Firearms Fiasco: Baltimore County police return seized guns as owner’s lawsuit exposes cops’ missteps

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 27, 2013

After two and a half years of fighting a lawsuit against Baltimore County police, gun collector David Bord’s pursuit of justice appears poised to bear fruit. Nearly all of the $250,000 worth of historic firearms, mostly machine guns, seized from him in a December 2009 raid on his home and business, were returned to him in December 2012. What remains to be determined is the how much damage his collection suffered during the three years they weren’t in his possession—and how badly law enforcers behaved in claiming a legal right to seize them in the first place.

“We’re going to do Baltimore like Fast and Furious,” says Bord, referring to the scandalous Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) operation that allowed illegally purchased firearms to continue in circulation, “but it’s going to be The Fast and the Stupid, because that’s how they handled this.”

“We are absolutely on the warpath,” adds Bord’s wife, Robin Bord. “How dare they do this to my family?”

The lawsuit (“Gun Trouble,” Mobtown Beat, June 6, 2012) claims that detective Erik Socha and Cpl. Anthony Kidwell led raids on the Bords’ home and auto-repair business that were based on a bad warrant “in order to intimidate” David Bord and cause him “economic injury.” The operations also were undertaken “for gratuitous sport rather than for proper law-enforcement purposes,” according to court documents, and Socha and Kidwell, when presented with all the proper firearms paperwork after the raids, said “save it for court,” that the paperwork was “wrong” or “bull***t,” and “words to the effect” that David Bord “would never get his property back.”

Now that the guns have been returned, a trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court before Judge H. Patrick Stringer Jr. seeks to determine the value of the damages the weapons suffered between the time they were seized and returned, as well as establish the costs borne by Bord for bringing the lawsuit and for legal representation while he was unsuccessfully prosecuted for gun crimes, according to statements made during the proceeding by William Butler, David Bord’s attorney. The trial so far has spanned three days, from March 19 through March 21, and is scheduled to resume on April 29.

The delay, says David Bord, is due to the sudden emergence of photographs of the guns as they were being seized, the existence of which he says Baltimore County previously had denied. Once the photographs have been properly analyzed, he explains, the trial will resume with better evidence to determine how badly the firearms were damaged during the three years they were gone.

While David Bord awaits Stringer’s determination of how much money Baltimore County should pay him, he can already enjoy some level of satisfaction from testimony about the cops’ missteps during the firearms seizure and its fallout. “Money is not my overriding issue,” he says, adding that Socha “spilled his guts” while testifying.

“He admitted on the stand that he has tire tracks on his back from being pushed under the bus” to take the fall after the ill-advised raids, which were based on a warrant in which Socha swore to having machine-gun expertise, yet “he never knew anything about machine guns,” David Bord says. “He signed his name on the warrant,” Bord continues, “and they knew it was all bad, and now they left him out to dry. By his own admission, he’s probably going to have to go get a new job.”

The county attorney handling the trial, Shawn Vinson, declined to comment, saying “the case is still ongoing,” while Butler was unavailable for comment before press time.

At the beginning of the trial, on March 19, Vinson told Stringer that “Baltimore County acknowledges that the plaintiff is entitled to possession” of the seized machine guns, but asserted there was “no admissible evidence” that they were damaged while in the county’s hands, pointing out that the seized collection also spent time with the ATF before they were returned. Butler, meanwhile, said the “wrongful taking and detention” of the collection, which was “mistreated” by law enforcers, means Bord “needs to be compensated.”

The collection’s seizure was the result of an ATF tip that Bord had a Hatton Industries machine gun he’d purchased at the Armory, a gun store in Annapolis, that agents thought was part of an allegedly fraudulent gun-registration ring based in Arizona that “harvested” serial numbers from older machine guns not covered by a federal ban, and welded them onto new guns they manufactured and then sold as pre-ban guns (“Blunderbusted,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 5, 2010). The Arizona case ended in December jury convictions for the two defendants—including Marylander Randolph Rodman—who hadn’t previously pleaded guilty.

Down for the Undercount: Baltimore’s homeless count is a fluke this year

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 2, 2013

Given the long-struggling state of the economy and the society’s shrinking social safety net, the suggestion that Baltimore City’s homeless population is in rapid decline may seem like a pipe dream. But here are the latest figures, according to Baltimore City’s recently released report on its biennial homeless count, conducted on Jan. 27: 35 percent fewer people were sleeping in homeless shelters or outdoors this year than in 2011. The tally’s steep drop is in stark contrast to the 2011 count, which found a 20 percent rise—and 50 percent increase in homeless youth—over 2009.

In reality, though, the report—which was released quietly, posted on a city website without announcement or press release—undercuts its own numbers by asserting that the extent of homelessness in Baltimore has likely remained static in recent years.

The report, entitled the “2013 Homeless Point in Time Count Report” and released by the Homeless Services Program of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, explains that an effort this year to account for inaccuracies in prior tallies due to inconsistent methodologies “suggests that the total count of homeless persons in Baltimore did not undergo large changes during the period from 2007 to 2013.”

Thus, though “there were 2,638 homeless persons identified during the count, a 35 [percent] decrease from 2011,” when 4,088 homeless people were counted, the number “does not precisely reflect the actual number of homeless persons in the City” because the “methodology [used] in Baltimore is imperfect and has varied across the years,” the report states.

As Health Care for the Homeless’ executive director Kevin Lindamood quips, “rumors of the demise of homelessness have been greatly exaggerated,” adding that the report was released to the public “very silently.”

Lindamood says “the city this year is pressing the reset button” on how it conducts its point-in-time (PIT) homeless count, and “I applaud the direction,” with “its intent to improve the methodology.” He worries, though, that “some people use the number from the PIT count as the data point measuring homelessness,” even though “it is an incomplete measure if we are going to look at the broader issues of homelessness.”

In September, for instance, USA Today ran a story under the headline, “Homeless population dips,” reporting on numbers released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which uses federally required PIT counts from around the country to track trends in the nation’s homeless population—and found it has dropped 17 percent since 2005.

Lindamood, though, says his experience working with Baltimore’s homeless population belies the downward trend, because he has watched the demographics of his group’s clientele change over the last 20 years in ways that suggest more people, not less, are without a stable place to live.

“Twenty years ago,” Lindamood says, “85 percent of our clients were single adult men between the ages of 25 and 44. This year, 35 percent were women, and in the past five or six years, we’ve been seeing more intact families and children. As safety nets have been eroding, we start to see other populations—children and families and even seniors—who we used to be able to find housing for but now are on the streets in greater numbers.”

Homeless advocates say counting homeless young people is a particularly challenging task, and in prior years the city’s PIT-count report was accompanied by a parallel study conducted by the Center for Adolescent Health (CAH) at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Rather than seeking to count homeless youth on a single night, the center worked with service providers over a period of weeks to try to gain a firmer grasp of the population—and its data showed this population had increased 135 percent between 2007 and 2011. No such study was conducted this year, though, according to the center’s lead investigator for its 2011 study, Nan Astone, who left for another job in May—after the parallel study would have been done.

This year’s PIT count does, however, try to account for homeless people under 25 years old. It identified “2,030 who self-reported (or whose parents self-reported) to a service provider or to the school system that they were homeless or unstably housed during or at some point prior to the PIT Count,” the report states. However, most of them were not included in the official tally because of incomplete records about their housing status. In the end, the count included 555 young people, 431 of them under 18 years old, and six of those unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. They comprised 20 percent of all the homeless people counted.

Astone, in an email to City Paper, was astounded that only six unaccompanied homeless children were counted, asking, “Are they kidding?” In 2011, the CAH study found more than 200 unaccompanied homeless youth under the age of 18, almost a third of the 640 young people it found between 13 and 25 were homeless in Baltimore.

