronted with the mayor’s proposals.

Since April, Mitchell has learned that there was an unexplored option—going after millions in untapped revenue potential from the city’s existing property-tax rolls by appealing low assessments. While O’Malley touched on this idea in passing in a Sun article in December 2003, saying that “generally the state underassesses city properties,” a strategy to get the state to do more accurate assessments never made it into his set of gap-closing proposals in April 2004—or into the City Council’s ensuing tax debate.

Property assessments are the basis for calculating how much property owners are taxed for their holdings, and are conducted by the state in three-year cycles—a third of the city is assessed each year. Baltimore City’s property tax rate, just shy of $2.33 per $100 of assessed value, is much higher than in any of the state’s 23 counties. Thus, underassessing property in Baltimore shortchanges city coffers—and, due to the high tax rate, those coffers are being shortchanged more dramatically than in other parts of the state. Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that appeals property assessments it believes are too low, but under state law any jurisdiction is free to do so.

Unbeknownst to Mitchell and the public during the five-week debate this past spring, a privately funded study about the revenue potential locked up in underassessed city commercial property had already been underway for more than two years. While the City Council was weighing its options, a draft report from this effort was in the hands of a select group of people for review and comment, including staff at the city’s Department of Finance. Its fundamental finding: The city should consider going after millions in unrealized revenues by appealing underassessments of commercial property within its borders. By the time Mitchell learned of the draft report, the new taxes had already become law.

“I guess it was July when I first heard about it,” Mitchell recalls, “and that was through some businesspeople. I’ve asked for a copy of it from the [city’s] finance department, but was told it was in draft form.”

The study, which has yet to be released, was overseen and underwritten by the Abell Foundation, the renowned research and grant-making outfit that works to improve quality of life in the city and state. In mid-September—five months after first hearing rumors about the study—City Paper obtained a draft copy of the report, titled “A Costly Problem: Commercial Property Assessments in Baltimore.” Its preliminary conclusions, based on comparing assessed values to the sales value of a sample of 121 commercial properties, show that nonresidential property in the city is significantly underassessed.

For example, one of the properties study author John Hentschel looked at as part of his research was the old United Iron and Metal site at Pulaski Highway and Haven Street in East Baltimore, a scrap-metal processing facility on one acre of land with a 4,400-square-foot building. The property sold for $220,000 in 2000, yet Hentschel discovered that it was assessed at $42,000—less than a fifth of the sales price. He also looked at the old Abbey Schaefer Hotel at 723 St. Paul St. in Mount Vernon, which sold for $650,000 in 2001; its assessed value was $315,020, less than half of the sales price.

The question of exactly how much city commercial properties are underassessed is still a matter for discussion as the study continues to wend its way through the review process, but it is enough to translate into millions in unrealized tax revenue—potential revenue that Mitchell believes should have been on the table when the council was weighing its budget options.

While the councilman still hasn’t seen the report, he says that what he’s heard “suggests to me that I didn’t have all the tax information that I would have liked to have had before we went raising taxes on everyone.”

Steve Kearney, O’Malley’s director of policy and communication, says that the mayor’s office wasn’t “aware of the report, because it was still a draft that was under review.” He adds that “the purpose of the report is to promote public discussion, but you don’t have the debate before you have the facts.”

“As soon as the report comes out,” Mitchell promises, “I’m going to have a hearing—one that we should have had before we started biting the hands that have invested in this city.”

The Abell Foundation was not pleased that a copy of its report-in-progress had gotten into the press’ hands.

“We’ve got a problem here,” said a stern-voiced Gilbert Sandler, Abell’s spokesman, in a late-September phone call to City Paper. “That report has not been vetted. We have no idea what’s true and what’s not true, so it is not ready, by any means—we are not ready to release any piece of it.”

Later, after talking it over with other staff at Abell, Sandler called back to say, “You do what you want to do, and we’ll do what we’re going to do.” Abell’s people would not be available for interviews or meetings to discuss the study, he explained, and he cautioned that “there are many points of view that need to be taken into account that aren’t in that draft. It’s a work in progress. You shouldn’t publish [its findings] until we release it.”

On Oct. 4, City Paper learned that Abell’s position had shifted—the study’s author would be allowed to discuss the study and address its shortcomings. John Hentschel, a real-estate appraiser who served as the city’s real-estate officer from 1982 to 1992, is founder and president of Hentschel Real Estate Services, an Abingdon-based consulting firm, and an internationally recognized expert in public-sector real-estate practices. An afternoon meeting with Hentschel at the White Marsh Mall food court presented a clearer picture of the study’s findings.

During the meeting, Hentschel—a friendly, forthcoming, well-dressed fellow who chooses words carefully as he wrangles complex real-estate concepts into clear language—readily concedes that his draft report contains some errors in analysis. But, he adds, his overall conclusions stand: The city is missing out on substantial revenues due to underassessed commercial properties, and there are steps—at both the local and state level—that can be taken to remedy the situation.

The road to the “A Costly Problem” report started, Hentschel recalls, late in 2000 or early in 2001, when “Abell called me and said, ‘We are thinking about doing a study about this, are you interested in doing it?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and I wrote a proposal.” He had noted, while perusing newspaper reports, that when major commercial properties sold the assessed values were well below the sales prices. “It would make you scratch your head,” he recalls.

And so, starting in late 2001 or early 2002, Hentschel embarked on a lengthy project that would ultimately lead to the draft report, “A Costly Problem,” which he submitted to Abell in late January or early February 2004. It was based foremost on looking at recently transacted commercial property sales and comparing the sales prices to the properties’ assessed values.

“The more you got into it, the more you would say, ‘Well, why is this, why is this, why is this?’” he says. “So you start asking more and more questions. And if you are not coming in with a pre-conceived conclusion, it takes you where it goes.” And where it went, Hentschel says, indicated that underassessments of commercial properties were a real problem that could be remedied if the city chose to appeal low assessments.

“Each year,” Hentschel wrote in his conclusion of the draft, “taxpayers diligently review their property tax assessments to ensure that they are being asked only to pay their appropriate share of property taxes, and no more. Isn’t it reasonable to expect local public officials to exert a similar degree of fiscal prudence on behalf of all City residents by diligently performing a similar annual review to ensure it is receiving its fair share of revenues from the assessable tax base, and no less?”

The main constructive criticisms of the “A Costly Problem” draft so far, Hentschel explains, have come from Doug Brown, supervisor for public-policy analysis in the city’s Department of Finance, who handed over his thoughts in writing to the Abell Foundation on Sept. 28.

First, Hentschel says, Brown identified a link between tax rates for real property (land and improvements, such as buildings and parking lots), which are levied against property owners, and personal property (equipment, machinery, furniture, fixtures, and the like), which are levied against business owners. The draft report, Brown pointed out, did not consider that link.

“The personal property tax rate is computed at two and a half times the real-property tax rate,” Hentschel says. Thus, he continues, if the city were to lower its real-property tax rate in response to more revenue from increased commercial-property assessments, it would have “a corresponding effect of reducing the personal property taxes” entering the community chest.

The draft report also failed to include the impact of increased property-tax assessments on the amount of state education aid to the city. If the city, on its own, successfully appealed assessments upward to the tune of millions of dollars, Hentschel says, then Brown’s “projections show there would be an adverse affect on state aid to education.” (In 2004, the state provided $533 million of the city school system’s $931 million operating budget.) Since the state divvies up education aid based on each jurisdiction’s wealth, as measured by the assessed value of its real estate, then a rise in Baltimore’s assessments—without a corresponding rise in the rest of the state’s assessments—would lead to a reduction in state aid to Baltimore’s cash-strapped education system.

Thirdly, Hentschel continues, if the city unilaterally appealed state assessments upward, “there may be an adverse reaction from an economic-development standpoint, in terms of perception” among businesses that feel they’re being picked on.

Donald Fry, president of local business group the Greater Baltimore Committee, says he knows that in the one Maryland jurisdiction where appeals of underassessments are routinely brought by local government—Montgomery County—“it has resulted in some consternation among some property owners.” Given the city’s “financial strains,” he adds, “City Hall is going to want to look at that very closely, as will we.”

However, Hentschel adds, “the report basically re-emphasizes and re-emphasizes again the matter of parity, equity—that it has to be done in an equitable and above-board fashion. There have to be safeguards put in it so there are no maneuvers to aggressively or capriciously go after certain taxpayers.”

In order to calm such concerns, Hentschel suggests a process by which the city could “look for anomalies that might give basis for appeals” of low assessments. “You need to be comparing apples to apples,” he explains, so the city should find an average assessment value for different types of properties, classified by use, age, size—whatever category works best.

“Once you have each group’s average assessment,” he continues, “you look for outliers—properties that appear to be underassessed because their values are so far below the average. And then you try to find out why. Maybe they are in an off location or they’re deteriorated with age. Then the low assessment is either explainable or not, and if not, you consider it for appeal.”

That’s a fair and equitable way, Hentschel says, to find assessments that don’t pass the smell test. The city could take up such cases with the state’s assessments office in Baltimore City for initial appeal, then, if necessary, to the Baltimore City Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, and finally—if a case goes this far—to the Maryland Tax Court for a final, binding decision.

But, Hentschel says, Brown makes a good point on behalf of the city: Appealing for assessment increases has to be done on a statewide basis. “Otherwise,” he says, “there would be certain unintentional and adverse effects on the city because of these various linkages in other things—personal property tax, and state aid to education, and adverse perception.”

Though Hentschel did not provide a copy of Brown’s comments to City Paper, Kearney did, faxing them to the paper on Oct. 6 and asking that the document not be quoted directly. (Brown was out of the country and unavailable for comment until after press time.) Computations and conclusions contained in Brown’s written comments reveal the city’s analysis of the revenue impact of seeking to raise underassessments.

According to Brown’s written comments, an 18 percent increase in nonresidential property assessments overall would yield $26.5 million annually in new revenues for the city; and that the same assessment boost on all city property—residential properties included—would add $76.8 million to the coffers. (Brown’s analysis, in the second instance, assumes the same kind of underassessment for residential properties as well.) If the city’s response to this was to try to give taxpayers a break and reduce the real-property tax rate by the same proportion as the boost in assessments—18 percent—there would be a corresponding 18 percent decrease in the personal-property tax rate, the document explains. In other words, any reduction in the real-property tax rate would lead to a reduction in the personal-property tax rate, as well, which would result in a greater over-all revenue reduction.

