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St. Mary’s liquor board members suspended the alcohol license of a California restaurant for 30 days last Thursday after hearing testimony that its bar stocked liquor bought at retail stores.

Ahmed Koroma, the proprietor of Chef’s American Bistro, argued that the sticky blotches on the bottles were not from a retail store’s price tags, but instead were from his employees’ hands that get sticky while mixing drinks.

The business’ license was suspended six days in February on administrative charges including selling alcohol when the permit temporarily was not in effect.

Koroma said after Thursday’s hearing before the county’s alcohol beverage board that he will file an appeal contesting its latest action against the restaurant’s liquor license.

“The [board’s enforcement] officer told me, ‘I’m going to shut you down,’” Koroma complained, adding that a state comptroller’s agent who checked the bottles was carrying out the same mission. “He was going to find something,” Koroma said.

The hearing took place despite Koroma’s protests that it should be delayed because his lawyer from the February meeting wasn’t present. Neither were the business’ three actual licensees, but Koroma said they merely are investors in the restaurant.

Koroma acknowledged two other violations — that people were still in the business after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, even though he didn’t have a permit for extended hours that day, and that his employees’ alcohol awareness training certification was not up to date. The business was fined $2,000 for those violations.

Dennis Czorapinski, the agent from the comptroller’s office, testified that he conducted an inspection at the business on Jan. 18, and that he found nine bottles with partially removed retail price labels, violating a state law that the restaurant’s alcohol had to be purchased from a licensed manufacturer or wholesaler. Czorapinski said Koroma told him the bottles must have been there when he bought the business.

Koroma argued that he had been misunderstood, that he actually said he’d had those bottles since he opened the restaurant, in a shopping center storefront that previously was occupied by a motorcycle performance parts shop.

Czorapinski acknowledged that his “random check” of the restaurant followed a call from St. Mary’s sheriff’s deputy James Stone, the board’s alcohol enforcement coordinator, but the comptroller’s agent added that he eventually would have gotten there anyway to conduct an inspection during his work throughout the region.

Czorapinski brought the bottles in a case box to the liquor board members, and Vice Chairman William R. Cullins III questioned Koroma’s explanation that the bottles were sticky because of his employees’ hands. “It’s got price stickers, not just fingerprints,” Cullins said as he examined one of the bottles.

When Czorapinski took more bottles out of the box and told Koroma that they had partial price stickers on them, Koroma replied, “I didn’t see those on the bottles when they were at the establishment.”

Koroma protested to the board, “He didn’t just come here. He was called to my establishment. For four years, I’ve never seen him before. He came to find something.”

Moses P. Saldaña, the board’s chairman, responded, “Deputy Stone is our enforcement coordinator. That’s his job.”

The three voting board members on the case debated and reached split decisions on the penalty for all three violations. Board member Linda Palchinsky rejected Cullins’ proposed fines for the other violations, and Betty Currie’s motion for the 30-day suspension.

“I think there’s a problem here, and we need to address it right now,” Palchinsky said, and she told Koroma, “You have a great business. You’ve got to save your business.”

Saldaña said, “If you follow the rules, you don’t have anything to be concerned about. It’s a pattern. It’s a total disregard for [the state law and county] rules and regs.”

Board member Aaron Mathis recused himself from the hearings last week and in February, stating that he was acquainted with the business’ personnel.

In a separate matter, the board members issued a $100 fine and ordered enhanced alcohol service training for John W. Langley and Doretta D. Adams, after they admitted that people had been in their St. James Pub business after 2 a.m. on Feb. 1. Adams said the bartender that night “is a good employee, he just didn’t understand the rules. He does now.”

jwharton@somdnews.com