Lara Law, program director for Youth Empowered Society, a safe haven in Charles Village for homeless youngsters that opened in 2012 and, according to Law, has since served 140 people who are 25 or younger, calls the report “a dismal undercount of homeless adolescents and young adults,” who number “in the hundreds, if not thousands” at “any given time in Baltimore.”

A telltale gauge of how undercounted children were in this year’s homeless tally is the number of students enrolled in Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) that the system identified as homeless: 2,716 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to its official enrollment data. That’s 78 more homeless people than the PIT count found in the entire city this year. The discrepancy arises due to differences in how homelessness is defined. The PIT count’s definition of homelessness—those sleeping in shelters or outside—is more restrictive than the school system’s definition, which includes all students who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate night-time place of residence,” according the BCPS website.

Despite advocates’ concerns about undercounting, the report says “the 2013 PIT Count is the most comprehensive to date,” is “more useful for planning and policy decisions” than past efforts, and has helped identify “the most vulnerable homeless individuals and families in the City in order to connect them with housing and supportive services.” In the future, the report states, the city’s PIT counts will seek to maintain “consistency in the counting methodology” while improving “the thoroughness and accuracy of the count.”

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Accused officer allegedly facilitated drug dealing on same days she busted people with drugs

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 12, 2013

Since the mid-2000s, when Baltimore police officers William King and Antonio Murray were busted for robbing drug dealers and received combined sentences totaling hundreds of years, the string of corruption scandals involving the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has been notable for its persistence.

Since 2005, prosecutors have brought cases against BPD law enforcers for rape, murder, theft, gambling, fraud, stalking, lying, obstructing justice, extortion, drug dealing, assault, and prostitution. And the cases keep coming—the latest was unsealed on May 31 against Ashley Roane, a BPD officer accused in a gun, drugs, and fraud case investigated by the FBI (the News Hole, May 31).

Sometimes the crimes were committed while on duty, other times not, but all point to a powerfully intriguing characteristic of corrupt cops: their split personalities, manifesting the human capacity for both good and evil that all people share yet few exhibit to such a trust-busting extreme. Though sworn to uphold the law—which they did on a daily basis—they also broke it, sometimes in shockingly egregious ways, perhaps due to a sense of impunity borne of being an armed badge-holder.

In Roane’s case, her alleged criminal conduct, the evidence of which spanned several months, occurred on two days when she also busted alleged lawbreakers. The proximity in time of her law-enforcing and alleged lawbreaking activities brings the duplicitous nature of police corruption into stark contrast.

Though the accusations against Roane are fresh and unproven, the evidence is weighty, based on the FBI’s observations of her conduct and interactions with what court documents call a “Confidential Human Source” (CHS) who she first approached, but who thereafter conspired with her under the FBI’s watchful eye. She thought the CHS was a high-level drug dealer with a job as a tax preparer and she allegedly offered to provide protection for his supply-side drug transactions while also getting him names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers from law enforcement databases which she thought he would use to file fraudulent tax returns.

On the afternoon of April 24, Roane was on the job, patrolling the 500 block of South Catherine Street—an area of the Mill Hill neighborhood known for drug activity—with another officer, Richard Pinheiro, when she noticed a woman, 33-year-old Sariah Parker, enter the yard of a vacant house that had previously been the target of burglaries.

When the two officers got out of their patrol car and entered the yard, court documents say, they heard voices coming from inside the house, so Pinheiro knocked on the back door. A man—48-year-old John Toomer—opened the door and said he lived there, and while the officers waited for him to produce verification, they saw Parker and another man, 24-year-old Ricky Warren, standing around the kitchen table. After admitting he couldn’t prove he lived there, Toomer took two gelatin capsules out of his pocket and put them on the kitchen table, and all three people were placed in custody.

In a subsequent search, Roane and Pinheiro recovered from the suspects two sandwich bags of pot, a pill container with six ziplock bags of crack, 10 gelatin capsules of heroin, and a folded-up piece of paper containing heroin, according to court records. All three have criminal convictions in their past—including an armed-robbery conspiracy for Parker—and Warren has since been charged in two separate Baltimore City circuit court cases involving drugs and weapons charges. On the day before the federal charges against Roane were made public, though, state prosecutors declined to proceed with the case against Parker, Toomer, and Warren.

The same day Roane and Pinheiro arrested the three drug suspects, the FBI says Roane called and texted the CHS to arrange payment for having previously provided the CHS with the identification information of 10 people so that fraudulent tax returns could be prepared in their names. The payment occurred later that day, in front of Roane’s Pikesville house while Roane wore a tan bandana and a white T-shirt, according to court documents.

“Roane expressed her displeasure at only receiving $1,500,” court documents state, since “she thought she would have received $3,000,” but she stated that “she was preparing for next tax season and wanted to provide CHS with the names earlier in the tax season.” The money, she said, would be used “to pay her traffic tickets.” When the CHS said he would soon need her protection during a drug meeting in the upcoming week, Roane said “she was still working evenings next week and would be able to assist CHS during the meeting.”

On the day of the meeting, April 30, the CHS called Roane to explain the details—to look for a certain brown Ford Explorer in the parking lot of the Westside Shopping Center and that the CHS “would pay her for her assistance,” according to court documents. Roane texted back: “Ok sound good.”

When the time came, Roane called the CHS to say she saw the Explorer—in which agents had placed “a blue backpack containing a brick-shaped package of white powder wrapped in tan tape which resembled a kilogram of heroin,” according to court documents—and then she drove a patrol car, with another woman in plain clothes and a yellow baseball cap in the passenger seat, and parked behind the Explorer. The CHS then drove up, took the backpack out of the Explorer, and drove away, as did Roane and her passenger.

Minutes later, Roane, now alone and in a different patrol car but still in uniform and carrying her holstered service firearm, met the CHS in the 400 block of South Longwood Street. There, according to court records, she “hugged” the CHS, “acknowledged that she saw CHS retrieve the bag,” and received $500 in payment for her services.

Later, according to court records, the CHS texted Roane: “Wassup lady dat my bag was real good it’s was a fucking whole boy for 60K thanks boo the time hope u can start helping me more and I will bless ur pocket So we cool.” Roane texted back: “awesome…. Yup.”

Also on April 30, Roane and Pinheiro were again patrolling the 500 block of South Catherine Street, which is right next to the Westside Shopping Center parking lot where she’d provided protection for the CHS. As they were driving in the patrol car, they noticed a man who, when he noticed them, quickly stepped out of their view into the yard of a vacant property.

Roane and Pinheiro got out of their patrol car, approached the man, 61-year-old Richard Floyd, and eventually found he had a baggy of suspected crack and a gelatin capsule of suspected heroin in a small container attached to his key ring. Floyd—whose record of petty, drug-related criminal charges in Baltimore City stretches back nearly 20 years and suggests he has long struggled with substance-abuse problems—was once again charged with drug possession. He’s scheduled for trial in August.

Thus, if the charges Roane is facing are proven true, on April 30 she thought she was using her police powers to facilitate the distribution of addictive drugs in Baltimore. And on that very day—and in nearly the same location—Roane’s routine policing handed Floyd yet another entry on his ever-growing rap sheet that appears to have resulted largely from the distribution of addictive drugs in Baltimore. That would be a perverse and cynical twist on the “good cop/bad cop” routine.

Arrested Development: Police lied for Baltimore raid warrant to arrest innocent man, lawsuit claims

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 13, 2013

Close to midnight on Jan. 16, a SWAT team used a battering ram to break down the front door of 4823 Aberdeen Avenue, a rowhouse near Herring Run in Frankford. Inside, they found their man: 19-year-old Kyle Brandon Wills, a suspect in two armed robberies in Howard and Baltimore counties. After two days in jail, Wills made bail in Howard County, but was immediately arrested by Baltimore County police and spent another day locked up there.