When Brown’s comments turn to the subject of the aid-to-education impact of increased assessments, he uses a slightly different example—a 15 percent increase in assessments. If the city increased assessments 15 percent without any increases in property assessments in the state’s 23 counties, the city would lose $21.5 million in state aid for education, much of which would shift to other counties. If, however, each county reassessed its properties to the tune of 15 percent, then the city’s share of state aid would increase by about $7 million.

Without delving further into the mathematical and statistical minutiae of Brown’s comments and Hentschel’s draft report, it is clear that addressing underassessed properties in Maryland would have a significant impact on local-government budgets—all the greater if the job was undertaken state-wide, as Brown recommends.

For now, the state agency in charge of property assessments is staying mute on the subject. “The Abell report hasn’t been officially released,” John Sullivan, head of the state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation, says in a phone conversation. “We received the draft in April, and we responded to everything in the report, and so far the Abell Foundation has not gone forward with it. Our response to their draft is in their hands, and I’m not obliged to give you my response to that draft until it is officially released.”

However, Sullivan says that he does not think there is an underassessment problem in Baltimore, much less Maryland. “We treat all property owners the same,” he says. “Each one is our customer, and we treat that customer as we would want to be treated. And all of our assessments—every one, and we have 2 million properties we’re responsible for assessing—are valued uniformly and equitably across the state.”

While Sullivan won’t share his written comments on Hentschel’s draft, he reveals that there was at least some administrative reaction to what it contained. “It did show many examples of inaccurate assessments that have since been corrected,” he says. “I think 90 percent of the properties he cited have been adjusted.”

When City Paper reviewed some of the properties Hentschel sampled as underassessments, state Department of Assessments records indicate that nearly all have been adjusted since the study was conducted (see “The Short Lists”). Some assessments were raised to almost equal the sales price—but several upward adjustments were minor, and a couple were adjusted downward, so that the gap between assessed value and the sales prices actually widened.

In addition, City Paper did an analysis on its own set of sample properties (see “The Short Lists”). Anyone with Internet access and a minimal amount of database searching skills can go to the Department of Assessments Web site and do his or her own analysis of assessment-to-sales-price comparisons.

Even before Hentschel’s “A Costly Problem” draft report was sent out for review and comment, rumbles of discontent over possible underassessments statewide were being heard last year in Annapolis. “Property under-assessments are a significant problem facing the State of Maryland,” wrote Ronald Bowers, administrator of the state’s Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, to state Del. Leroy Myers (R-Allegany and Washington counties) in a May 13, 2003, letter (emphasis in the original). “Many properties in the state are under-assessed at between 10 and 80 percent of the actual market value,” the letter continues. “This translates into inequitable taxes for similar properties and lost revenue for the State and local governments.”

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation “was cut back, budget-wise, and it was kind of hampering them from doing their job,” Bowers said recently when asked about the letter. “They need modern equipment other than clipboards to keep up with this ongoing problem, and they were losing people,” he says—touching on a possible reason why assessments appear to have gotten out of whack in the first place. “The proper equipment and the right amount of people is a good investment,” he continues, “because a little bit for them yields a lot for government—and a greater sense that the process is working fairly. If it isn’t fair, if it isn’t done properly, then the mainstream taxpayer is paying an extra burden.”

Councilman Mitchell echoes that sentiment: “I don’t think the city’s getting its fair share, so let’s recoup what we already have [from correcting underassessments] before we go taxing everybody. And these new taxes—especially the phone taxes—hit everybody at the same level, $3.50 per line per month. At least with property taxes, the amount you’re supposed to pay is intended to be in line with the amount of value you have.

“Right now, there is so much distrust in government that it’s not right,” he says. “We have to do what is right.”

Premature Death? Political club’s closing prompts last-ditch revival effort

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 9, 2009

After 55 years of political organizing in Baltimore, the Mount Royal Democratic Club is closing down. “I think we’re getting to the point where we’re tired” in the face of flagging interest, says its president, former state senator Julian Lapides.

But even as invitations went out announcing the club’s last holiday party, scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Maryland Institute College of Art–in the heart of the club’s geographical base in Bolton Hill–its youngest board member, 46-year-old Kim Forsyth, bucked the decision to close as undemocratic, and possibly premature.

“I am simply frustrated that this is a Democratic club and, ironically, it is being terminated by anything but a democratic methodology,” Forsyth writes in a Dec. 4 e-mail to City Paper. “There has been no consultation with members or vote of the membership, and I think the group should continue if there is adequate enthusiasm among its membership.”

She says the matter could be put up for debate and a vote among the members. Forsyth says that Lapides and Mount Royal Democratic Club leaders who are ready to fold the group should “retire, if they choose, gracefully” and allow the club to continue. “There is no reason for [it] to end,” she says.

The decision to close was made, she says, by a few members instead of “a democratic vote”–a process she’d like to see happen, after “providing a venue for the discussion of the club’s future.” She intends to provide that venue, at a meeting to be held on Jan. 31, 2010.

Lapides is encouraged by Forsyth’s enthusiasm. But in a Dec. 4 interview at his Cross Keys law office, he says, “there’s not a tremendous amount of interest in traditional Democratic clubs anymore–for traditional any kind of clubs anymore. I think people are so geared to sitting home on their butts watching TV or doing nothing that it’s hard to get people to meetings anymore.”

Lapides is vague about the current size of the Mount Royal club’s membership. Reached by phone, the club’s founder, retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Thomas Ward, says it stands at around 55 to 60 dues-paying members, down from a high of 850 in the late 1960s.

“After 9/11, we lost our regular meeting place,” Lapides says. “We’d been at the officer’s club of the Fifth Regiment Armory for years, when it became a restricted area. So we met at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, but there was choir practice [to schedule around], and we were getting very little turnout. Instead of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, it was sort of almost becoming the Mount Royal Social Club. But it was a club with a great tradition.”

Ward recalled that tradition in a recent press release to announce Lapides’ decision to close the club “with honor.” Its 1954 founding, Ward wrote, “challenge[d] an aging political structure married to old ways,” and the club’s members “quickly assembled increasing effectiveness by electing a new wave of elected officials”–including Lapides, who spent three decades in the Maryland General Assembly until 1994; Ward, who was in the Baltimore City Council prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1982; Walter Orlinsky, who rose up to become City Council president until his political career was destroyed by a 1982 extortion conviction; and several others.

On issues, according to Ward’s write-up, the club–which “was integrated from the beginning, the first to lead the way in a segregated city”–was a leader over the decades on important matters of the day, including promoting historic preservation and expanded options for public transportation, while opposing highways planned for development through historic Baltimore neighborhoods.

The watershed event in the club’s history happened in 1968, when a new organization–the New Democratic Club of the 2nd District, or NDC-2–split from Mount Royal over what Ward now calls “a hidden antagonism.” He says the problem erupted over Ward’s control of the club’s newsletter, but it was really centered on the issues of gun control and the Vietnam War. The new group, Lapides says, was “more liberal” than Mount Royal and more in keeping with Lapides’ own politics, though he stayed on with Ward, helping to guide the club for decades.

When Ward is asked what undermined Mount Royal Democratic Club’s viability, he echoes Lapides’ assessment by bluntly snapping: “Television is what killed the club, the same way television’s destroyed all organizations. I do not have and never have had a TV. People don’t go to meetings anymore, and don’t have clubs–they stay home and watch television.”

Forsyth, though, points out that the club “has not recruited new people for years.” The lack of new blood means that natural attrition will, over time, drain the club of vitality. A good measure of Mount Royal’s wane is the result of a Nexis news search of the club’s name, which yields many more mentions in obituaries than in political coverage.

“It is too important for Baltimore right now to have a political force in place to let this go,” Forsyth says of the decision to pull the plug on the club. “We need to see the kind of enthusiasm the club used to generate recreated.”

According to long-time club member Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College, the club’s vitality has been on the decline for some time.

“The long period of Mount Royal Democratic Club activism probably ended about a decade ago,” says Smith. “Urban political clubs have been on the long good-bye for quite awhile.” He says that Lapides “was the last man standing from its heyday in the 1950s to the 1970s. There didn’t seem to be a generational transfer to Gen X or Gen Y as the baby-boomers aged. And internet organizing has really replaced the clubhouse–instead of newsletters, there are blogs.”

Regardless, he says, the closure of the club will be a loss.

“Mount Royal, it was phenomenal in its day,” he says. “The Mount Royal holiday party–there’s the governor on one side, the mayor on the other, a U.S. senator over there. The networking possibilities were amazing. The city will be less for not having the Mount Royal holiday cocktail party anymore.”

Unless the party goes on, should Forsyth be successful in rallying the troops.

“I’m seen as a rebel,” she says, “because I don’t think we should fold the club just because the current leadership is aging and tired. I really do respect them, and I understand, you can’t make enthusiasm happen–it has to be there already.”

In the weeks and months to come, she plans to find out if it is.

Hot Contract: City bribery scandal tied to influential father and son

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 26, 2005

Mark Sapperstein owns 113 W. Hamburg St., an 8,000-square-foot commercial building in Sharp-Leadenhall. The South Baltimore property, though devoid of signs, houses Allstate Boiler Service, a company owned by Gilbert Sapperstein, Mark’s 73-year-old father.

On Jan. 7, Allstate Boiler’s bookkeeper and office manager, Ida Marie Beran, pled guilty in a bribery case involving the company’s contract with the city to provide boiler services for municipal agencies. Also pleading guilty was Cecil Thrower, a city Department of Public Works employee since 1984 who worked at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Essex.

The case ties an established name in Baltimore’s business and political class—that of the Sapperstein family—to an ongoing criminal investigation.

In the statement of facts filed in the case, which was brought by the Office of the State Prosecutor, Beran and Thrower admitted that they conspired together to inflate invoices under Allstate Boiler’s contract with the city. While Thrower received somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 for his part in the scheme, Beran received nothing—though her employer received “well over” $120,000 in excess payments as a result of the fraudulent bills, according to case documents.

