Questions arise about salaried no-shows at Liquor Board

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Maryland State Senator Joan Carter Conway's husband, Vernon "Tim" Conway, collected an annual salary of up to $73,000 from the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners for more than a decade, despite doing zero work.

If that were true—and it was whispered for years before Conway's retirement in 2014—then would not the current Board of Liquor License Commissioners be legally obligated to sue for the return of that money?

This is but one question raised in a four-page letter City Paper acquired. Addressed to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and written "in our capacities as Commissioners on the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners," the unsigned letter (which Frosh's office says it hasn't received) asserts that Conway was one of several "phantom employees" who would routinely sign in to work two hours after the normal starting time before being driven to his wife's accounting office (by a fellow liquor inspector), where he would spend the day before returning to the liquor board's office the following day, mid-morning, to sign himself out for the night previous and sign himself in again.

"Two separate reviews by the Office of Legislative Audits [OLA] found that Mr. Conway did not participate in any Liquor Board investigations during his 15 years at the agency," the letter says. "The only evidence of work product from Mr. Conway that we have been able to confirm is his signing of leave requests on isolated occasions."

The letter says the board has notified "appropriate law enforcement authorities" of the theft and asks Frosh whether the board has a legal obligation to try to recoup the money Conway and other, mostly unnamed no-show employees were paid—which it estimates was more than $1 million. Alternatively, "[m]ay the board excuse the payment of improper wages without doing so in a public process?"

The unsigned letter came in an envelope with another—this one signed, and on letterhead—dismissing Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth as the board's executive director.

"I'm taken aback," says Thomas Akras, the board's Deputy Executive Secretary and chief spokesman, when City Paper asks him about the letters. "I have no comment."

He calls back later to say that he can't comment on Hedgepeth's dismissal, as it's a personnel matter. Of the other one, he points out that it is "not on our letterhead" so it's "not coming from this agency."

Akras doesn't ask the reporter what that letter says, and when asked if he knows what it says, he doesn't answer. Asked if he believes the second letter is a fake, or a false accusation designed to put his agency in a bad light, Akras says nothing. "I really can't say anything," he concludes.

Board Chairman Benjamin Neil, reached shortly after, says he'd gotten a call from the office about the unsigned letter. "I really don't know what's going on with that letter," he says.

Steve Fogleman, who served as Board Chairman from 2007 until his replacement by the late Judge Thomas Ward in 2014 (disclosure: Fogleman writes the occasional Baltimore Beer Baron column for this paper), says he was not aware of the allegations during his tenure. But he calls back later to revise and clarify—and confirm:

"Those allegations were never made to the board until the very end of my tenure in January 2014, when I was contacted by a state official," he says."We met with the employee. The employee was monitored closely after that. And he came to work every day, and when he didn't he used personal leave, which he had accumulated quite a bit of. And the employee ultimately retired.

"We saw no evidence of the malfeasance that the letter described."

Mark Fosler, a liquor inspector since 2007 who served as Board Chairman before Fogleman, says he'll have to consult his lawyer before commenting on Conway's work habits during his tenure.

Several sources say Conway was the subject of an investigation by the state prosecutor, who decided to allow Conway to retire rather than prosecute him. Several people said they suspected City Councilman Bill Henry got that investigation started in 2013, when he ran for the State Senate against Joan Carter Conway.

"Yeah," Henry says. "I don't know that I dropped a dime, but everybody knew about it. Tim had been at the Liquor Board for a long time but he had some health problems for a couple years. There was a period of time when he continued to be paid when he was not well enough to come to work."

Sam Daniels, who served as the board's executive secretary for years until his retirement in 2013, is characteristically diplomatic when asked about the allegation that Conway was well-paid to not work for many years. "I can't confirm what you're saying but Lord knows I'd never deny it," he says, in the midst of a story about the larger forces seeking to control the powerful state agency.

Those larger forces have lately loomed large.

The Liquor Board, which administers and polices liquor licenses in Baltimore City, is a city agency but is controlled by state government. For decades, the city's senators—Conway included—have informally exerted the most influence on the board by naming commissioners and, often, staff. A 2013 audit alluded to the corruption and inefficiency there, reporting that many of the inspectors did very few inspections and one part-time inspector submitted 24 inspections of 15 separate bars that were defunct.

Daniels downplayed some of that report's findings at the time. "What we have is a few humps," he said.

But the reality was that 12 inspectors worked "part time" (i.e. seldom, for a stipend of several thousand dollars a year). These were patronage positions controlled by the senators—state law required the board have 12 part-time inspectors. Vernon Conway's was the most lucrative, several sources have told City Paper over the years. They declined to say it on the record to avoid alienating Sen. Conway, who chairs the State Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which oversees all liquor-related legislation.

Daniels retired soon after the last audit to become a consultant to liquor license holders. He says the 2013 report was part of a power-grab by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to control the board through her administration's ties to then Lt. Governor Anthony Brown.

Gov. Martin O'Malley replaced Fogleman with Thomas Ward, a former judge, hard-line stickler for rules, and a friend to community associations seeking to rid their neighborhoods of violent, noisy, and otherwise disruptive bars.

Bailey-Hedgepeth was hired to replace Daniels and reform the agency's operations within the narrow limits envisioned by the Rawlings-Blake administration. But "all the values and equations changed," Daniels says, "when Anthony Brown lost" his bid for governor.

Governor Larry Hogan put his own, more pro-bar-owner people on the board, prompting a revolt by city neighborhood associations. Conway introduced a bill, which the legislature passed, effectively sacking the current three-member Liquor Board and giving the city's mayor the power (on paper) to appoint new commissioners.

The current board's last day was April 11. It is as yet unclear who the new board members will be, but Conway's hand in the overthrow has raised eyebrows.

"I've been talking to people about this for a while," says Becky Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center who has closely watched the board (she blogs about each meeting at a website called Booze News). "They say 'why is Joan making the legitimacy of the Liquor Board her main issue here? Everybody knows she's been one of the main issues of the liquor board for a while.'"

Conway did not return City Paper's phone calls.

A visit to the address of her tax office on Wednesday, April 6, found the door locked and the office empty. Both listed telephone numbers of the company, Cig Professional Tax Service, are out of service.

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