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All the Bribery – Latest Post at Providence Rules

Here’s the testimony of Acelia Terrero, the proprietor of Ada’s Creations, appearing before the Providence Board of Licenses on September 3, 2015. Ms. Terrero first addresses then chairman and state senator Juan Pichardo through a translator. After the Board’s counsel Louis DeSimone offers his legal advice and Pichardo tries to interject something, Ms. Terrero responds directly in English.

NOTE ORIGINAL: https://providencerules.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/all-the-bribery/

TRANSLATOR HAMLET LOPEZ: She said to Senator Pichardo to stop by to the business. She wants to speak to him face to face. And all the stuff and all the briberies that was being done in our business. We — she is going to be public about it. Everything that they gave her here, and she is going to make it public so everybody will know all the things that are going on with licensing department and all the bribery.

ATTORNEY TO THE BOARD LOUIS DeSIMONE: Then I would tell her on the record that she should report those items to a Providence police officer or detective so that an investigation can be conducted and that the guilty parties can be punished.

BOARD CHAIRMAN JUAN PICHARDO: I would suggest also on the record–

ACELIA TERRERO: I represent this to the mayor and he is going to listen to me, because what they’ve been doing is helping their friends and that’s why they steal $29,000 from me.

How did we get to this singular moment in Providence history? Did Acelia Terrero’s explosive accusations of bribery ever go anywhere? The answer to the latter question, we shall soon see, is no and yes.

$56,000 in Unpaid Police Detail Charges

The space downstairs at Ada’s Creations on 1137 Broad Street in the city’s south side functioned mostly as a bakery and restaurant, offering up such specialities as mofongos and habichuela con dulce. The 4,000-square-foot area upstairs, on the other hand, quite frequently operated as a nighttime entertainment venue, and it was this use of the property that proved to be problematic.

As a result of repeated disturbances emanating from the club upstairs, going back to at least 2007, the Board of Licenses had required the owner of the establishment to hire police details on a nearly regular basis. The need for such police details, especially on weekends and when there was live entertainment, was reinforced by a string of incidents involving violence in February 2012November 2012January 2013May 2013September 2013 and subsequently on March 9March 22, and March 29, 2014.

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Google street view of 1137 Broad Street dated August 2017

Police details are by no means gratis. At $60 per man-hour, a two-policeman detail covering a single evening shift from 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. would cost $480. Ada’s Creations, however, was substantially in arrears in its payments for the service. Despite a 2011 city ordinance barring the issuance of new permits, new licenses or license renewals to any establishment that was more than 60 days overdue on its police detail payments, the Board had continued to issue new entertainment licenses to Ada’s Creations, and to renew its BX license to serve alcoholic beverages until 2 a.m.

The issue finally came to a head in July 2015. Ada’s Creations owed approximately $56,000 in unpaid fees for police details. Compounding the matter was an unpaid balance of about $280,000 on a loan from the Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP), a program under continuing scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (In 2012, HUD ordered the city to pay back over $1 million in inappropriate charges to the PEDP program. Subsequently, in March, 2017, HUD demanded reimbursement of another $1.4 million in unjustified loans, including the $341,000 loaned to Ada’s Creations in 2002.)

Taking advantage of a recently passed amendment to the city’s code of ordinances permitting establishments in arrears to set up a debt repayment plan, the Board issued an order at its July 1, 2015 meeting: “All licenses immediately suspended with 30 day stay. $5000 must be paid by August 1, 2015 or risk losing license.” After Ada’s Creations paid the first $5,000 installment, the Board issued another ultimatum on August 3: “Will enter into a new payment plan with 30 day review.” When no payment plan was forthcoming on September 2, the Board gave the establishment one more day to come up with a plan.

The showdown came on September 3. With no installment payment for September, the Board voted to suspend the food and liquor licenses of Ada’s Creations. The establishment’s licenses could be reinstated if it adhered to a payment schedule determined by the Board, but once again suspended if timely payment was not forthcoming. That’s when Acelia Terrero, finally confronted with the closure of her business, made her stunning threat to go public about “all the bribery” and the $29,000 that was allegedly stolen from her.