The court record further explains that the conspiracy began in approximately 1998, at which point “Mr. Thrower was approached by the business owner who employed Ms. Beran [who] suggested to Mr. Thrower, ‘From time to time you could do something for us and perhaps we could do something [for] you.’ . . . [O]n more than one occasion, while acting at the instruction of and in concert with her employer, Ms. Beran prepared the envelopes containing cash for Thrower and provided them to other employees for delivery to Thrower.”

The case documents make no mention of Allstate Boiler or the Back River plant. Department of Public Works spokesman Robert Murrow, however, confirmed for City Paper that the city contract defrauded in the scheme has been held by Allstate for “like 20 years” to provide boiler work for any city agency that needs such services, and that the inflated bills were for work at Back River.

Allstate, which has been in business since 1965, also holds the boiler contract for the Baltimore City Public School System, according to city schools spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt, though she says the contract is “set to expire in February.”

State prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh confirms that, “absolutely, this is a continuing investigation,” though he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the investigation continues to focus on Allstate Boiler or the Sappersteins. Rohrbaugh’s reticence aside, the record makes clear that Allstate, not Beran, benefited from the longstanding bribery scheme.

Mark Sapperstein acknowledged to City Paper that Allstate Boiler Service is located at his property, but he declined comment about the company or the bribery scandal. Gilbert Sapperstein did not return calls for comment left at Allstate, and contact information for Beran could not be found. Thrower’s phone at his West Baltimore residence has been disconnected.

Mark Sapperstein is a major player in local real-estate circles. He’s a partner in Silo Point, a $200 million proposal to convert a derelict grain elevator in Locust Point into a residential-retail development. On Jan. 13, the Baltimore Development Corp. awarded development rights to a city-owned parcel at Calvert and Lombard streets to Mark Sapperstein and his partners, who planned to turn it into a $71 million apartment complex called Cityscape. In 2002, he and his partners constructed a $13.5 million parking garage at Calvert and Lombard. Last spring, Sapperstein purchased 200 acres on North Point in eastern Baltimore County, where he plans to build luxury single-family homes on the Bauer Farm tract, where British troops in the War of 1812 marched en route to face Baltimore militias.

Gilbert and Mark Sapperstein, through their respective companies, have been active as donors to campaigns of elected officials. Since the fall of 1999, the two, along with Mark Sapperstein’s wife and several Sapperstein companies, gave at least $33,270 to the campaign committees of various elected officials.

Of the total, $9,650 went to Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), $8,000 went to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith (D), and $4,250 went to Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R). Nearly all of the rest went to legislators representing Baltimore City and Baltimore County. At the federal level, Gilbert Sapperstein donated $250 each to U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-2nd District) and the Republican National Committee. Mark Sapperstein gave $1,000 to U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and $500 each to Ruppersberger, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), and Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor (R-7th District). Mark Sapperstein’s wife also gave $500 to Cantor.

Gilbert Sapperstein, according to several sources familiar with the workings of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, is known as a go-to guy for prospective liquor licensees looking to break into the bar business. As a secured creditor for bars that fail, he assumes control of properties and liquor licenses and thus can procure opportunities for new entrepreneurs. According to liquor board documents, for example, Sapperstein was a secured creditor in a March 2003 license transfer for Mary’s Place in West Baltimore. Often, sources say, bar owners who are indebted to Sapperstein, who has been in the poker-machine business for years, agree to keep his poker machines in their establishments.

Both Sappersteins have had run-ins with the law for gambling-related charges. Gilbert, whose Star Coin Machine Co. is housed at 113 W. Hamburg with Allstate Boiler, faced 107 gambling-related charges in state courts in the 1980s and ’90s relating to Star Coin’s poker machines, though prosecutors declined to prosecute nearly all of them. In two cases, he received probation before judgment and was fined $1,475. Mark Sapperstein was charged with four gambling-related counts in 1989, though prosecutors chose not to pursue the cases. State records indicate that Mark Sapperstein’s poker-machine company, Mark’s Vending, has been inactive for more than a decade.

In 1984, Gilbert Sapperstein faced 18 housing-code violations for properties he owned in the city, receiving probation before judgment for 16 of them while prosecutors declined to pursue the remaining two charges. In 2003, Gilbert Sapperstein was charged with 10 housing-code violations in connection with a rowhouse he owned at 3203 Fleet St., receiving probation before judgment and $170 in fines. He sold the property shortly afterward.

Last April, Gilbert Sapperstein sold one of his properties in the Hollins Market neighborhood—the former Tom Thumb/Gypsy’s Café property, which in 2000 collapsed amid ill-conceived renovations. Two of his other properties in the same Southwest Baltimore neighborhood on Carrollton Avenue—one of which housed the Club Medusa, a hipsters’ after-hours social club, in the 1990s—are for sale. In July, he sold a property at 1600 W. Baltimore St., which houses a tavern called Good Times.

Currently for sale in the 800 block of West Cross Street is the property that housed Foul Ball Bar and Grille, which is owned by 2001 Eastern Ave. LLC, one of Gilbert Sapperstein’s companies. The Fells Point address the company is named after houses the Colonial Inn (owned by the same company). In Baltimore County, Gilbert Sapperstein owns 9727 Pulaski Highway, a large restaurant currently under renovation, and 2123-25 Sparrows Point Road, a strip club and bar.

The list of Sapperstein properties—many of them with liquor licenses attached—could go on and on.

In the 1990s, Mark and Gilbert Sapperstein were named, along with dozens of other parties, in a civil Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit brought by Donald D. Stone, a self-described surfer dude who alleged that the Sappersteins, their business partners and lawyers, and the law-enforcement bureaucracy in Maryland and Florida conspired to keep him from shedding light on their allegedly corrupt schemes. The case, which was filed separately in federal courts in Maryland and Florida, went nowhere. That outcome has not kept Stone from posting potentially libelous statements about the Sappersteins and others on the internet—though, so far, Stone says he has not been sued.

Part of Stone’s investigation into the Sappersteins focused on an Anne Arundel County deal for cell-phone towers that led to a lawsuit against Mark Sapperstein and his business partners by George and Mary Jane Chamberlain, who moved from Annapolis to New Hampshire before filing the complaint in 1999. The lawsuit, which has since been settled, alleged that Mark Sapperstein and two partners, both of whom also sat on the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Commission, stole the couple’s idea for dominating the communications-tower industry. The terms of the settlement are confidential, though the amount paid to the Chamberlains—$40,000—later leaked out. The lawsuit was filed shortly after Mark Sapperstein sold his communications-tower companies to a Florida company for $8 million in 1998.

Investigators are keeping mum about where they might be headed as they scour the books. Only time will tell whether the Sappersteins are in the clear or headed for more trouble as the case progresses.

 

Fouled Nests: The bust of a local poker club uncovers all sorts of messy connections

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 23, 2005

When Baltimore City Police Sgt. Craig Gentile’s vice enforcement unit arrested 95 people for illegal gambling at the Owls Nest poker club in South Baltimore near M&T Bank Stadium on the evening of Nov. 2, it opened up a can of worms. Gentile, a veteran vice cop who routinely busts strip joints and nightspots, wouldn’t discuss the raid or the ongoing investigation of the Owls Nest for this article. But the public record, law-enforcement sources who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity, and interviews with people close to the action at the Owls Nest and in the local poker world show that it is more than just a refurbished warehouse hosting charity gambling.

At its core, the Owls Nest is an illegal poker den with political, criminal, and law-enforcement ties.

The situation at the Owls Nest revolves first and foremost around the relationship between its principals—Joseph Anthony Cary, 50, and Gerald Curtis Dickens, 65—and Frank Darby Moran Sr., 76, a man dubbed by some as “the king of Arbutus.”

Cary and Dickens worked for Moran’s Arbutus-based charity gambling outfit, the Orioles Nest, before they split from him about a year ago and started the competing Owls Nest. Both private clubs are chapters of national fraternal organizations, similar to Elks or Moose lodges; the Owls have been around since 1904. Both the Owls and Orioles (nothing to do with the baseball team) have seen a renaissance in recent years. Chapters open their doors and people become members, often in order to gamble, ostensibly to raise money for charitable causes.

Despite Cary and Dickens’ split from Moran, ties remain. Cary’s Statewide Amusement vending company’s web site (www.statewideamusements.com) lists its address as 5404 East Drive in downtown Arbutus—a commercial property owned by Moran. It’s also the address of record for the Orioles Nest, which has operated at several locations since at least 2003.

Right around front, in the same strip of small businesses that houses the Orioles Nest, are the 12th Legislative District office of state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, Del. Steven Deboy, and Del. James Malone, all Democrats.

Deboy is a retired Baltimore County cop who now works as a warrant investigator for the Howard County Police Department, while Malone is a lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department.

Next door to the district office is Sport Cuts, a barbershop and clothing store owned by Andre Fozard, a federally convicted ecstasy dealer, former bail bondsman, and former strip-club co-owner on the Block in downtown Baltimore.

Delegates Malone and Deboy both say they do not know Fozard, but admit they were aware that the Orioles Nest was based out of the same small commercial building where their district office is located. Deboy denies being a member of the Orioles Nest.

“This is actually bizarre,” he says of the contention, made by City Paper’s sources, that he belonged to the private club, and suggests that anyone who says that he was a member may be engaging in “politics of destruction.” Malone, however, says “to be very, very honest, I don’t know whether I’m a member or not,” adding that he’d been to one Orioles Nest event, years ago. “I’d be very surprised if I was a member,” he says, adding, “I don’t gamble, period.”

Baltimore County Councilman Sam Moxley (D-1st District) was also named by City Paper’s sources as being an Orioles Nest member.

“No, not that I know of,” he responds. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been at any of their events, though I talked to [Frank] Moran about the situation [with the club]. He wanted to know about the gambling laws in the county.”

According to a law-enforcement source who has seen the Orioles Nest membership list, Fozard was a member of the organization. Several sources say Thomas Wayne Damron, a drug convict with a violent record, was too. So was Naylor Harrison, a convicted drug dealer who reportedly runs an asphalt paving business, according to Orioles Nest manager William Sachse and a law-enforcement source, though they say he was suspended for misbehaving in the club.

Fozard, Damron, and Harrison, law-enforcement sources say, have also been frequent habitués of the Owls Nest, which hired retired and off-duty cops from local jurisdictions as security for its tournaments. According to the police report of the Owls Nest raid, Barry Lee Boone, a retired Howard County cop, was armed and working for the tournament’s organizers that night, taking money from players.