Turns out, though, it was the wrong man. What’s more, in order to convince a judge to sign the raid warrant leading to Wills’ arrest, the detectives on the case—Mark Claypoole of Baltimore County and Wade Zufall of Howard County—falsely claimed Wills had recently been arrested with the other suspect in the armed robberies, according to a lawsuit filed Nov. 6 in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

After prosecutors in Howard and Baltimore counties learned of “the terrible mistake that had been made,” the lawsuit explains, the charges against Wills were dropped and another man—Wills’ cousin, Stanley Berry—was charged instead. But the damage wrought by the raid and Wills’ detentions, all based on the detectives’ allegedly false claim, had already been wrought: three days in jail, two strip searches, a required medical intravenous injection, emotional trauma, still-ongoing monthly payments to pay back the bail money, and an arrest record for serious charges in two jurisdictions.

As a result, Wills, his mother, Vickie Wills, and brother Calvin Clifton—the three people present when the SWAT team came through their door—are suing Claypoole, Zufall, and their police forces for false arrest, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking $75,000 in compensation and another $75,000 in penalties. Their attorney, Charles Curlett says Wills, a 2012 Patterson High School graduate, is employed at University of Maryland Hospital, helping prepare operating rooms for surgery.

“I don’t see how this could be an honest mistake,” says Curlett, adding that the detectives’ allegedly false claim that Wills had been arrested was the “lynchpin of probable cause” in the affidavit that supported the raid. “I think it is a very strong case.”

Howard County prosecutors declined to pursue the charges against Wills on Feb. 13, and two days later his Baltimore County charges were dismissed. The cases against Berry and Michael Elliott Dickey—the man who was originally charged with Wills—remain intact, though. Both pleaded guilty in their Howard County cases, receiving 10-year sentences with five years suspended, and both are scheduled for trial in their Baltimore County cases.

Howard County initially was proud of the detective work in the case, issuing a press release on Jan. 24 announcing the charges against Dickey and Wills—and repeating the detectives’ false assertion that Wills had previously been arrested with Dickey.

“Wills is a known associate of Dickey’s,” the press release states, “who was recently arrested with Dickey for an unrelated incident in another jurisdiction. Surveillance video in both cases show Dickey and Wills together, each wearing the same clothing in both incidents.”

The details of how Claypoole and Zufall pursued the case are spelled out in the lawsuit. The two-county probe was spawned after two men robbed an Exxon gas station in Columbia by throwing hot coffee on the clerk’s face and then taking cash out of the register while brandishing guns. That was on Jan. 5—three days after the exact same tactics were used by two men in an armed robbery of a Quick Mart in Cockeysville.

Dickey’s fingerprints were found on the coffee cup at the Exxon, and it was soon discovered that he’d been arrested the day after the Quick Mart robbery for petty theft at a Walmart store—and at that time had been accompanied by a man who had not been arrested, but who identified himself as “Kyle Wills.” So Claypoole showed the Wal-Mart security officer Wills’ driver’s license photograph, and the security officer confirmed it was the same man who’d been with Dickey during the theft.

At that point, Claypoole and Zufall wanted to raid Wills’ home and arrest him—“but they had a problem,” the lawsuit explains. In order to get a warrant, they “needed to establish a likelihood that Dickey’s friend from Wal-Mart was also Dickey’s accomplice in the coffee robberies,” yet “nothing had been done to reliably confirm that person’s identity.” The security officer’s confirmation was not sufficient—but an arrest would be, since “his identity would have been established through fingerprinting, and they would have been able to rely on the arrest to tie that person to Dickey,” the lawsuit explains.

Absent an actual arrest, Claypoole and Zufall allegedly made one up. “Rather than admit what they did not know,” the lawsuit states, “they misled the court” with the following information that was stated in the raid-warrant affidavit: “Arrested along with Dickey during the Theft at Wal-Mart was the following individual: KYLE BRANDON WILLS BM 507 150 DOB = 9/18/1993.”

“When I saw the affidavit” for the raid warrant and saw the assertion that Wills had been arrested, Curlett recalls, he looked for it on the online court records and couldn’t find it. “‘Where is it?’” he says he asked himself. “‘Why isn’t it here? It is there for the other guy.’”

Not only was Wills not arrested at the Walmart, he wasn’t even there. But, according to the lawsuit, his cousin Berry—a man who was wanted on several open warrants—was, and told the security guard that he was Wills, who has no prior criminal record.

Based on the detectives’ “perjured testimony,” the lawsuit continues, a no-knock warrant was issued for the Wills home and a SWAT team “broke through the door of the suspect’s Baltimore City home and restrained his family at gunpoint and in handcuffs while they searched the house.”

Given that anyone, including a judge who’s considering signing a warrant, can check online to see if someone’s been charged with a crime, it seems a risky proposition for detectives to lie about such a thing. Curlett speculates that such “hubris may be borne of the unlikelihood that anybody’s going to challenge” the information. “So many cases plead out,” he continues, “the risk of airing dirty laundry like this is slim.”

With the Wills’ lawsuit, though, Claypoole and Zufall have run headlong into that risk.

Party Crasher: Clean-water group’s failed legal effort to help oversee Baltimore’s sewage-repair plan exposes lax enforcement

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 30, 2013

After years of watching state and federal regulators fail to enforce violations of Baltimore City’s 11-year-old agreement to fix its leaking sewer system, Blue Water Baltimore (BWB) this summer “went forward and took action,” says the clean-water group’s executive director, Halle Van der Gaag. But BWB’s bold step—litigating to become an intervening party in the 2002 lawsuit that crafted the “consent decree” that dictates how the city is to spend nearly $1 billion to overhaul its sewers—failed on Oct. 1.

That’s when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz denied BWB’s motion to intervene, leaving intact the existing roster of parties: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the plaintiffs who alleged the city was committing chronic violations of the federal Clean Water Act, and the defendant, Baltimore City, which avoided massive fines and legal costs by accepting the terms of the consent decree—but, as a result, had to send water and wastewater fees on users soaring in order to fund the required upgrades.

The system, though, remains rife with leaks and overflows—a point that BWB drove home in its legal filings, which also exposed seemingly lax enforcement by EPA and MDE for apparent violations of the consent decree.

In one instance, Baltimore City estimated that a sewage overflow on Herring Run last fall amounted to 8,100 gallons—versus the 800,000- to 1,000,000-gallon estimate calculated by BWB volunteer Thayer Young, an environmental engineer who lives nearby the spill and is an expert in tracking sewage contamination. What’s more, the city’s official report of the leak attributed it to wet weather from Superstorm Sandy, but Young observed the leak already occurring before the storm hit Baltimore.

“I believe that the City of Baltimore highly underestimated the flow rate and total sewage overflow volume” of this “sewage overflow incident,” Young concluded in an affidavit attached to BWB’s recent court filings. “Furthermore,” he added,” although Super Storm Sandy clearly exacerbated” the incident, “the overflow actually began at least 12 hours before the storm showed an impact” on the Herring Run’s water levels.

The discrepancy in the estimated amounts of leaked sewage is important not only because of public-health and environmental concerns arising from such a massive release into a Baltimore stream, but because the City of Baltimore, under the consent decree, is required to pay fines based on the amount of sewage it estimates was released. In this case, the city’s estimate was two orders of magnitude lower than Young’s, which was based on meticulous observations and technically proficient calculations based on video recordings and engineering concepts.

Yet, according to David Flores, BWB’s longtime water-quality manager who was recently appointed as Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper—a BWB program that seeks to apply the law to attain cleaner water—“there hasn’t been any enforcement” by MDE or EPA over this incident.

In its legal filings, BWB’s attorneys wrote that the city’s estimate of the amount leaked during the incident is tantamount “to the flow rate from a standard drinking water fountain”—which photos of the leaking sewer give lie to—and that the city “has not provided any correction of its inaccurate volume estimates or any explanation as to how those estimates could be so far off the mark.”