Investigation

According to reporting by Parker Gavigan of NBC TurnTo10 (WJAR), the Board sent Acelia Terrero’s testimony to the state attorney general, who in turn forwarded it to the state police. State police detectives told Gavigan that they would visit Terrero. Two months later, Gavigan reported, “Maj. Joe Philbin, detective commander of the Rhode Island State Police, told the NBC 10 I-Team that investigators made several attempts to reach Terrero and have received ‘no new information’.”

While Terrero apparently had nothing to say to investigators, Gavigan reportedthat her attorney John Ciolli, then of the Cicilline Law Offices, had been in contact with the state police:

Ciolli said Terrero “never had direct dealings with any political figures in connection to her licensing problems.” He also said Terrero’s business partners would tell her they needed a certain amount of money to deal with various violations. “Whether the business partners dealt with any politicians is unknown,” said Ciolli. In other words, the partners could have taken advantage of Terrero, told her one thing while doing another. The lawyer claims the partners also stuck Terrero with the outstanding police detail bill of about $56,000, the reason she was before the licensing board in the first place.

Excerpt from Report of Parker Gavigan of NBC TurnTo10 (WJAR), November 3, 2015

Annual filings with the R.I. Secretary of State list only Acelia Terrero, her husband Isaias Terrero, and her daughter Acelia Soto as officers of Ada’s Creations Inc. The same applies to a separate entity named Ada’s Creations Realty, LLC. There are no other “business partners” of record. Did it ever occur to the state police to inquire as to the identities of these other partners? Were these other partners operating a protection scheme, in which Ms. Terrero paid them $29,000 and the partners took care of the rest? Did any other proprietors of establishments along Broad Street in the city’s south side make similar protection payments to the same business partners? Was one of the partners a city official, while the other an intermediary who dealt with business owners? If Ms. Terrero in fact paid her unnamed partners $29,000, why didn’t the state police ask for the records?

Or did the Rhode Island state police have no interest in inquiring further than a few gentle knocks on Acelia Terrero’s door?

Bankruptcy

On September 24, 2015, Ada’s Creations filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code. Under Chapter 11, the “debtor in possession” is given an opportunity to come up with a reorganization plan to pay off its debts and get back on its feet. While the bankruptcy is in force, creditors cannot directly come after the debtor, whose rights are protected under what lawyers call an “automatic stay.” A Chapter 11 bankruptcy differs from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which the debtor simply liquidates all its assets and pays off the highest priority creditors until the money runs out. In this case, both the business entity Ada’s Creations and the individuals Acelia and Isaias Terrero filed for Chapter 11 seeking a consolidated reorganization plan.

As soon as the petition for bankruptcy was filed, the city’s lawyers maintained that the Board of Licenses had to allow Ada’s Creations to reopen and could not impose any sanctions to collect the unpaid police detail fees. The courts have indeed maintained that a state or local authority cannot restrict or revoke the liquor license of a Chapter 11 debtor just to collect unpaid bills, although it can limit a license out of concerns for public safety. The problem with this legal argument was that the Board had already suspended the establishment’s license before the Terrero’s applied for Chapter 11. Still, the city’s lawyers prevailed and Ada’s Creations got all its licenses back.

Noah Lounge

While their bankruptcy reorganization was pending, the Terreros began leasingthe second floor at 1137 Broad Street to AN Enterprising LLC, an entity created on July 13, 2016, to run a club named Noah Lounge.  Since the entity’s application for an alcoholic beverage license was dated June 22, 2016, it presumably already had a lease at the time. On September 15, 2016, the Board of Licenses approved the new liquor license, provided that Ada’s Creations surrendered its own BX license. In approving the new license, the Board apparently did not give much weight to the strong objection voiced by neighbor Ronny Reyes, who wrote:

Finally, the people around the nightclub, including the one inside, were usually armed with guns. Every weekend there would always be at least one gunshot fired close to or during closing time. … One morning I found puddles of blood dried along the sidewalk. Another time, I found another puddle in the middle of the street from a previous fight the day after.

It is routine procedure for the Board of Licenses to grant a new liquor license conditional upon inspections and approvals by all relevant regulatory agencies, and that’s exactly what the Board did when it approved the new liquor license to allow Noah Lounge to operate upstairs. But what looked like a routine conditional approval had an unanticipated catch. Since the bankruptcy was still in progress, Ada’s Creations could not lease the upstairs until it got the advance approval of the bankruptcy court before the entire reorganization plan was approved. Based upon a letter submitted to the Board by the Terreros’ attorney and the date of issue of the new liquor license, the bankruptcy court did not give the green light to the Noah Lounge lease until March of 2017.  In fact, the first mention of any rent payment from AN Enterprising was in the Terrero’s April 2017 report to the bankruptcy court.