Attempts to contact Fozard and Damron for comment were unsuccessful, but Harrison was reached. He denied ever being a member of either the Orioles or Owls, adding, “I stopped going to those places a long time ago.”

Though Moran, Cary, and Dickens could not be reached to interview them for this article, Orioles Nest manager William Sachse could. In a telephone interview, he explains that Cary and Moran go way back, through Cary’s vending-machine business, Statewide Amusements, which other associates of Cary, including John Leroy Long Jr., confirm.

“Joe Cary was pretty much raised and taken care of by Frank Moran,” Sachse says. “He taught Joe everything he needed to know in the vending business.”

The two also worked together running Moran’s club, the Orioles Nest, in a business park on Vero Road in Arbutus, a stone’s throw from the city line. Once inside the innocuous business-suite door, patrons paid a nominal fee—sometimes $20, sometimes $50, sometimes more, depending on the night’s event—to gamble, with the proceeds ostensibly going to various charities. But in late 2004, the club’s management experienced a falling out.

Sachse says Moran suspected that Orioles Nest money was being “misappropriated” by Cary and Dickens, and a “very ugly breakup” ensued. Sachse says Moran brought in Kimberly Acton, Sachse’s fiancé, late last year to clean up the Orioles Nest operations. After a couple of months, Sachse continues, Acton “got tired of the drama” of running the place, and he took over for her about eight months ago.

After the split, Sachse says, the “drama” continued, but he didn’t elaborate. A law-enforcement source familiar with the situation did. When Cary and Dickens left the Orioles Nest, the source says, they took a lot of the club’s assets with them.

“That night in November [2004], when the establishment closed, Joe Cary backed a truck up and cleaned the place out,” the source alleges. “He took TVs, poker chips, poker tables, food, soap dispensers, cigarette machines—everything except the pool table.” Cary and Dickens, the source continues, didn’t go far to start their own charity-gambling club—they set up in the next suite over.

Cary and Dickens “hung a cardboard sign up with the owls nest on it,” the source continues, adding that Moran purchased new amenities and kept his club open. “They were running side by side, wide open. [Cary and Dickens] were there through Christmas, maybe into January, while they were refurbishing the Worscester Street warehouse”—the location that was raided by Gentile and his squad on Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, the source says, Moran tried to roust Cary and Dickens from their location next door to his by starting his own Owls Nest chapter.

“There’s something with these fraternal organizations that two with the same name have to be at least six or eight miles apart,” the law-enforcement source says. “[Moran] was hell-bent on getting his own Owls Club established, because then [Cary and Dickens’] club couldn’t stay.”

While state records do not show Moran incorporating another Owls Club, a sign on a rear door to his East Drive property in Arbutus read, as of press time: “Owls Nest 4535—Private Club. The awning of Cary and Dickens’ establishment in South Baltimore announces it as, “Owls Club 4525.” (The door reads, “Owls Nest 4525.”)

After Moran’s falling out with Cary and Dickens, the source says, Baltimore County police paid a visit to the Orioles Nest: “The police said the Orioles Nest had all the proper paperwork and everything, but [that] it cannot play Texas hold-’em. They told Sachse and Kim [Acton], ‘This is it. It’s over.’”

Sachse confirmed the police visit to City Paper. Baltimore County Police Department spokesman Bill Toohey couldn’t confirm the visit but explains the county police practice involving charity poker events: “The gambling unit goes there, proactively, and reminds the operators of the county law—you can only hold [poker tournaments and other charitable gambling events] once a year, you can’t give cash as prizes—only merchandise of less than $1,000 in value—and everybody who plays has to be a [club] member.”

Shortly after the county police laid down the law to the Orioles Nest, both clubs’ promotional materials show that they relocated to Baltimore City.

According to a flier obtained by City Paper, Owls Nest 4525—Cary and Dickens’ outfit—opened in Baltimore City on Jan. 22, 2005, at 1800 Worscester St., sandwiched between the Russell Street overpass and the railroad tracks near M&T Bank Stadium.

“During the time I was with the Orioles Club, I had the pleasure of meeting many of you and invite you to come visit our new facility,” reads the flier, which bore a signature line for “Jerry,” secretary/treasurer of the Owls Nest. It politely adds that “we encourage you to continue to support the Orioles Club, as it is a fine organization.”

After Cary and Dickens split from Moran’s Orioles and started the Owls Nest, “we didn’t want our organization to be associated in any way with the Owls,” Sachse says, citing Moran’s bitterness over Cary’s disloyalty and the Owls’ indiscretion in holding widely publicized games on a regular basis.

“I mean,” Sachse adds incredulously, “they were advertising in the Sunpapers!”

The police report of the Owls Nest raid mentions an Oct. 18 advertisement in The Sun, which revealed that the Owls Nest was holding a nine-night tournament, and that winners would get seats at the World Poker Challenge tables on Nov. 13 at a Foxwoods, Conn., casino, airfare included.

Which is not to say the Orioles Nest didn’t continue hosting games of chance, ostensibly for charity. In April, Moran’s Orioles Nest distributed a flier, also obtained by City Paper: “We are proud to announce our grand re-opening at our new location . . . less than a mile from our old location.” The event’s date was April 14, and the address—where the club is still operating—was 2930 Washington Boulevard, Suite A, in Southwest Baltimore “next to the Warehouse bar and grill.”

The flier offered a “re-union promotion,” thanking members “for their patience and loyalty” by “giving away $50 in free chips with your first $100 buy-in to be used in any of our games. To the first sixty members to come to the window.”

The flier doesn’t mention any charities, though Sachse makes a point of saying that it would be “unethical if we don’t have a specific beneficiary” for the club’s fundraisers. “You need to deem one charity for that event, so to speak,” he explains, adding that “you don’t tell the charity what kind of event it was. Just give checks.”

By the time the Orioles Nest reopened in Morrell Park in April, the Owls Nest had a calendar of events reflecting twice-a-week poker tournaments. For April 29, the club’s calendar announced “A Special Tournament for Pi Kappa Phi,” a fraternity at UMBC.

According to a flier for the tournament, the event’s beneficiary was Push America, an organization “to serve persons with disabilities.” The cost to participants, the flier reads, was $55, plus $10 for “re-buys”—more chips if players run out. It adds: “All are invited.”

The charitable result of the fraternity tournament was $150, as reflected by a copy of an April 29 check made out by the Owls Nest to Pi Kappa Phi obtained by City Paper. If only three people paid to play, the $150 donation would have been recouped by the event.

In an effort to determine how many people paid to play, City Paper contacted the fraternity’s treasurer at the time, Chris Manger, and its vice “archon,” Greg Quigley. Both asked if they could call back. Neither did, and neither returned repeated subsequent messages.

Since the Baltimore Police Department busted the Owls Nest Nov. 2, the Orioles Nest has continued to host fundraising events. Baltimore City Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-10th District) tells City Paper that he’s not happy about it.

“After the Owls Nest gets busted, this Orioles Nest is still in operation!” Reisinger exclaims. “I called the police on that.” \

Sachse, though, tells City Paper that the Orioles Nest has stopped holding poker tournaments. Furthermore, he contends, the Orioles Nest has been run well and properly on the charity front since Cary and Dickens left.

“I’ll show you exactly where the money goes,” he says, offering to show City Paper the organization’s checkbook. “At the end of each quarter, monies are given out.” When asked if he would demonstrate how the Orioles Nest’s charitable giving has changed from when Cary and Dickens ran the show, Sachse balks: “I mean, if we get audited, that would be a skeleton in [our] closet. I’ll ask Frank [Moran] and get back to you.” He never did, and subsequent calls went unanswered as of press time.

There are other skeletons in the Orioles Nest’s closet, though. Sachse, the man who was brought in to bring order and propriety back to the Orioles Nest, was jailed in the early 1990s for a Howard County drug-distribution conviction, court records show.

Joseph Cary’s skeletons have been coming out of the closet in recent days, as well. First, the Owls Nest got busted Nov. 2, and Gentile says he expects to file criminal charges against Cary soon. Then on Nov. 14, the Comptroller of Maryland’s office announced that it has filed a $953,515.58 tax lien in the Anne Arundel County courts against Statewide Amusements, Cary, and his wife, Deborah Cary (the couple being the officers of Statewide).

“Sticker shock,” is how state comptroller spokesman Kevin Kane characterizes the amount. “There is no appealing this,” he adds.

Comprising the total are $412,507.58 in unpaid taxes, $180,530.55 in interest, and $360,477.45 in penalties. Kane says it is “a case of intentional fraud” in which Statewide underrepresented its gross sales, uncovered by an audit that started in February of this year and examined the period between February 1999, when the company was formed, and November 2004.

Cary is no stranger to financial stress, though. In 2001, he sought and received Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection from creditors including the state of Maryland, a California company that makes monitors for vending machines, the city of Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, and the University of Maryland Medical System.

He’s also no stranger to the criminal courts. Court records show Cary has had criminal charges filed against him at least once in nearly every year since 1978.

Many of the charges have involved alleged violent disputes with his wife (she sometimes, but not always, refused to testify against him during the trials), and he also has faced charges of, among other things, arson, assault, malicious destruction of property, battery, escape from confinement, breaking and entering, resisting arrest, drug possession, and gambling.

He often avoided convictions when prosecutors declined to bring cases to trial, but there are a few guilty findings—for battery, assault, resisting arrest, malicious destruction of property, and failure to appear at court, for instance. Cary also took probation before judgment in many cases, including an arson charge.

Criminal charges against Dickens are not reflected in a court-record search, but he, too, filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He gained protection from the Internal Revenue Service, the state of Maryland, Prince George’s County, various banks, and an accountant.

Based on their records, Cary and Dickens aren’t exactly the model proprietors of a charitable enterprise that specializes in raising funds through gambling events. Cary, however, manages his money well enough to own a 2003 Hummer H2, a 2001 Chevy Corvette convertible, a large RV, and a 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, among other vehicles, all registered in his, his business’, or his family’s names. It’s an impressive automotive fleet for someone who recently emerged from bankruptcy.

Nonetheless, the charitable company Cary and Dickens started—Fraternal Order of Owls 4525 Inc., incorporated two weeks before it was busted, according to the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation—appears to be a proper charity. That is, if the documentation provided to the Baltimore City Zoning Board in April, when the Owls Nest applied for a variance to put its club in a manufacturing district, is reliable.