When CP asked the two agencies and the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) about this, EPA and DPW each provided a copy of an 80-page document prepared in May in response to BWB’s numerous concerns about ongoing sewer-related problems under the consent decree. On page nine, the document explains what was done: Last November, an inspection revealed “roots and debris” had clogged the sewer line, so it was cleaned and the manhole was rebuilt.

“It is believed that all of the problems causing previous overflows at this location have been resolved,” the document concludes—without addressing at all the seriously low-balled estimate of the size of the overflow.

“EPA understands that sewage discharges in Baltimore are a serious problem and we have been working with the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore to curtail them,” EPA spokesperson David Sternberg writes in an email to City Paper, adding that “sanitary sewer overflows are being addressed within the context of the 2002 federal consent decree.”

But BWB’s court filings detailed numerous instances of apparent consent-decree violations by the city that appear not to have prompted any regulatory response by EPA or MDE. They included continuous leaks from a sewage structure and large periodic sewage overflows along the Jones Falls near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, a stretch of the river where a heavily used pedestrian and bike path is located; evidence of unreported overflows from the Jones Falls Pumping Station in Hampden; a June 2012 week-long sewage discharge into the harbor, of unknown origin; repeated sewage overflows on South Clinton Street in Canton; and failures to adequately clean up or warn the public of sewage contamination after overflows occur.

The 80-page document that EPA and DPW provided to City Paper addresses most of the issues BWB raised—but it does not indicate that any penalties or other enforcement action was taken by federal and state regulators as a result. It merely explains the problems and how they are being addressed.

After helping to document all of these problems, Flores has been disappointed by the official response. “We documented all the violations that we observed,” he says, and put them “in a written report to EPA and MDE, and rather than investigate and enforce them, they requested a response from Baltimore City, which was inadequate.”

Van der Gaag says she’s “disappointed” and “frustrated” that Motz denied BWB’s attempt to intervene in the consent decree, because having a citizen group at the table would help “ensure accountability” in the sewer-upgrade process. So far, she points out, “hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent with very little outcome that the water quality is getting better.”

The Economy of Scales: A Baltimore lab aims to take the science of growing clean, healthy salt-water fish to the global marketplace

DSC_5967

(Photo by Van Smith)

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 24, 2013

The wood-grilled whole dorado, at $34, is the highest-priced dish on the current menu at Pazo, the casually elegant restaurant in Fells Point in Baltimore. Executive chef Mario Cano Catalan gushes about the restaurant’s specimens of the high-value Mediterranean fish, whose market name is gilthead sea bream, a sparkling silver species with a band of yellowish gleam at its head.

The ones Catalan prepares weigh a pound or a little over, he says, and after scaling and gutting them, he seasons them with crushed oregano and sea salt.

But here’s the catch: Pazo’s sea bream are not caught, nor are they from the Mediterranean. They come from a scientific laboratory in the basement of the Columbus Center downtown.

The operation, called the Aquaculture Research Center (ARC), is overseen by Yonathan Zohar, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). Since about 1998, Zohar has been working to perfect land-based technologies called recirculating aquaculture systems for the clean, green production of marine fish on a commercial scale. Every time his lab completes an experimental batch of tank-grown fish, he needs to move them out to make room for the next round. Thus, for several years now, super-fresh lab-grown sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish have been showing up in some of Baltimore’s finer restaurants.

“Look,” Zohar explains, “we are scientists, we are not in the business of sending 100 fish here, 100 fish there. We have 4,000 fish, which is 2 tons of fish, that we need to get rid of, OK?” Zohar says the lab is “trying very hard to work through some of the seafood distributors,” but “we are having difficulties,” so instead ARC sells them to area restaurants and caterers at wholesale prices-for sea bream, he says that amounts to $5 or $6 per pound. “Pazo, Cinghiale, Woodberry Kitchen, McCormick and Schmick’s use them on and off,” he says. “And, yeah, they love them.”

Thus, according to Tony Foreman, who co-owns five Baltimore-area restaurants, including Pazo and Cinghiale, ARC periodically delivers a “cooler full of flipping fish in the kitchen” to Catalan at Pazo.

As Catalan says, “It’s crazy how fresh that fish is-it’s super-fresh,” adding that sea bream from “the European market is good but not as good as the Columbus Center fish.” Foreman points out that, even if he was to have sea bream flown directly from Europe with the utmost speed, “they’re still going to be three, four, five days out of the water,” rather than the hours involved in getting ARC’s fish from tanks to kitchens.

To top it off, Foreman notes enthusiastically that ARC’s fish “are grown to the size that you want too,” which prompts him to make an analogy: “Imagine a farmer down the street that was growing lambs to exactly the size that you want, fresh-killed after your phone call to him.”

Foreman says ARC’s fish have filled the bill like no other supply. “The first job for us is to find high-quality seafood products on a consistent basis,” he says, “and this fulfills it as well or better than anything else I’ve seen, and we’ve tried just about every exotic source to get great seafood as quickly as we possibly could.”

Zohar has his own reason to be excited about ARC’s work with high-value marine fish: a company, Maryland Sustainable Mariculture (MSM), which formed in 2010 and shortly thereafter obtained a licensing agreement to commercialize ARC’s technology, expects to get up and running soon-though, precisely when remains to be seen. And if MSM starts production and finds success, so too will Zohar’s work.

“Everything that I do all my scientific life for the past 35 years,” Zohar explains, “is in the interface between the basic research and the application-that’s actually the mission of IMET, the emphasis is on research, education, and economic development. And with MSM, the idea is that they’ll grow fish, but then they want to take it globally, because you can cut and paste [the technology] in modules anywhere in the world.”

Thus, while today ARC is supplying some of Baltimore’s finest restaurants with sea bream and sea bass, if all goes well, soon MSM will supply seafood distributors and supermarket chains in the region with the same fish on a consistent basis. And then later, if the anticipated success continues, MSM will sublicense the technology wherever someone wants to grow high-value marine fish species for profit.

“We are doing due diligence with one investor now and are negotiating for space in Baltimore City,” says MSM’s Michael Quinn, a name partner at the Baltimore law firm Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber. “I’m hopeful,” Quinn continues, “that over the next few months we’ll be ready to really nail down the space and start constructing the actual operation” – though he says he’s “too superstitious” to try to pin down a more specific time frame.

Quinn says he and MSM’s David Wolf, a retired executive vice president of the health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, “together with Dr. Zohar, are leading the drive to commercialize” ARC’s technology and are confident that “once you start to sell fish, the operating profit is positive immediately, because there’s a decent profit margin on the price of fish.” But to do so, the operation needs to produce much more fish than Zohar’s lab is growing now.

“At the Columbus Center,” Quinn explains, “they’ve been producing a couple of tons of fish per year, but if you want to do this on a commercial basis, you need to grow a couple hundred tons of fish per year. So our goal for the first production facility is 200 tons, generating about $3 million per year, and then we’ll scale that up to 300 or 400 tons, because you get a lot of economies of scale at the higher production levels.”

Then, Quinn says, MSM wants other aquaculture companies to buy into its license.

“Once we have a commercial production facility in operation,” Quinn explains, “then there will be plenty of interest from third parties to sublicense the technology for other locations, and the great thing about the technology is that you can use it anywhere. You don’t have to be near the ocean; it’s a clean, self-contained system, and you can put it in a warehouse anywhere, with minimal climate control. You could grow this stuff in Nebraska.”

Still, Silverstein says that while MSM’s anticipated 200-tons-per-year operation is “bigger than anything else that’s out there,” it falls far short of the “3,000-tons-a-year scale that is kind of the break point where you get the economies of scale working in your favor.”

Recirculating aquaculture systems such as ARC’s are “very capital-intensive projects, so the upfront outlay is quite large,” Silverstein says, but the scale that MSM is planning on is “a step toward a commercially productive basis that could convince people that they could do 3,000 tons or more a year”-and, he adds, the sublicensing scheme “makes a lot of sense.”