Murder

The early morning of July 1, 2017 was host to Providence’s fourth homicide of the year. As ABC6 News reported, “Devin Burney, 22, was shot walking down Corinth Street after leaving Noah Lounge at 1137 Broad Street, according to Providence Police Major David Lapatin.” As US News reported, “The shooting happened around 1:30 a.m. Saturday after the man left the Noah Lounge.” The police incident report referred to an earlier tip received by one police officer:

07/01/2017 00:59:02 apitocco Narrative: noahs lounge/she got info from sec that when club closes there is going to be a shooting because 3 rival gangs are in the club, no weapons were seen so far.

The police report went on to note that three squad cars (units 332, 333 and 334) were dispatched to the scene by 1:06 a.m.

Excerpt from Interview of Providence Police Commanders Thomas Verdi by WPRI’s Kim Kalunian

WPRI’s Kim Kalunian interviewed deputy police chief Thomas Verdi about the incident. “There were shots fired, several officers were close enough to hear the gunshots,” said Verdi. “We believe that the individual was targeted,” he added.

Later the same day, the Board of Licenses suspended the licenses of Noah Loungeon an emergency basis and ordered the proprietor to appear for a show-cause hearing three days later. But on Monday, July 3, the Board reopened the club, which had agreed to hire a police detail for each of the following two weekends. Making his recommendation to the Board to reopen Noah Lounge, Assistant City Solicitor Mario Martone stressed that the club had been “cooperative,” and that the 72-hour emergency closure was solely to ensure “public safety.” Then Board chairman Juan Pichardo agreed. Here’s what commissioner Dylan Conley had to say:

COMMISSIONER DYLAN CONLEY: I do want to echo your point, Mr. Chairman, on their cooperating with the community.  I think they should be commended for putting public safety over their own business interest, and I’m happy that we have institutions like this in the city.

When the Board again considered the incident on July 11, Martone recommended a one-week continuation “to make sure that they’re poised for success as they continue to go forward.” He stressed, “Things seem to be panning out the way we think they are, which is that the club was not culpable.”  Commissioner Charles Newton commented that the club had been closed “only to protect the patrons.” He added:

COMMISSIONER CHARLES NEWTON: The determination of the Board at this point was that we only closed the club under the emergency provision in order to safeguard the patrons, et cetera. We did that predicated on the fact of they’re being totally responsible and responsive to us in terms of information and whatnot. So we had determined at this point that there has been no punitive action taken against them at all, and that we’re still reviewing it.

At the same time, the Board approved additional entertainment licenses for Noah Lounge. On July 18, the City Solicitor formally dismissed the case against the club.

While the murder occurred at about 1:30 a.m., the police appear to have received a tip at 1:00 a.m. about an impending shooting “because 3 rival gangs are in the club.” In fact, three squad cars were immediately dispatched to the scene. That the police were already present when Burney was gunned down fits with Commander Verdi’s comment to Kim Kalunian that “several officers were close enough to hear the gunshots.” The credibility of the 1:00 a.m. tip was confirmed by Verdi’s comment that police believed “the individual was targeted.”

Just two days after the incident, the Board of Licenses was fully prepared to reopen Noah Lounge because the emergency closing had been ordered just to protect the public or, as commissioner Newton later put it, “in order to safeguard the patrons.” Who else was the emergency order supposed to protect? Assistant City Solicitor Martone was prepared to drop the case because it appeared, with less than two weeks of investigation, that “things were panning out … that the club was not culpable.” Commissioners Conley and Newton bent over backwards to echo the Board’s new mantra: cooperation means absolution. Or as I put it in Adam’s Loop-de-Loop, “Welcome to the brave new world of Providence nightlife, where every fight, every gunshot, every stab wound will be peachy keen so long as the bouncers turn up the lights and look helpful.”