(The Owls Nest was given its variance in July, though, according to city housing department records, it received no permits for the $50,000 in renovations stated in the zoning application.)

A signed letter purporting to be from Diane Meader, the supreme secretary of the Home Nest, Order of Owls, located in the “Owl Building, Hartford, Conn.,” includes an undated enclosure to the IRS “to certify that Nest #4525 a duly constituted body of the Fraternal Order Of Owls operating under the lodge system.”

The Home Nest, Order of Owls letterhead in the zoning file gives no street address or phone number for the organization, and the Hartford Public Library couldn’t unearth any information about the “Owl Building” or the “Home Nest, Order of Owls” in Hartford or Connecticut. City Paper could not locate a Diane Meader in Connecticut. According to GuideStar.org, a nonprofit information service, there is no charitable enterprise operating in Connecticut using that name. Nor does GuideStar turn up Cary and Dickens’ Fraternal Order of Owls 4525—although it does show Moran’s Orioles Nest.

The Owls Nest in Baltimore does make charitable donations, though. The zoning file includes copies of numerous checks cut to various entities for charitable purposes, including Pi Kappa Phi ($150), the Church of the Redemption in Locust Point ($150), the Linda Whelan Fund ($150), Toni Aguilar ($500), Seniors Helping Seniors ($250), the American Breast Cancer Foundation ($150), the Boys Home Society of Baltimore ($150), Carol Reyes ($100), Maryland Food Bank ($150), the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Widows and Orphans Fund ($200), the Baltimore Child Abuse Center ($200), and the Associated Black Charities ($200).

The amount donated totals $2,350 and was given between February and July of this year. By way of comparison, on the night of the Nov. 2 raid, a Wednesday, more than $25,000 was seized from the Owls Nest tournament then in progress, including more than $6,600 from Cary’s pants pocket.

These numbers make another letter in the zoning file that much more interesting. It’s from Edward Reisinger, and it states that the city councilman supports the zoning variance for the Owls Nest, pointing out that “all money raised is donated to local charities.”

Reisinger says he supported the zoning change for the Owls Nest and wrote the letter based on the word of the building’s owner, Gilda Johnson, “who’s a respected member of the community,” he says. “I wish I could take that [letter] back, but it’s too late now.”

Johnson says she was convinced the Owls Nest was a charitable enterprise: “There was nothing that would have allowed me to think otherwise. It was done strictly by the books.”

The Nov. 2 vice-squad raid on the Owl’s Nest was historic. According to The Sun, it was the largest gambling bust since the Prohibition era, although prosecutors dropped their charges against nearly everyone arrested Nov. 10 (charges are still pending against 15 accused event organizers).

The prosecutors said the wrong law was used in citing them, and that if so many cases were brought to court they would unnecessarily clog up the docket. While especially large, however, the Owls Nest bust was not unique—even in the past year.

On Feb. 25, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Restaurant on Holabird Avenue in Southeast Baltimore was busted for a Texas hold-’em tournament (“Game Sharks,” City Paper, March 9), and Peter’s Pour House on Mercer Street near Camden Yards was raided this past spring. Eugene Lovito of Fund Raisers Unlimited was charged with gambling in the Peter’s case, but the charges were shelved by the prosecutor.

Nor was the Owls Nest raid the most recent gambling bust. A week later, on Nov. 10, Gentile’s vice squad nabbed another game, at the Aces High Club on the second floor above the B.J. Mattheiss Insurance Agency at 6716 Harford Road. (Bruce Mattheiss, the building’s owner, did not respond to a call for comment.)

Arrested there on gambling charges, according to court documents, were Baltimore City police officer Vicki Mengel, allegedly hired to provide security, and Brad Lukens, who also was cited at the Owls Nest raid. (Charges against Lukens relating to the Owls Nest were dropped; Mengel and Lukens are scheduled to be tried on charges relating to the Aces High in January 2006.)

Law-enforcement sources say another Owls Nest player from the night of the Nov. 2 raid tipped Gentile off to the Aces High game, setting it up for the bust.

In April, Anne Arundel County got into the poker-raid action. Police there hit a place called Tykie’s Lodge, a Texas hold-’em hot spot housed in an emergency-services contractor’s building right next to the Maryland State Police post in Glen Burnie.

Among those arrested was an 18-year Howard County Police Department veteran, Michael Thorn, who’s accused by Anne Arundel County authorities of helping to organize the game. According to Thorn’s attorney, Clarke Ahlers, the game wasn’t for money, but was an instructional event intended to teach people how to play and deal poker. The case is set for trial next March.

In Baltimore City, even nonprofits are barred from holding poker tournaments for charity. (Laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in Baltimore County, for example, charities are permitted to hold one gambling event a year, including card games.) As Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, wrote in a Nov. 5, 2004, letter to liquor licensees, “although specific types of organizations may conduct gambling after obtaining a permit from the Baltimore City Police Department, there are no permits issued for a poker tournament.”

Copies of Irby’s letter were found at the Owls Nest when it was raided, according to law-enforcement sources. Brian Clark, the owner of online poker forum MD-Poker.com, says simply that “poker is illegal in Maryland.”

Clark says he has become an expert on poker laws and thinks charity poker tournaments are giving his game a bad name. “These places that are getting busted, they were asking for it,” he says. “I don’t allow them to advertise on my site. They may give a small portion to charity, but they’re holding games multiple times a week. They’re not doing anything to help our cause, only hurt it. Most of my members were warned beforehand—watch out for places like this.”

Clark’s cause is to legalize poker in Maryland, but “in small baby steps,” he explains. “People should be allowed to have their own friendly poker games with no raking,” he says, referring to the practice of game organizers taking money off the top from players. Ultimately, he’d like to see Maryland copy the Golden State. “In California, where there are legal poker halls, the state reaps a ton of revenue from them, and the state recognizes it for what it is—a game of skill, not a game of chance, like slots or roulette.”

Clark says he is “trying to start a lobbying group” to influence lawmakers in Annapolis on the subject. “We’ve been in the planning stages for about a year now.”

On Nov. 4, immediately after The Sun first covered the Owls Nest raid, Clark posted on MD-Poker.com’s home page a statement to his members: “To put it simple the Owl’s Club got busted because they are idiots.” He added that the club’s organizers “were running a near full time poker room” and “keeping the profits” for themselves. “They advertised and promoted an already illegal game, they rented a business facility to hold the game, they served alcohol without a license. . . . It is their own fault they got busted and this should not scare the average member who enjoys a good low stakes game with 10 or so friends.”

Not all local players agree with Clark that the Owls Nest was a disreputable place.

“I don’t see why they’re outlawing it,” says Joseph Cary associate John Leroy Long Jr., who says he’s been friends with the Owls Nest principal “for many years.”

While law-enforcement sources say Long has been Cary’s driver and has worked for him in other ways over the years, Long, a 56-year-old Southwest Baltimore resident, is adamant: “I never worked for him. I never drove for him.” But he sure enjoyed the Owls Nest. “I played there every day that I could. It’s a shame they closed it down. It was a nice, clean, respectable place, and they weren’t hurting nobody, and they’re honest.”

(Long was sentenced to 34 months in federal prison in 1994 for a cocaine-distribution conviction.)

Toni Aguilar, who received a $500 donation from the Owls Nest to help with her medical expenses while she cared for her terminally ill son earlier this year, says she’s known Owls principal Gerald Dickens since she used to play in and work at poker games in Prince George’s County firehouses, until they were outlawed in 1997. She says Baltimore and Maryland are hurting themselves by keeping poker illegal. Aguilar was among those cited during the Nov. 2 raid (charges against her were dropped).

“The time is ripe to take the lead in regulating it, so it’s legal,” she says. “It’s so hypocritical. The state has keno, the lottery—all games of chance, not skill like poker—and they take money from people who can least afford it. With poker, I know some very prominent lawyers and people in politics who play the games. Any night of the week, you can find a house game, so why not make it legal?”

As for the Owls Nest, Aguilar says that “they set it up very nice. It was a nice atmosphere, and they went out of their way to decorate it with lamps hanging over the tables, neon signs, pictures of poker chips from casinos around the world hanging on the wall, a pool table, a dart board, chess games, video machines with word puzzles and challenge games on them. There were video slot machines in the back, but it was rare to see somebody back there.”

Aguilar’s comments echo those of Sun columnists Dan Rodricks and Michael Olesker, who both wrote about the Owls Nest raid. “With problems as serious as . . . addiction and violence,” Rodricks contended in a Nov. 6 piece, “maybe we could tolerate a little poker and keep the cops on the important stuff.” Olesker chimed in Nov. 11: “Beautiful. The crack dealers stand on nearby street corners, and the cops bust up a poker game. The homicide count climbs, and we turn card players into criminals. Could we have a little perspective please?”

What Aguilar, Rodricks, and Olesker may not appreciate, however, is that clubs like the Owls and Orioles nests, where cops and criminals and perhaps even politicians appear to flock together, are among the reasons why anti-gambling laws are on the books—to prohibit potential corrupting influences on public officials and law enforcement.

The alternative, perhaps, is the Owls motto, found on the mysterious letterhead from the Home Nest in Connecticut: “There’s so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, it hardly behooves any of us, to speak ill of the rest of us.” In other words, leave well enough alone.

Gentile, the city vice cop, appears unwilling to do so. And that’s his job. Given what he’s tapped into with the recent raids, his job’s not over yet.

Friends of Ed Reisinger: Three challenge 10th District veteran

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 22, 2007

Edward Reisinger and his family own a tiny little bar in Morrell Park called Good Times, where amusement devices line the narrow walls. Reisinger, a Democrat, is the 10th District city councilman and chairs the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which in April recommended expanding the presence of such regulated devices in neighborhood businesses like his. The machines are known to be used for illegal gambling, yet the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and other liquor establishments, requested the bill, and its supporters have donated heavily to Reisinger’s re-election campaign. The measure still awaits a full City Council vote.

Let’s recap: A bar-owning councilman’s committee touts a law backed by his campaign donors to expand opportunities for illegal gambling at bars.