Silverstein stresses as well that “we need all of these aquaculture systems, all sustainable means of production” to meet growing global demand for seafood at a time of when fisheries around the world are being overexploited. So if, “in the middle of Baltimore, they’re producing clean bream and bass for the regional market using that technology, and with a low carbon footprint for shipping,” he concludes, “it seems like a solution worth pursuing.”

The world’s fisheries are in a state of crisis, a problem that has been becoming increasingly clear with each passing year. Even as more fish are captured to feed a growing number of people eating more fish-world population, at about 7 billion today, is predicted to be between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050, while per capita fish consumption has continuously risen, about doubling to almost 20 kilograms since the 1960s – authorities fear the needed production of captured fish may collapse, creating a global food crisis.

As the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization stated in the 2012 edition of its biannual report State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, analyses showing that more than 85 percent of seafood landings are of species that are either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted or recovering “suggest a global system that is overstressed, reducing in biodiversity and in imminent danger of collapse.” Despite these pressures, the system thus far has “been surprisingly resilient in terms of output and food value,” the FAO continued, even though “harvesting has been increasingly inefficient.”

The picture is so bleak that the UN Environmental Programme predicts that by 2050, absent major worldwide reforms, overfishing will have combined with the effects of climate change to cause the collapse of all major commercial fisheries. Meanwhile, fish are contaminated with such toxic levels of mercury – a ubiquitous byproduct of an industrialized society – that, according to a recent study surveying fish samples from across the globe, eating one 6-ounce portion of fish per month exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency human-health guidelines for exposure to the heavy metal.

Aquaculture – growing fish in pens and cages in the sea, in coastal lagoons, or in tanks or ponds on land – has long been the strategy to insure against the depletion of wild stocks. But Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that works to protect and restore the world’s oceans, says the effort has been falling short.

“In order to meet the world’s growing demand for fish,” Spalding explains, “aquaculture, which we now think is where more than 50 percent of fish come from, has to grow at 10 percent per year going forward, but it’s actually growing at 6 percent and decelerating.” And the key question, he says, is “which kinds of aquaculture can best get the job done.” Trying to answer that question is what Zohar’s aquaculture lab does.

Spalding visited ARC in 2011 and found it “quite impressive,” he says, “because they’re really trying to test a whole lot of things all at the same time.” A widely used form of aquaculture called floating net-pens – a very descriptive term, since the fish are grown in large, netted pens floating in coastal or ocean waters – has a “laundry list of problems,” says Spalding. “The fish escape and crossbreed with wild animals, they transfer diseases, they pollute the water with their waste and their feed,” he explains. The tank-based technology that Zohar’s lab has been developing “solves a lot of the things that have always concerned folks” about the practice.

Taking it commercial, Spalding continues, opens “a whole other debate over whether it should be on a smaller scale near a market, so the carbon footprint is very low, or a very large-scale production facility with shipping.”

In the end, Spalding predicts “we are going to continue to see wild-caught fish at the very highest end of the market, like the bluefin tuna, and in subsistence-fishing for poor people all over the world. But if aquaculture can supply the middle – the standard consumer, the restaurants – so that we’re not taking biomass out of the ocean and out of the mouths of poor people and out of the mouths of other predators in the ocean, we maybe can do this right and reduce the number of stressors on the ocean in the process of finding these alternative ways to grow fish.”

In Baltimore, Spalding continues, “the nice thing about Zohar’s facility is it’s very much like a lab operation, where you are really getting data as well as growing fish, and that will allow us to decide how to design this if you do take it commercial. He’s testing the different boundaries of which species will work, and which will not. But until we solve some of these things that he’s working on, aquaculture is not going to save the ocean-but we need it to.”

The global fisheries crisis is a given to Zohar, who, while sitting in his Columbus Center office during a recent visit, started out an interview by saying, “So, you don’t need the introduction of, you know, we are running out of fish and we are overfishing in the wild and the wild stocks cannot really sustain for very long if we continue the same practices and there are many fish that are actually already fished out.” Accepting that there’s a real crisis, he’s instead focused on aquaculture solutions that can help abate the problem-and also correct problems that earlier aquaculture solutions created, such as those Spalding mentioned involving floating net-pens.

“I was part of the early team that developed this aquaculture technology,” Zohar says, referring to the pens, “and the problem is, it has been criticized for not being environmentally responsible.”

First off, the fish waste pollutes the waters where they are raised with dissolved nutrients and solid organic waste, Zohar explains. But “a big, big problem,” he continues, “is when fish escape from the cages and they interbreed with wild stock and displace them, so all of the sudden the wild stocks are not wild anymore; they are replaced by a selectively bred farm animal, and the environment, the whole ecosystem is affected.” Finally, for the fish themselves, the pens create a stressful, unhealthful existence.

“They are exposed to pathogens, to PCBs, to heavy metals,” Zohar says, “and sometimes there are harmful algal blooms around them, and their immune system[s] [are] compromised and they get infected by parasites and diseases. From the fish’s point of view, those systems are not optimal.”

The solution, Zohar says, is that aquaculture needs to be done in closed systems on land with recirculating water – and perfecting that concept has been Zohar’s aim for about the last 15 years. “To be both ecologically responsible and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically feasible in the long term,” he explains, “aquaculture more and more is going to go land-based. And to do that, number one, you need to close the life cycle, with a consistent, year-round, reliable egg supply or juvenile supply” that can be raised to market size-and Zohar’s lab has done just that for a number of high-value marine species, including sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish.

But to be truly sustainable, Zohar says, “our goal was to develop a completely contained recirculating system that is fully bio-secure,” meaning no fish can escape, “and as near zero-waste discharge to the environment as possible. And our system addresses all of those issues: There is no organic waste, no possibility of escape, and the conditions are being kept optimal all the time, because the system is recirculating and completely controlled and monitored to accommodate warm-water species, cold-water species, higher salinities, lower salinities, to allow optimal performances all the time. And there is no disease, no heavy metals, no toxins, no algal blooms. The fish are as clean and green as it can get. And the system is very generic, so we can tailor conditions to accommodate any species of interest by its economical considerations, as opposed to geographical ones. The collection of fish species we have downstairs in the basement, it’s almost like a zoo.”

Zohar is realistic about the challenges his lab’s system faces because of high upfront costs – as Silverstein points out, the high-tech capital costs don’t come cheap. But Zohar – and MSM, which is poised to put real money behind Zohar’s technology – believes it can be overcome because it produces a reliable supply of healthy, high-value fish quickly, so once the batches start reaching the marketplace, the money keeps rolling in, and because some of the operating costs-fish feed and shipping, for instance-are lower than with net-pen facilities.

“There is a lot of argument about economic feasibility,” he explains, because “your initial investment is more. But because the conditions are optimal, we really grow the fish to market size much faster – like in half the time. And the fish are much more efficiently using the feed” because they are in tanks and can eat all the feed they are given, as opposed to the net-pen fish, who eat what they can before much of it sinks beyond their reach. “For the sea bream and sea bass,” he adds, “your only competition when you commercialize it are fish that are being flown in from the Mediterranean, and they are like five to eight days post-harvest by the time they arrive. But our fish are as fresh as you can get. We harvest them, and two or three hours later, they are at the restaurant.”

A critical aspect of the technology, Zohar explains, are the filters the lab has developed that keep the artificial seawater pristine without creating any waste. “We start with city water,” he explains, “and we simulate all of the ingredients of seawater, and then we use microbes in these biofilters, and the water circulates very quickly through the microbes. They use the dissolved waste, mainly ammonia and nitrites and sulfites and all of this kind of thing to live, and they produce free nitrogen, which is what much of air is.” So the nitrogen is simply released into the air.