Meanwhile, in a memorandum filed in bankruptcy court on June 30, 2017, the day before Devin Burney’s murder, the Terreros’ lawyer asked for a postponement of the hearing on the reorganization plan. The first two reasons for the postponement were:

  1. That the Debtors’ new commercial tenant, AN Enterprising LLC, has recently been been experiencing financial setbacks from its anticipated revenues, which is essential to the Debtors’ successful reorganization in the pending Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  2. That said tenant has indicated that it expects these temporary economic reversals to improve, due to increased advertising and traffic.

On September 24, 2017, the bankruptcy court granted a motion to dismissbecause debtors were “unable to confirm a plan of reorganization after numerous attempts.” The Chapter 11 bankruptcy was formally dismissed on October 4, 2017.

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Advertisement for Noah Lounge on Instagram, posted on June 18, 2017, twelve days before the July 1 murder of Devin Burney. Larger version here.

Poor Chairman Conley

About two months after the formal notice of the dismissal of the Terreros’ bankruptcy, Licensing Administrator Heather Kilkenny discovered that bankruptcy proceedings for Ada’s Creations and the Terreros had been dismissed. The status of the establishment’s unpaid debts and the future of its licenses were again placed on the Board’s agendas on December 12December 19January 3, January 18, February 8, and February 14, but still without any commitment on a repayment schedule.

At the subsequent February 22, 2018 meeting, two years and four months after Acelia Terrero’s stunning accusation, Assistant Solicitor Martone still has not worked out a deal. Instead, he wants to delay any resolution because the proprietors may also have unpaid taxes. After all, he notes, the Terreros have been in close contact with Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Deputy Chief of Staff Theresa Agonia.

ASSISTANT SOLICITOR MARIO MARTONE: … The concern I have is that there may be also a tax issue. So, I don’t want to solve one issue while there is another issue going on. So, what I would ask is that we continue this one more week. I reached out to the tax collector today just to double check their numbers to make sure that everybody’s on the same page. And we’re trying to resolve it holistically as opposed to piece by piece. So, I would ask for one more week. And again, they certainly have been in close communication with both my office as well as Theresa. They are certainly– they’re moving– they’re making some progress. So, I don’t want to penalize them at this point. And frankly, at this point, the city needs just a little more time to get some of the numbers squared away. And so I would ask for one more week.

BOARD CHAIRMAN DYLAN CONLEY: The only thing, and I want to open it up to other commissioners in our continuing effort to treat everyone identically. We just had a party that — somewhat similar — lost their ability to operate. I would say the distinction there is that they hadn’t renewed since 2012, and that period of time is remarkable. But we are inching toward this never-ending opening without solving some legal issues. So—

MARTONE: Yes, and just to differentiate it a little bit more, they also in the interim period, there was a bankruptcy which, had the bankruptcy gone well, I think would have helped the situation. Because it didn’t go well — and again, you know, it’s partially the fault of the licensee — However, because it didn’t go well, I actually think it set them back even a little bit further. So, that is kind of also something that we’re trying to address. It’s something that mucked up the works a little bit with regard to calculations because, as the Board knows and I think, the bankruptcy tolls some things, doesn’t toll other things. So, one thing while they were in, there were certain obligations they needed to meet. Now, we kind of have to recalculate things with regard to what was owed, what had accrued, that kind of thing.

DeSIMONE: Mr. Chairman, one other item of differentiation between this and the other matter that occurred. This licensee has agreed to the arrearages and the amounts forward at least with respect to the detail, which was the outstanding matter before you. They had agreed to those, in fact. They sent those in as part of the bankruptcy. So that it wasn’t a fact where they were saying, we won’t sign an agreement because we don’t agree with the balance. We want to negotiate first. So it is slightly different from that other situation.

Audio Player

Poor chairman Dylan Conley continues to hang onto the illusion that somewhere, somehow, some way, the Providence Board of Licenses is treating — or perhaps trying to treat — everyone equally. Still, confronting the hard facts, he almost begins to acknowledge that “we are inching toward this never-ending opening.” Perhaps out of cognitive dissonance, Conley cannot bring himself to ask Martone why the mayor’s deputy chief of staff is involved in a matter to be resolved by an independent board.

That was on February 22. To date, Ada’s Creations has not been on the agenda of any subsequent Board meeting.

Unanswered Question

It has been my custom in more than a few contributions to Providence Rules to pose a series of unanswered questions. Here, however, I have only one.

What, if anything, does Acelia Terrero have to say that Jorge Elorza, the Mayor of Providence, doesn’t want her to say?

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