That is some old-school politics, but Reisinger comes from the old school. His father was a South Baltimore state delegate during the midcentury apex of the Stonewall Democratic Club’s since-waned power, when the late state senators George W. Della Sr. (father of today’s 46th District state senator) and Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk ran the show south of the Inner Harbor. Reisinger himself showed his Morrell Park colors three summers ago, when he got into a scrap with a convicted drug dealer who assaulted him after Reisinger stepped out of Good Times and confronted the guy for throwing trash in the street.

“The system took a drug dealer off the streets of Morrell Park, and that’s what I wanted,” Reisinger told the judge after his attacker got six months in jail.

Like its politicians, the 10th is traditionally old-school territory, and its boundaries are wide. Morrell Park’s Good Times is a long way from, say, Thumpers in Curtis Bay, but like their respective neighborhoods–and like the amusement devices found at both bars–they share a sense of lowbrow stability. Little seems to have changed in the last half-generation or so, just as little has changed in the neighborhoods between them: Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Westport, and Lakeland. These are places where incomes are low and working-class traditions are old.

While many good jobs left long ago, the number of voters registered there has grown recently. According to the latest data from July, the Democratic electorate in these communities is nearly two-thirds of the district’s 15,345 registered Democrats, and it has grown by nearly 1,500 voters since July 2003, prior to the last city primary. If Reisinger has a territory, this should be it, since all three of his challengers hail from the district’s northern, more posh quarters on the South Baltimore peninsula.

Donnie Fair, 30, is a community activist and computer-network administrator who grew up on a farm, moved to Baltimore in 1999, and bought a rowhouse on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore in 2005. Terry Hickey lives in Federal Hill and is a 37-year-old community lawyer who started a nonprofit to help kids grow up to be good citizens. Hunter Pruette, a 31-year-old North Carolina native, is a criminal defense attorney who moved to South Baltimore after working in 2003 as traveling chief of staff of U.S. Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign.

These three challengers live in some of the hottest neighborhoods in the Baltimore real-estate market, where a new breed of residents has been drawn. Long-rooted families have moved on in recent years, getting top dollar for their ancestral rowhouses. Taverns have changed hands, accommodating new tastes. Aging industrial sites have been rezoned and redeveloped. The yuppies took over.

Times have changed since 1990, when Reisinger, as an appointed councilman (he lost re-election in 1991, and regained a seat in 1995), told The Washington Times in an article about Locust Pointers that “I don’t think anybody’s moving out. They’re hanging tough.”

Here’s the twist: Reisinger’s committee chairmanship has involved facilitating the district’s fast-paced redevelopment that has supplanted the old-timers with newcomers–including his challengers in this race. Voters on the South Baltimore peninsula between Middle Branch and the Inner Harbor make up a little more than a third of 10th’s Democrats, and 1,974 more voters are registered there today than in 2003. The downside: Only 625 of them are Democrats. But they vote; average turnout by Democrats voting in these precincts in 2003 was high at 42 percent, compared to 33 percent in the rest of the district.

But if this is the challengers’ political base, and they’re splitting it three ways, they’ll have to look beyond the peninsula for success.

A measure of Reisinger’s support comes from the results of his last election, which he almost lost. It was a similar scenario in 2003, with three challengers. Reisinger won with 39 percent of the vote, but the only precincts where the majority voted for him were in Locust Point, Morrell Park, and South Baltimore. Nicole Pastore-Klein got more than half the votes in Federal Hill and ended up with 36 percent districtwide, while Charlie Metz took 21 percent and a fourth candidate barely made a showing. Thus, the challengers undermined one another by splitting the large anti-incumbent vote and Reisinger kept his council seat by a hair.

Could it happen again?

“Based on Ed’s approach to his campaign,” Hickey responds, “that’s what he thinks is going to happen again. But there is a lot of anti-Ed sentiment, and whoever gets that [voting bloc] wins.”

“I don’t necessarily agree” that a reprise of 2003’s split vote is in the offing, Pruette responds. “People want new ideas and new leadership and they’re tired of the same old promises.”

“Well, sure we’re going to split the vote,” Fair says. “But that’s only because that’s the way math works. I’m going to win because I have a different kind of connection to voters than these other guys.”

Reisinger sees these thirtysomethings as “political opportunists” who are misperceiving a weak incumbent where there is none, and trying vainly to cash in. “I’m not being arrogant,” he explains, “but these are three people who want to run, and they are running from the peninsula. That’s not something I can control. If they want the job, they got to hit the rest of the district.”

All three challengers have some money to spend, but only one has anything like Reisinger’s war chest, which on Aug. 14 carried a balance of $36,600: Pruette, with $29,400, thanks to a national donor base that stretches from Washington to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Hickey’s balance of $9,800 is next in line, and his top donor, with $4,000, is Leonard Bush of Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, better known as “Len the Plumber,” who grew up in Morrell Park. Fair had about $1,200 on hand, just enough to cover outstanding bills. But one of Fair’s most generous donors–Joyce Bauerle, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, who gave $300, compared to the $50 she gave Reisinger last year–carries some clout on the peninsula.

Raising funds to underwrite even a modest campaign can be a Sisyphean task, especially for neophyte challengers like Reisinger’s opponents. It’s not so hard for most incumbents, but Reisinger, as the chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, has it especially easy. The position draws big-money political donors, since legislation developers need passed must be approved by his committee first. (It also helps to have Good Times in the family; the bar contributed $3,100.)

Reisinger’s political fundraising, as with many politicians’ campaigns, can be directly tied to his legislative record. He was sole sponsor of two enacted bills that came through his committee to permit redevelopment of the old Chesapeake Paperboard property in Locust Point, for instance, and his efforts were rewarded with a total of at least $3,950 in campaign donations from the developer, his lawyer, and his family members. Another enacted bill, sole-sponsored by Reisinger and approved by his committee, was to down-zone a Locust Point property on Beason Street from manufacturing to residential use, prompted donations totaling $1,575 from the owner and his lawyers. There are other examples in Reisinger’s record of the same pattern, though there was one notable example, the Harborview development, in which he sided against the developer.

“Any developer who comes to me, I say, `You got to go to the community first, and if they see it as a win-win, then I’ll introduce the bill and I’ll support it,'” Reisinger says, explaining his protocol for handling land-use bills. As for how the same developers often donate to his campaign, he implies that they’re simply in the list of potential donors whom he calls. “I hired Colleen Martin-Lauer as a consultant to do my fundraising,” Reisinger explains. “And she has a book with a number of businesses and individuals that I call, tell them my spiel, and ask for a contribution. It doesn’t mean I carry water for them.”

Fair’s gloves come off when he talks about how Reisinger raises money: “It’s easy to raise money when everyone knows you’re for sale.” Hickey says he doesn’t want to hire a fundraiser–“I don’t want that book to raise money from.”–but acknowledges that if he becomes an incumbent running for re-election, “you may end up writing an article later that says I’m a hypocrite.”

Pruette says Reisinger’s fundraising strategy is “very common, and that’s the power of incumbency. But you have to be careful to represent your constituents and not those who fund our campaign. People have come to expect better than that, and I think that’s part of this race.”

In this race, the three challengers are all trying to slay a giant–Reisinger, the incumbent, who has all the trappings and advantages of longstanding power. If Reisinger wins, then his vote-splitting opponents, despite their intentions, will actually have served as his friends.

Robed and Ready: Sitting judges get elected the easy way

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2002

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of job security in elected office, incumbent politicians spend much time and energy crafting strategies for winning elections. Here’s a nearly foolproof scenario: Run on a well-financed slate of incumbents filing in both parties’ primaries, all but guaranteeing slots on the general-election ballot should a challenger emerge. That’s what Baltimore’s sitting Circuit Court judges do, and it’s worked for a generation now. Voters haven’t sent a new judge to the bench since 1982, when they chose Kenneth Lavon Johnson, now retired.

This time, barring an unforeseen challenge mounted before the July 1 filing deadline, five of the court’s 30 judges are running together in an uncontested race. Four of the candidates–Shirley Watts, John Glynn, Lynn Stewart, and John Miller–were appointed to the Circuit Court by the Gov. Parris Glendening within the last 16 months. The fifth, Clifton Gordy, has held his seat since 1985. Judges serve 15-year terms after running in the first election after their initial appointments.

As of last November’s campaign-finance report (the latest available), the Baltimore City Sitting Judges Committee had spent about $60,000 of roughly $105,000 it has raised for this election. The judges themselves aren’t involved in the committee’s activities, says campaign chairperson H. Mark Stichel, a private attorney. But the committee engages in the standard electoral fare, with a couple of twists: Almost all of its money comes from lawyers who appear before the bench, and the judges themselves don’t usually hit the campaign trail.

It’s a “difficult issue,” Stichel acknowledges of the money ties between the bar and the bench, but he maintains that contributing to the committee rather than directly to a particular judge “creates a buffer” that lessens the obvious conflict. Better yet, says James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, would be some form of public financing for judicial elections.

The current system “impugns the independence of the court and gives the appearance that a verdict can be bought,” Browning says. Public financing would relieve the judges committee from having to raise funds from lawyers, he says, and “would go a long way toward shoring up public confidence” in the way money enters judges races. The change would have to be approved by the state legislature, and there are currently no such proposals pending, Browning says.

The judicial code of conduct limits what judges can say in public, so stumping for office is a dull affair. “It’s really hard to say anything that’s meaningful,” Stichel says. “There’s not much a judge can promise” to do if elected. The judges, he adds, “are not used to campaigning” and are “not comfortable doing it.”

Stichel–noting that he is speaking strictly for himself–says he believes judges shouldn’t be directly elected at all. For example, judges could be appointed to lifetime terms, subject to legislative approval; come up for gubernatorial reappointment at the end of set terms; or subjected to retention elections, in which voters would choose only whether a sitting judge should stay on the bench. But given the current system, the judges have to have someone–in this case, Stichel and committee treasurer Frederick Koontz–to “do the fund-raising and help the judges get over the process of having to run for election,” Stichel says.

Most lawyers and law firms listed in the committee’s campaign-finance report donated from $100 to $500, with a few giving $1,000. “It’s pretty much just lawyers giving,” Stichel says, with the rest coming from people with “pre-existing relationships” with a judge–“personal friends and relatives.” The two biggest contributors to this year’s campaign are Finn Casperson, a New Jersey corporate executive with strong ties to Johns Hopkins University, who gave $4,000, and La-Van Hawkins, a politically active fast-food magnate with significant interests in urban areas, including Baltimore ($3,000).