The solid waste “produces sludge,” Zohar continues, “and freshwater aquaculture operations collect it and use it as a fertilizer on fields, but this is not environmentally sustainable, really, because those nutrients are going to end up in your watershed one way or another. But you can’t do that with our salty sludge. So we use methanogens, these marine microbes that use organic matter and convert it to methane. We optimized this filter for many, many years, and very efficiently they convert 96 percent of our sludge to fuel-grade methane, and then you can fire a Bunsen burner or a methane-driven generator right out of the fish tank. We estimate that 15 percent of the operation’s energy costs can be offset in this way.”

And sure enough, down in the basement laboratory, three Bunsen burners are sparked, burning off the methane. The operation whirs with the sounds of pumps and filters aside a series of tanks that fill much of the 17,000 square-foot laboratory, each ranging from 4 to 18 feet in diameter and 500 to 5,000 gallons in volume. In one of them, a school of sea bream swim in circles. I’m handed four of them that had been harvested earlier that day, to cook later.

“We started with more than 2,000 fish in there,” says Keiko Saito, one of IMET’s scientists, “but we started to harvest them in March, so now there’s about 1,200.”

“You see the water in these tanks,” adds Nick Hammond, IMET’s assistant director. “Well, it was put in here like a year ago, and they haven’t had to add water. So it’s very, very efficient on the water recycling.”

“And look how beautiful the water is,” says Zohar. “And look how beautiful the fish are! You saw the fish we gave you, the eyes-you can’t get any fresher than that.”

I took home the sea bream Zohar gave me and immediately froze them, sacrificing some of the freshness for the convenience of preparing them later. After about a week, I took them to a cabin in West Virginia, scaled and cleaned them, stuffed them with fresh-picked wild raspberries and a lime wedge, and slow-grilled them under tin foil over a smoky outdoor fire.

Four adults and four children marveled at the rich, smoky flavor of their bountiful flesh – Pazo’s Catalan says they are 85 percent meat and 15 percent head and bones. Served with corn on the cob, and carrots and radishes cooked in peanut oil, butter, and balsamic vinegar with a dash of salt, our bellies filled so quickly that we had one sea bream left over, enjoyed cold later.

The fact that we hadn’t just exceeded the health advisory for mercury was a bonus, but one of the guests, after hearing where they came from, called them “frankenfish,” since they’d been grown by scientists in a laboratory.

Foreman, the consummate restaurateur, bristles at this suggestion.

“I’ve had dorado in Corsica, Sicily, Spain, France,” Foreman says indignantly and continues to rattle off a long list of Mediterranean locales where he’s enjoyed fresh sea bream, “and these are as good or better.” He continues by noting that the “great shame of the seafood distribution in the U.S. is that you’re eating week- and two-week-old stuff, half-frozen, chemically treated.” But “the freshness and consistency” of the Columbus Center fish “is amazing. They are not frankenfish, they are the fish.”

MSM’s Quinn, when asked if the “frankenfish factor” could present a marketing hurdle when his fish go commercial, says essentially the same thing as Foreman: “They’re not frankenfish, they’re just fish.” But, he adds, “they are grown in much happier, healthier conditions than the fish you are buying right now. If you could catch them any more in the wild, you would still have heavy metals, and with these you have none of the concerns about toxins, drugs, and health that you do need to worry about when you are buying those fish from the supermarkets that come from the net-pens. They’re just fish, like any other fish, but better.”

Overcoming the potential for consumers to think of these fish as something unnatural “is primarily an education problem,” Quinn continues. “From an ethical consumer standpoint,” he says, “it really is the only thing that makes sense. You can’t catch these fish in the wild anymore, net-pens have horrible environmental records, and the fish you’re getting from the supermarkets aren’t especially desirable anyway. This helps solve the pollution problem to produce a fish that is completely natural, yet completely clean. And while the operation is high-tech in a way, it is not so high-tech that you can’t do this any place and feed a lot of people a very high-value protein.

“This is part of why I stuck with it,” Quinn concludes. “It has to happen. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing, it’s not right. This is the better way.”

Cashed Out: South Mountain Creamery’s Bank Account Seized as Part of Money-Laundering Crackdown

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Apr. 18, 2012

South Mountain Creamery, the Frederick County dairy farm and food-distribution company, is a fixture of Baltimore-area farmers markets, particularly the Waverly market on Saturdays or the one on Sundays, downtown under the Jones Falls Expressway. South Mountain co-owner Randy Sowers is now in the hot seat with the feds, because in late February, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division (IRS-CID) used a federal anti-money-laundering statute to seize the contents of a PNC bank account Sowers says was the depository of cash earned by his company’s farmers-market business.

Sowers has not been charged with a crime, and says he expects to learn soon whether or not he will be. As for getting his money back—nearly $70,000, a fraction of the nearly quarter-million dollars in cash deposits the feds say Sowers laundered between May and December last year—well, based on the experiences of others in his position, he’ll likely not see it again, at least not all of it.

Baltimore County Police officer Michael Aiosa, who has been detailed as an IRS-CID task-force member since October 2010, signed the six-page affidavit used to get the seizure warrant to empty the account, of which Sowers and his daughter-in-law, Karen Sowers, are co-signatories. The affidavit says cash deposits were broken down into increments of under $10,001 each, causing PNC to not generate required “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that financial institutions must file with regulators when they receive or disburse more than $10,000 in a single cash transaction. Under 31 U.S.C. 5324, federal law prohibits such conduct, which is called “structuring.”

Sowers, who did not seek publicity about his predicament but spoke to a reporter after the search warrant in the court records came to City Paper’s attention, says he deposited the cash he’d made in the increments in which it had been earned. If the deposited amounts often ended up being a little under $10,001, he explained, that’s just the way it worked out and he no intention of breaking the law.

“We had no idea there was supposedly a law against it—we were just doing it the way we figured we were supposed to, making deposits every week,” Sowers explains. “We weren’t laundering money,” he adds. “We’re farmers, we struggle every day to pay bills. We don’t know what else to do. Now we just feel like putting [our cash] in a can somewhere.”

Sowers’ attorney, David Watt, says his client “probably shouldn’t have said anything” when contacted by City Paper, and declined to comment further, saying, “We don’t want to act like we’re trying to influence the goings-on” by talking with the press.

Historically, the anti-structuring statute has been used by prosecutors as an ancillary charge with other accusations of nefarious behavior, such as drug dealing or terrorism. And it still is. But over the last few years, prosecutors have started to use it more regularly as a standalone charge—an observation noted by defense attorneys that Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein confirms.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data center about federal court cases, reports that in fiscal year 2011 Maryland brought 14 of the nation’s 99 structuring cases, making it the top state for such prosecutions. Nationally, the numbers have been rising; the 2011 figures are up 8.8 percent from the year before and up 57.1 percent from five years ago.

Greater prosecutorial emphasis on enforcing the anti-structuring statute has resulted in a rise in money seizures, civil-forfeiture cases, and criminal charges against small businesses and the people who own them. Typical targets handle a lot of cash, and in Maryland gas stations, liquor stores, and used-car dealerships have landed in expensive trouble, losing money through seizures, criminal penalties, and legal bills.

South Mountain is not the first seasonal-produce market to find itself targeted for structuring recently. Taylor’s Produce Stand, on the Eastern Shore, was stung last year after the feds seized about $90,000 from its bank accounts. In December, pursuant to a civil-forfeiture settlement agreement after no criminal charges were filed, the stand’s owners got back about half of the seized money.

Two members of the defense bar who handle structuring cases, Gerard Martin and Steven Levin, both former Maryland assistant U.S. attorneys, say they have noticed the anti-structuring enforcement trend emerging in Maryland over the last several years.

“The emphasis is on basically seizing money, whether it is legally or illegally earned,” Levin says. “It can lead to financial ruin for business owners, and there’s a potential for abuse here by the government, where they use it basically as a means of seizing money, and I think we’ve seen that happen.”

