As local bars face gun violence, officials question ethics of Board of Licenses

Several outbreaks of violence at clubs in the past month intensify scrutiny of board’s penalties, dealings

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Providence Board of Licenses met Monday to discuss the fate of El Tiburon, a sports bar that closed after an Oct. 17 shooting there injured three people.

At the meeting, officials looked at crime scene photos of the incident. The suspect, Michael Stokes, is still at large. The board did not make a final decision, and the hearing will continue Thursday, Turn to 10 reported.

The El Tiburon incident came after Van Gogh Lounge, a Harris Avenue nightclub, was temporarily shut down due to an Oct. 11 double shooting that injured two men. The board ruled Oct. 21 that the club would remain closed for 50 days. Before reopening, the club owners are also required to pay a $2,500 fine, produce a security plan and hire police, WPRI reported.

The city has seen several outbreaks of violence at clubs in the past month. At 3 a.m. on Saturday, a man brandished an unlicensed gun outside the Atwells Avenue nightclub Vault Lounge. Police later found a loaded pistol in the car of one of the men involved in the altercation, the Providence Journal reported.

These incidents call into question the efficacy of the Board of Licenses, said Arthur Salisbury, president of the Jewelry District Association, who has been attending board meetings for 10 years. The board was placed in the hands of Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, in August.

In March, Johanna Harris, who had acted as chair of the board for about a year, stepped down amidst an ethics investigation regarding her acceptance of a no-bid contract while serving on the board. Peter Petrarca, lawyer for the $3 Bar, put forth the complaint after Harris revoked the bar’s liquor license last year along with the licenses of many of Petrarca’s other establishments, GoLocalProv reported.

While Harris faced criticism from bar and restaurant owners for her decisions to revoke and not grant licenses, some showed strong support for her harsh approach.

“She was the best chairperson we have ever had on that board in 12 years,” Salisbury said. “By taking her out, they destroyed the board.”

Though no longer chairwoman, Harris still sits on the board.

The violence the board saw before Harris’ leadership is “now coming back and the new board is not doing much about it,” Salisbury said. The Board of Licenses has been “too lenient” and “not consistent,” and its failure to give the proper penalties has led to more violence in the city, he said.

“The only one voting against the things that should be voted against is Johanna Harris,” he added. “She is the only one who is voting in the right direction.”

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said there has been no increase in shootings at clubs in the city in the past year.

The Providence Board of Licenses has long faced public scrutiny, especially in March when Gordon Fox, former Speaker of the House for the General Assembly, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes when he was vice-chair of the board.

The bribes from Thayer Street’s Shark Bar and Grille in exchange for his vote in favor of a liquor license totaled $52,500, The Herald previously reported. Fox is now in federal prison.

But a recent allegation suggests Fox is not the only member of the board who has accepted money for licenses. Acelia Terrero, owner of the bakery and nightclub Ada’s Creations, stated at a Sept. 3 meeting that she has been paying the Board of Licenses $29,000 in bribes over the past few years, The Herald previously reported.

Due to several incidents of violence, Ada’s Creations required the presence of a police officer every night it was open. Unable to pay the monthly $5,000 cost, Terrero owed the city $56,000 by September. A meeting was held with board members to discuss the suspension of Ada’s Creations’ food and liquor licenses, but Terrero alleged that she was bribing a member of the board and threatened to reveal the board’s under-the-table deals. Terrero did not specify which member of the board she paid, Turn to 10 reported.

With Pichardo serving as chairman of the board, some raise concerns about the ethics of dual office holding.

Pichardo should not be allowed to serve on the board, let alone as chairman, Salisbury said.

During the meeting at which Tererro spoke up about bribing the board of licenses, Tererro challenged Pichardo and said he would never get elected again, Salisbury said. Once businesses threaten to hurt senators’ election success, the senators make the wrong decisions for the board, he said.

John Marion, executive director of  Common Cause — an organization that promotes a fair, accountable and democratic government that serves the public interest — shares the same sentiments as Salisbury. “As an organization, we have long opposed dual office holding because of the conflicts it can create,” he said, citing Tererro’s threat to Pichardo as evidence of these conflicts.

In the past, problems have arisen when businesses that have come before the licensing board have tried to affect board rulings by financially supporting legislators who sat on the board, Marion said. “Essentially, legislators were using their services on the board to leverage donations to their campaign,” he said. “That was a big, big problem.”

Power politics is another issue that dual office holding can cause, Marion said. When a member of the board is in charge of the state budget and has as much power as the Speaker of the House, “it can be very intimidating to a municipal official whose board’s existence depends on that same budget,” he said. “A lot of it is about money, but a lot of it is also about power.”

But Pichardo said his role as a state senator gives him a “tremendous perspective” on how to manage the interests of people and businesses. The objectives of a state senator and the chair of the Board of Licenses are aligned, Pichardo said. Both want to make sure that “people are safe but also successful — in business or in their personal lives,” he said.

Prior to joining the board, Pichardo “sat down with many people” to make sure that “there was no conflict of interest” and that he could truly be objective when making decisions on the board, he said.

As to whether his leadership differs from that of Harris, Pichardo said all chairs of the board — including him and Harris — have “the same mission” to ensure that Providence is a safe place.

Paré said he thinks Pichardo’s dual office holding causes no problems. As for reducing violence in Providence clubs, Paré said  the Department of Public Safety and the Board of Licenses will continue to hold discussions with clubs so that they can be part of the effort to reduce outbreaks of violence.