On the spending side, the committee holds fund-raisers, buys campaign advertising, and sprinkles a selection of politicians and pet causes with contributions. It’s your standard Baltimore campaign effort, right down to using the proper printer: Bromwell Press, a company owned by retiring Baltimore County state Sen. Thomas Bromwell’s cousin.

Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the judges’ approach to elections, though, is the practice of cross-filing–running in both parties’ primaries. “The theory is that the judges are not supposed to be partisan,” Stichel explains, so they participate in both elections rather than choose one party or the other. There also is a practical element to the strategy, he says: “It’s an insurance policy to get all of the sitting judges to the general election.” If they lose in one party’s primary, they can still win the other’s and make the November ballot.

While the sitting judges usually ease quietly to re-election, an element of public critique occasionally creeps into the process. In 1998, city prosecutor Page Croyder entered the race at the last minute and lambasted the judges’ slate, saying not all of the nine jurists running together deserved another term on the bench. Croyder lost, extending a now-20-year drought for challengers seeking to oust Baltimore judges at the polls. But Stichel says that historically the periodic challenges have helped create a more racially diverse judiciary.

“There’s no question about it, judicial elections are good” for diversifying the bench, says Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and 1998 candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court and the son and brother of African-American attorneys who became judges by challenging the incumbents. (Murphy does note that minority appointments have been stepped up on recent years, adding, “Glendening has been busy.”) Hence the outcry that has kept judicial elections intact through periodic efforts to change the system, the most significant in recent years coming in 1996, when a legislative commission proposed abandoning them.

“If they talk about taking politics out of the judicial process,” Murphy says, “they can kiss my ass.”

The Kid and the Committee: An apt primer

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 27, 2019

Our nine year old yesterday delivered two minutes of testimony before the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee. I, of course, barely held back tears. You can see why here, at 22:25. The packed room erupted in applause when she was done. As a used-to-be reporter who’s attended lots of legislative committee hearings, I assure you that is unusual.

Testifying on behalf of her school was her idea. She didn’t know at the outset that she’d be the one doing it, much less that she’d end up on the governor’s panel, presenting along with Larry Hogan’s senior aide, Keiffer Mitchell Jr. As she read aloud to the committee, including its chair, state Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore City, I recalled that some of the best words she’d written herself. As pride welled up, somehow I kept myself from openly weeping when the two minutes ended.

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(The testimony, as seen by Appropriations Committee member Brooke Lierman, who snapped this photo on her phone and sent it to me.)

I commit this here to posterity because I want to get to it handily as the years go by. Unless I’m wrong, the issue she stepped up for yesterday – asking for state money to cover facilities costs that public charter schools, like hers, currently pay for with privately raised funds that could be used instead for instruction – is but her first. It strikes me that organizing for fair public school funding while you’re still a student is an apt primer for facing the many changes awaiting her generation. 

Out of Storage: Lifestyles of the lowly bankrupt bureaucrats

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 7, 2019

When the Feds came down on the Baltimore-based Rice Organization in 2005, the politically connected violent drug-dealing enterprise had been operating largely with impunity for about a decade. As the facts unfolded in drips and drabs with successive court filings in the hotly contested RICO case that ensued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, and real-life parallels to themes in the then-running HBO series The Wire became apparent, I took notes.

There was George Butler, already a star on the streets for his appearances in the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD. There was actress Jada Pinkett Smith, co-owning an East Baltimore property with Rice Organization co-conspirator Chet Pajardo. There was the backstory on the multiple stabbing that had occurred during Kevin Liles’ birthday bash at Hammerjacks nightclub in 2002. There was Robert Simels, the bigshot NYC attorney who kept showing up in connection with players I was writing about, and who ended up going to prison himself, for witness-tampering in connection with a Guyanese death-squad drug-dealer he was defending. There was Eric Clash, cooperating with the government and living to tell about it. The story just kept on giving, and kept on connecting to other matters I was pursuing.

So when I picked up some old investigative records of mine from storage earlier today, the name “Raeshio Rice” popped up off the page. Back in the day, I’d poured over bankruptcy filings that I’d connected, through various other public records, to Rice Organization players. People go bankrupt for any number of reasons, but sometimes when a crime figure suddenly loses income as the law enforcers close in, people close to them may start to suffer sudden financial hardship.

Brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32 when the indictment came down in 2005, were the leaders of the outfit, and Raeshio’s name appeared in connection with his mother’s 2004 bankruptcy case. Her listed occupation was “program coordinator” for “the City of Baltimore” since 1994, earning less than $50,000 annually. Her 1999 Bentley Arnage had already been repossessed early in 2004, but she still had payments to make on the 1998 Mercedes Benz E320 station wagon that was titled in Raeshio Rice’s name.

Another 2004 bankruptcy case tied via public records to the Rice Organization featured a woman who’d worked for 29 years as a case worker for the Maryland Department of Social Services, earning a little over $35,000 a year. Among her assets: times shares in Massanutten Resort in Virginia and St. Martin Island in the Caribbean.

A Bentley and vacations at the Friendly Island – not bad for a couple of low-level civil servants.

Star-Crossed: Property co-owned by Jada Pinkett Smith tied to alleged Baltimore drug conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 16, 2005

A Feb. 2 indictment of 13 men who federal prosecutors say are involved in a violent Baltimore drug conspiracy called the “Rice Organization” seeks forfeiture of co-conspirators’ assets—including an East Baltimore property that state records show is co-owned by actress Jada Pinkett Smith. The property, 1538 N. Caroline St., is a three-story corner building on a 1,440-square-foot lot in the heart of Oliver, a neighborhood long ravaged by the illegal-drug economy. The indictment does not mention what role the property played in the alleged conspiracy, only that the government would seek “all of the right, title and interest of Chet Pajardo, the defendant, in the real property and appurtenances” there.

The $22,000 purchase of the house by Pinkett Smith (listed as “Jada K. Pinkett” in the property records; her middle name is Keran) and Chet Pajardo, a 36-year-old Owings Mills man named as a defendant in the case, was recorded with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation on Nov. 17, 1994. At the time, Pinkett Smith was 23, had already appeared in her feature-film debut, Menace II Society, and was on theater screens co-starring with Keenan Ivory Wayans in A Low Down Dirty Shame. Less than three years later, in 1997, she married fellow actor Will Smith in a ceremony at the Cloisters in Baltimore County.

Ken Hertz, senior partner of the Beverly Hills, Calif., law firm Goldring, Hertz, and Lichtenstein, who represents Pinkett Smith, told City Paper on Feb. 10 that the actress, who grew up in Baltimore and was living here in 1994, met Pajardo about 10 years ago, when Pajardo was working for United Parcel Service. “He was an acquaintance,” Hertz says, explaining that Pinkett Smith split the down payment with Pajardo and has been paying her share of the monthly mortgage payments ever since. She’s had no contact with Pajardo in many years, Hertz contends, and she’d forgotten she owned the building because her accountant made the monthly payments.

Despite the neighborhood’s plight—two blocks away in 2003, for example, all seven members of the Dawson family were burned to death in their home by one of the drug dealers they’d been trying to run off—Hertz says Pinkett Smith’s was “not a dumb investment, because it was so little money.” The Sun reported on Feb. 12 that Hertz also said it was “very important to note that we’ve been assured that she is not a target of the investigation.” (City Paper first reported on its web site that Pajardo and Pinkett Smith co-own the Caroline Street property on Feb 10.)

Pajardo’s defense attorney in the federal conspiracy case, James Gitomer, told City Paper that “I don’t speak to reporters about my clients” when asked if he would be willing to answer some questions about Pajardo.

Members of the Rice Organization, according to the federal indictment, are charged with murders in connection with a drug-trafficking conspiracy that yielded at least $27 million since 1995. Prosecutors allege the group has brought at least 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to the streets of Baltimore. Chet Pajardo faces one conspiracy count, though the details of his alleged crimes are not given.

One Rice member appears in the locally produced Stop Fucking Snitching DVD that drew widespread attention late last fall as an unusual example of witness intimidation doubling as entertainment. Another of those indicted as an ostensible part of the Rice Organization, Anthony B. Leonard, co-owned the former Antique Row restaurant Downtown Southern Blues, which was housed in a North Howard Street property owned by the family of Kenneth Antonio Jackson. Jackson is a strip-club owner and an ex-con who, in the 1980s, became famous as a top lieutenant for the heroin-trafficking organization of Melvin Williams, a major figure in Baltimore’s drug underworld of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Pajardo has a noteworthy connection to city politics. On Sept. 8, 2003, he gave $200 to the re-election campaign of city Comptroller Joan Pratt (D) at a fund raiser catered by Downtown Southern Blues; the event brought in a total of $11,500. Four days later, on Sept. 12, 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary. Pratt also donated to Williams’ upstart campaign, giving $1,500 of the $22,500 it raised. Pratt did not respond to requests for comment by press time; attempts to reach Williams were unsuccessful.

During a Feb. 9 visit to the Caroline Street property co-owned by Pajardo and Pinkett Smith, the building was boarded up but had a fresh coat of paint on the entrance. It appeared structurally sound and well-maintained, though its property-tax assessment dropped from $14,100 to $3,000 this year, according to state records. A pay phone was attached to its outside wall. When a photographer visited the building the next day, a woman driving by in a car shouted out, “Is that Jada’s place?” On another Feb. 10 visit, an unidentified man was seen locking up and leaving the property.

Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals records indicate that Everton Allen applied in April 2003 to use a portion of the building as a grocery store, though housing records indicate that the property has been vacant since 2000. A phone number could not be found for Allen at the Randallstown address given in his application.

The previous zoning application for the Caroline Street property was filed in 1996 by Brian E. Macklin, who wanted to open a convenience store at the site. A Polaroid of the building contained in the zoning file shows a Pepsi-Cola sign hanging over the entrance that reads andy’s grocery. A copy of Macklin’s application was sent by the zoning board to “C&J Inc., c/o Chet Pajardo,” and the file notes that in 1993 Pajardo and Jay Anderson pulled an occupancy permit for the address. Court records indicate that Macklin’s current address is on Kentbury Court in the Lyonswood subdivision of Owings Mills, the same small cul-de-sac as another Pajardo property that is under federal forfeiture as part of the Rice Organization indictment. The listed phone number for Macklin’s home-improvement company, Sorgen LLC, is disconnected, and no other contact information for him could be found.