“South Mountain Creamery!” Martin exclaims when contacted by phone. “They’re going after South Mountain Creamery! That’s an icon. That’s like going after mom and apple pie.” Then he settles in to ruminate on the general trends, saying cases typically arise because financial institutions “are required to tell the government about it” when they suspect a pattern of structured cash deposits. Then, “the government gets a search warrant and takes every nickel out of the guy’s bank account,” Martin continues, adding that “structuring is generally an indication that there is something going wrong, but the government doesn’t always find another crime,” such as drug dealing or tax evasion.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons why a liquor store or a gas station would be depositing $9,500 in cash a day,” Martin says. “Sometimes the numbers just work out that way. But it is usually not an accident that it is happening.”

Rosenstein says that anti-structuring efforts “are an increasing area of emphasis for the Justice Department, and there has been an influx of resources” to investigate and prosecute it. Thus, he says, “I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t an uptick” in prosecutions, given the additional resources.

Post-Sept. 11 changes to banking laws, Rosenstein continues, have prompted financial institutions to report suspicious financial doings more vigilantly, and as a result, investigators and prosecutors now have “a treasure trove of information” about transactions, which provides them with “potential leads for finding criminal activities.” Structuring is often a red flag for other crime since, Rosenstein says, “typically people who go through all those lengths” to make multiple cash deposits of just under $10,000, sometimes at multiple bank branches on the same day, are trying to hide something. But, he continues, “There’s a possibility that somebody did it innocently, and we are always open to that.”

 

Sowers spoke at length about being targeted for structuring. In essence, he thinks the government used an exotic legal gimmick to suck hard-earned money out of his business just as he’s facing bills for hay and other spring-time expenses farmers incur—but he admits that, if there’s a law against what he did, “well, it looks like we did break the law,” even if he didn’t mean to.

The seizure and the resulting legal limbo as he awaits the prosecutor’s charging decision has “scared us to death,” he says. And the banking headaches that resulted from an emptied account have been never-ending, including bounced checks, mucked-up automatic withdrawals, and the resulting overdraft fees.

“It makes me look bad,” Sowers says.

Milked: Feds Nail South Mountain Creamery for Talking to City Paper

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 20, 2012

Randy Sowers is not the only Maryland farmer recently targeted by federal money-laundering investigators for illegally depositing cash his business earns in increments of $10,000 or less, in order to avoid triggering bank-reporting requirements. But Sowers, whose South Mountain Creamery (SMC) dairy farm in Middletown, near Frederick, is a popular fixture at Baltimore-area farmers markets, is the only one to exercise his First Amendment rights and talk to the press about it.

For that, Sowers’ lawyers say, the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO-MD) has made him pay—an assertion that U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein denies, despite an e-mail sent to Sowers’ attorney by the chief of Rosenstein’s asset forfeiture and money laundering section, Stefan Cassella, that appears to state exactly that.

As City Paper reported in April, nearly $70,000 of Sowers’ money was seized by federal law enforcers from his bank account in late February (“Cashed Out,” Mobtown Beat, Apr. 18), on suspicion that he had been illegally “structuring” deposits of cash from SMC’s farmers market business. City Paper reached Sowers by phone for the article, and he granted an interview—though his attorney, David Watt, said at the time that Sowers “probably shouldn’t have said anything,” since “we don’t want to act like we’re trying to influence the goings-on” in the case.

A day after the article was published with quotes from Sowers, the USAO-MD filed a civil-forfeiture lawsuit seeking to keep Sowers’ seized funds (The News Hole, Apr. 20). According to Watt, Cassella told him over the phone that day that he filed the lawsuit because Sowers talked to the press.

Initially, Cassella said these words were “routine in forfeiture actions to protect the agents” who investigated the case from personal liability. Watt countered that in another structuring forfeiture filed last fall against money seized from Taylors Produce Stand, an Eastern Shore farming business, no such language appeared in the settlement agreement.

“I have a hard time explaining to my client why he is being treated differently,” Watt wrote, “especially where your initial concern was that the government agents not be liable for any claims for the seizure,” an issue Watt contended was addressed in another section of the agreement.

Cassella, in what Watt and Kamenar say was the last communication from Cassella in the matter, responded with one sentence: “Mr. Taylor did not give an interview to the press.”

CP shared the relevant e-mails with Rosenstein, asking for comment, and he e-mailed that if Watt and Kamenar “had any objection to the terms of the settlement,” they “should have raised it to my attention” before signing it. He also asked if Sowers and his attorneys “dispute” that “Sowers admitted that he ‘intentionally’ kept his cash deposits under $10,000 to avoid throwing up red flags.”

Kamenar says, “We were squeezed for time” by the time Cassella, on the same day the agreement was signed, revealed why he was insisting on language that was not in the Taylor agreement. He adds that, despite Sowers’ admission that he knowingly avoided red flags by depositing less than $10,000 at a time, “there was no intent by Randy to violate the structuring laws.”

Cassella, for his part, wrote in an e-mail to Rosenstein, which the USAO-MD shared with CP, that “the point is that the Sowers settlement was routine, not a punishment for exercising his First Amendment rights.”

“That’s an absolute falsehood,” says Kamenar, insisting that “this clause is not routine—see the Taylor settlement.” Cassella’s e-mail speaks for itself, Kamenar continues, and “you can’t put lipstick on that pig.”

“We’re not done with this, yet,” Kamenar says, adding that “Randy does not shy away from asserting his rights, and we think there should be more done to expose this kind of abuse.” Kamenar says he intends to send a letter to Rosenstein, demanding that there be “corrective action” in which Cassella is “disciplined” for the way Sowers’ case was handled.

“This is just another example of government overreach,” Kamenar continues, “this heavy-handed forfeiture going after people like the Sowers, and then penalizing them for talking to the press.”

The Eternal Flame: Waste incinerators win the political debate again

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 25, 2011

The heat generated by waste incinerators pales next to the fiery politics they tend to ignite—though these battles usually end with industry victories. Another in a long string of wins was chalked up on May 19, when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) rejected environmentalists’ calls for a veto and signed Senate Bill 690, a measure that will help the state reach its clean-energy goals by reclassifying trash-burning power plants as renewable-energy sources, like wind and solar.

With the stroke of a pen, Maryland now can start counting the kilowatts generated from waste-to-energy (WTE) plants as part of its renewable-power mix, which by law must account for 20 percent of the state’s energy sources by 2022. The bill’s enactment is a potential boon for the cash flow of WTE generators, and may lead to more plants being built, since the reclassification makes these sources more attractive to power companies looking to take advantage of credits for buying renewable energy.

In making his decision, O’Malley asked whether WTE generation was “better for the environment” than “the combination of coal and land filling, based on the best available science,” according to a statement. “The answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’”

Environmentalists—already stung by a 2011 legislative session that handed them a string of defeats, including on an off-shore wind-power project proposed by O’Malley—are in a snit. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters issued a statement calling O’Malley’s move a “step backwards” that would detract from efforts to increase the use of “true, clean energy sources like wind and solar” in the state’s energy mix. In an interview before the bill signing, WTE-bill opponent Greg Smith, director of the nonprofit Community Research, said that O’Malley “wants to be seen as a green governor, and here he is wrapping his arms around a bad technology.”

The green lobby in Baltimore has found incineration to be an especially hardy opponent. A generation ago, a proposed expansion of the since-closed Pulaski trash incinerator was so maligned that the city passed a five-year ban on incinerator construction. But the courts struck down the moratorium law, and a subsequent effort to revive it in the state legislature was dead on arrival.

In the late 1990s, environmentalists failed to stop the city from helping a controversial and financially strained medical-waste incinerator in Hawkins Point, whose polluting smokestack had long been a bane to communities in Baltimore’s southern reaches. The city changed the law to enlarge the incinerator’s “catchment area”—the legally set geographical boundaries within which it could collect fuel—from the immediate Baltimore area to a 250-mile radius. After a failed legislative effort in 2005 to rein in the radius, last year the city one-upped the favor by dropping the geographical restriction entirely.

While acknowledging that incineration technology has improved over the years, environmentalists point out that burning waste remains a major source of airborne pollutants, including mercury, particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and lead. O’Malley, in his statement about signing the WTE bill, called mercury emissions “the most worrisome aspect” of WTE plants, and promised that his administration would “strictly regulate the amount of mercury emanating from both existing and proposed waste-to-energy facilities” and propose legislation to help “remove mercury from the waste stream altogether.”

O’Malley’s main tool for keeping a lid on incinerator pollution is the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), but the agency’s oversight of a WTE plant in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood—the landmark Wheelabrator facility, whose smokestack stands sentry over I-95—has been called into question by a national environmental group. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), along with the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Clean Water Action, successfully intervened in Wheelabrator’s permit-renewal process last year, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to order MDE to strengthen the plant’s pollution-monitoring requirements.

EIP lawyer Jennifer Peterson explained the situation in a May 10 e-mail to Westport community leader Linda Towe, executive director of the nonprofit Project T.O.O.U.R. (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility) Inc., who was concerned about pollution coming out of Wheelabrator’s smokestack.

“We have serious concerns regarding the adequacy of the Clean Air Act operating permit for the facility,” Peterson explained. The permit requires it to “meet mercury limits at all times,” for instance, yet “only requires . . . an annual stack test to measure mercury emissions,” she continued. “This is like showing up once a year to take a speeding test. If you pass on that day, you’re in compliance for the entire year. Adequate monitoring is particularly important for incinerators because the air emissions can vary significantly based on the composition of the trash.”

MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said in an e-mail that a revised Wheelabrator permit is in the works, and EPA spokesperson Bonnie Smith said that after MDE makes the revised permit “available for public comment”—which she expects to happen in a matter of weeks—“it then comes to EPA for a 45-day review” before becoming final.

But EIP’s Peterson suspects the agencies are dragging their feet. She wrote in her e-mail to Towe that EIP has “taken the first steps to sue EPA for their failure to act (in light of MDE’s failure to issue a revised permit) by sending a notice of intent to sue letter.” Wheelabrator did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Meanwhile, in South Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula, the construction of another WTE plant is expected to begin soon. If built as planned by Energy Answers International, it will burn 4,400 tons of waste per day to generate 145 megawatts of electricity—more than twice as much as Wheelabrator’s 2,000-ton and 60-megawatt capacity. Thanks to a special agreement with MDE, its construction got the go-ahead last year from the Maryland Public Service Commission without the normally required refuse-disposal permit—a waiver granted over the strident protests of environmentalists and Wheelabrator, who were united in casting the arrangement as “illegal.”

O’Malley, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Energy Answers plant last October, extolled the incinerator project as emblematic of “where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.”

Community Research’s Smith, though, sees the project as another example of relying on dirty technology “whose benefits get inflated, and whose damaging impacts get slighted, whenever it is debated.”

In Maryland, though, history shows that whenever incineration gets debated, it keeps winning.

Reefer Madness: One woman’s terrifying pot-smuggling saga

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 9, 2011

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Jean Therese Brown’s undoing began on Christmas Day 2008, when she arranged for about a half-million dollars in cash to be flown by couriers from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Jamaica. Since then, court documents show, the 41-year-old received a 37-month federal prison sentence for bulk-cash smuggling and was hit with new drug-conspiracy charges that tie her to Mexican suppliers, and two people close to her have been murdered.

One of the murder victims, Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton Jr., was the father of Brown’s child and was killed in Tijuana, Mexico, in April 2010, according to court documents. The other, Michael Paul Knight, who was one of the couriers Brown used to carry cash to Jamaica, was beaten and slain over missing drug money and then dismembered with a power saw in an apartment near White Marsh Mall in December 2009 (“The Scarface Treatment,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010). Knight’s body, which Brown told investigators was disposed of in trash bags over a two-day period, has never been found.

That’s a lot of heartache and carnage over moving pot, which is what Brown is accused of doing.

The drug-trafficking scheme, court documents state, involved using a trucking company to distribute marijuana in California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Florida. Under the new indictment—unsealed on Feb. 24 after it was first filed on Feb. 1, the same day Brown was sentenced in the cash-smuggling case, to which she pleaded guilty—Brown and four others are accused of moving more than 1,000 kilograms of pot since 2000.

The docket in the drug-conspiracy case indicates that none of the defendants has an attorney. Brown’s lawyer in the cash-smuggling case, Sebastian Cotrone of Florida, says he did not know Brown had been charged again. “I wish I could be of more help to you,” Cotrone says, “but I haven’t heard from her since her sentencing, and she has not hired me” to represent her in connection with the new indictment. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Peter Nothstein, declined to comment.

What is known about Brown’s criminal activities, both alleged and admitted, comes strictly from court documents, and there is virtually no available information about her background—except that she also is known as Jean Therese Lawrence and was first arrested in Florida, where she has a court record in Miami under that name.

The cash-smuggling indictment against Brown and her co-defendant, Debbie Ann Shipp, who was arrested in New York and awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in December, was filed last summer. It revealed that large sums of undeclared cash were transported to Jamaica under Brown’s direction by Shipp and two others, including Knight (who was identified in the indictment only by his initials, “MPK”).

In November, a search warrant issued to Baltimore County investigators hoping to solve Knight’s disappearance provided the first public glimpses of the breadth of the investigation, giving details of the two murders, the cooperation provided to law enforcers by Brown and other unnamed co-conspirators, and the alleged pot-smuggling operation’s ties to the bulk-cash smuggling case against Brown and Shipp.

The new indictment unsealed in February shed little light on the nitty gritty of Brown’s alleged conspiracy, other than to name the defendants, say how long it operated, and state the quantity of marijuana involved. Brown’s co-defendants are Hubert “Doc” Downer (also known as Michael Reid), Tamara Henry, Robert Henry, and Dmytro Holovko, whose nickname is “the Russian.”

Most recently, though, on March 1, federal prosecutors moved for a court-ordered forfeiture decree against one of the trucks allegedly used in the operation, and that document unveiled new details—including the assertion that Brown was the leader of the enterprise, and that it dealt directly with Mexican suppliers.

The forfeiture states that Brown’s outfit “used trucks to transport marijuana from Arizona to Baltimore and transported the cash proceeds of the marijuana sales from Baltimore back to Arizona where it was used to pay her Mexican suppliers and to purchase additional marijuana.”

Based on information provided by confidential sources, the forfeiture describes Holovko as one of Brown’s truckers and gives details about numerous trips in which Holovko hauled drugs and cash back and forth between Arizona and Baltimore. One of the sources, the forfeiture recounts, “stated he and Holovko would drive to a predetermined destination on Liberty Road in Baltimore,” where “they would offload the marijuana into one of Brown’s vehicles.” The source “stated that on one occasion he loaded approximately 38 boxes of Marijuana, with each box weighing approximately 20 to 25 pounds.”

City Paper was able to locate phone numbers for Holovko and a trucking company that New Jersey business records indicate is associated with him, but no one had answered either phone as of press time.

The forfeiture filing adds to mounting indications that Baltimore traffickers have direct links to Mexican cartel suppliers. The use of trucks and other large vehicles to move massive quantities of drugs and cash back and forth between Baltimore and the Mexican border, as is alleged in Brown’s case, was recently detailed in a federal drug trial (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23) featuring a cartel witness who greatly enhanced the already-established picture of Baltimore’s ties to Mexican suppliers (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010). The danger of such dealings is suggested by the murders of Smith and Knight.

The truck that is subject to the forfeiture filing was seized when Holovko was arrested in New Jersey in mid-February, at around the same time Tamara Henry and Robert Henry were arrested in Florida. Downer faces a separate Maryland indictment, filed in December, accusing him of illegally reentering the United States after having been deported due to a prior aggravated-felony conviction. The dockets in his cases suggest he has yet to be arrested.