An internet search of the Caroline Street address turns up the name of a business, Peaceful Image Inc., located there. Its corporate charter was forfeited for failure to file tax returns for 1998, according to state records, and it was incorporated by Pajardo on Aug. 15, 1995, “to engage in the business of retailing, wholesaling, manufacturing, and distributing clothing and accessories.” The founding board members were Pajardo, Leon Dickerson, and Michelle Narrington. A year earlier, on Aug. 3, 1994, these three and another individual, Condessa Tucker, registered Peaceful Image as a trade name, and stated its business as “silkscreen, embroidery, T-shirts, and hats.” The company’s principal office was in a building Pajardo owned between 1992 and 2000, on the 1000 block of West 43rd Street in Medfield.

Leon R. Dickerson was identified on the Peaceful Image trade-name application as Leon Dickerson III. An obituary for Leon R. Dickerson III was published in The Sun on Dec. 21, 2001, after he was killed in a stabbing. He was 31 years old and described as a social worker and basketball coach who worked with students struggling with learning disabilities and emotional challenges. According to Baltimore County Police records, Dickerson, who was married, was killed in a lovers’ triangle when the estranged husband of his girlfriend entered her Cockeysville apartment and stabbed both of them; only Dickerson died from his wounds. Dickerson’s parents are neighbors of Pajardo and Macklin in the Owings Mills subdivision of Lyonswood.

When Pajardo and Pinkett Smith purchased the Caroline Street property in 1994, the address given for property-tax mailings was in the 2300 block of North Monroe Street in West Baltimore. The owner, then and now, is listed as Wahseeola C. Pajardo. City Paper’s attempts to reach her at her listed phone number were unsuccessful.

 

The Maryland GOP on Pot: Free State Republicans have been warming to marijuana reform, but support for legalization so far remains a pipe dream

By Van Smith

Published April 20, 2015 in City Paper

While 2014 was a watershed year in the annals of liberalizing Maryland’s pot laws, ringing in decriminalization and revamped medical-marijuana laws, 2003 was a big one, too.

That’s when then-governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, signed into law a bill meant to protect medical-marijuana users from serious criminal penalties for possession. Ehrlich wholeheartedly supported the measure, even though only 35 percent of his party’s legislators gave it the thumbs up, according to voting records. When the med-pot laws were reformed last year, though, the Maryland GOP’s evolution on the issue was shown to be a sea change: 75 percent of them voted for it.

“They’ve come a long way since 2000, when I first sponsored the medical-marijuana bill,” says Donald Murphy, a former Republican state delegate who represented parts of Baltimore and Howard counties from 1995 to 2003 and now works as a federal-policies analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national group looking to liberalize pot laws.

The nation’s views on pot have shifted significantly too since Murphy first proposed medical-marijuana liberalization in Maryland. In 2000, according to long-term polling by Gallup, 64 percent opposed legalizing marijuana use, 31 percent supported it, and 5 percent had no opinion. In 2014, it was 51 percent to 47 percent in favor, with 2 percent having no opinion. The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, found support for legalization jumped quickly this decade, from 41 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2014. Legalization is popular in Maryland–a majority support it, according to the Goucher Poll, which also found that Marylanders think tobacco, alcohol, and sugar pose more serious health risks than pot.

These changes pose a conundrum for Republicans, who “tend to be conflicted between their desire for small government and their support for law and order,” explains Murphy. “But they are beginning to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a failure, a significant waste of resources, and more and more have to face the hypocrisy of their own prior drug use. There are few who will take the lead in drug-policy reform, but just as few who support the status quo.”

Among conservatives looking for ways the GOP can gain a toehold on the winning side of culture wars, marijuana is a hot topic–so hot that activists are looking to make it an issue that can help separate the wheat from the chaff in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, according to Brookings Institution fellow John Hudak’s analysis of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., which drew about 3,000 attendees. When polled on the question of legalization, 41 percent of CPACers said they support it, while another 21 percent said they want it legally available for medical purposes only. Marijuana policy “made its way into speeches and Q&A sessions not as a tongue-in-cheek, light moment,” Hudak wrote, “but as one of many serious policies of interest to the CPAC crowd.”

The shifting conservative landscape on pot laws is significant to Maryland because, for this year and the next three years (and possibly the next seven), any pot-liberalizing bills the Democrat-controlled legislature may pass–legalization being the Holy Grail–will need the signature of new Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose upset victory last fall in this heavily Democratic state wowed the nation. In 2018, presumably he’ll run for re-election with all the benefits of incumbency. While Hogan’s position on weed appears unequivocal–”I’m opposed to full legalization of marijuana,” he wrote in the Sun’s Voter Guide last fall–he’s left himself some wiggle room by sounding alarm bells about how prohibition is enforced: It “seems unjust,” he wrote, to imprison people “for a very small amount of marijuana, destroying their chances of employment, and exposing them to violent offenders.”

A majority of Republicans in the Maryland Senate, meanwhile, have shown themselves to have open minds on the pot issue. Seven of 12 GOP senators voted for decriminalization last year. While this surely had little bearing on the GOP’s gains in last fall’s elections–two seats were picked up in the Senate, and seven in the House–this pro-decriminalization crowd is moving up in the world of Republican politics in Maryland.

Only two of the seven pro-decriminalization GOP senators remain in the Senate, but of those who left, two are county executives–Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Barry Glassman of Harford County–and two joined the Hogan administration: David Brinkley is the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, and Christopher Shank is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Of the GOP’s two pro-decriminalization senators still sitting, one–J.B. Jennings (District 7, Harford and Cecil)–is the chamber’s minority leader and has announced he’ll run for U.S. Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District), should Harris run to take the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

On the House side, on the other hand, almost all Republicans were loathe to support decriminalization last year. Only three of the 43 GOP delegates voted for it: Michael Smigiel (District 36, Caroline, Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s), Robert Costa (District 33B, Anne Arundel), and Herb McMillan (District 30, Anne Arundel). Costa retired, McMillan is now chief deputy minority whip, and Smigiel lost a close race in last year’s primary–but recently announced he’s back in the game, planning to run in 2016 against Harris, in part because of Harris’ much-publicized, unsuccessful effort last year to derail Washington, D.C.’s pot-legalization law.

Thus, among this year’s roster of 64 GOP senators and delegates, only three who voted for decriminalization–Jennings, McMillan, and Sen. Edward Reilly (District 33, Anne Arundel)–still sit in the legislature. But voting in the recently ended General Assembly session shows that room still remains in the Maryland GOP’s tent for pot liberalization-and it’s coming in part from newly elected legislators.

A bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia passed this session, and while only one Republican voted in favor of the Senate version–Justin Ready (District 5, Carroll)–among House GOP members it fared surprisingly well. Seven voted for it: Carl Anderton (District 38B, Wicomico), Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C, Wicomico and Worcester), Robert Flanagan (District 9B, Howard), Robin Grammer (District 6, Baltimore County), McMillan, Christian Miele (District 8, Baltimore County), and Chris West (District 42B, Baltimore County). In a sign that last fall’s elections may be prompting a slight shift in House Republicans’ heretofore rigid anti-pot mindset, five of them–Anderton, Carozza, Grammer, Miele, and West–are newly elected.

West voted to decriminalize pot paraphernalia because, he says, “so long as someone can’t be put in jail for possessing marijuana itself, it makes no sense to have laws on the books” that make possessing pot-smoking paraphernalia like rolling papers or a pipe a criminal offense. However, he stresses, “I’m against totally legalizing marijuana until at least two things happen.” First, he says he would need to be shown that marijuana “does not permanently damage your brain.” Second, he continues, “there needs to be a way to deal with people driving under the influence of marijuana,” since there’s “no way” right now to determine whether a driver is high without “drawing blood,” and, “I don’t think people would permit state troopers to pull out a syringe and take their blood, or be detained for hours so a they can prepare a warrant for a doctor to draw blood.”

Hogan and Shank declined to offer insights into their current views of the changing marijuana-law landscape. Asked to comment on the findings of City Paper’s analysis of how GOP legislators’ voting patterns on pot-reform measures have been changing, and how lifting prohibition fits in with conservative values, both demurred through their communications directors. Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, confirmed that Hogan’s campaign position on the issue–that he’s anti-legalization but concerned about the social costs of penalties for possessing small amounts—remains unchanged. Both Montgomery’s and Shank’s communications manager, Patty Mochel, said the men would be happy to discuss the issue once Hogan decides whether or not he’ll sign the pot-paraphernalia bill.

Among GOP legislators, meanwhile, legalization appears to remain anathema. Typical sentiments are those voiced by state Del. Kathy Afzali (District 4, Frederick and Carroll), who’s on the record as “adamantly opposed to the legalization of any drugs,” and Ready, who’s stated that “while I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of decriminalization, if we legalize it, we say to children and young adults that it’s OK to smoke marijuana.” But some have left room to shift their stances. Grammer told the Dundalk Eagle that he’s opposed to legalization, though he’s “not going to commit without seeing a bill.” Newly elected state Del. Haven Shoemaker (District 5, Carroll), meanwhile, told the Carroll County Times last fall that “I oppose marijuana legalization at this time until we have had a chance to see the effects of legalization in states like Colorado.”

Murphy of the MPP, when told of Shoemaker’s statement, remarked that “if you can talk about this in red-meat conservative Carroll County, then you can talk about it anywhere.” Still, Murphy does not see legalization coming to Maryland any time soon. He says that the newly minted decriminalization law and the just-reformed med-pot laws in Maryland “slow the process down,” because legislators want to “watch and see what happens” as the fresh changes are rolled out, just as they want to “see what happens with legalization in other states.”

“I understand the delay on this,” Murphy says of Maryland’s currently cool reception to the prospect of legalization. “It took us 15 years to get to medical marijuana, so I don’t expect that recreational will happen overnight,” he says, “but it’s more a matter of when than if. Legislators are getting in the way of the people on this, and it’s only a matter of time before they wise up. I suspect they’ve wised up already but are afraid to act on it, and Colorado gives them an excuse to wait.”