Archive for November, 2010

Langley Park Store Owners, Police Corporal, Plead Not Guilty in Corruption Probe

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

GREENBELT, Md. – A Langley Park store owner, his wife and a Prince George’s County Police corporal accused of conspiring to transport untaxed cigarettes and alcohol in Maryland and Virginia pleaded not guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Prince George’s County Police Cpl. Chong Chen Kim, 42, of Beltsville, was released until his jury trial in January. He was ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jillyn K. Schulze to adhere to curfew calls until an electronic monitoring system could be set up for him.

Ravinder Kaur Melhi, 49, who with husband Amrik Singh Melhi, 51, has ownership interests in Tick Tock Liquors in Langley Park, will be released Wednesday morning under a strict set of conditions that include a mental health evaluation, 24-hour electronic monitoring, no new travel plans and no purchases over $1,000. She petitioned the court for permission to attend religious services, but her request was denied.

Her husband has not been released.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, lawyer for Amrik Melhi, said afterward, “Obviously, there has been a plea of not guilty, so those charges are being disputed. There will be a day in court, and it will all come out in the wash.”

More than 30 family members, friends and supporters crowded into the small courtroom to await the results of Ravinder Melhi’s arraignment and detention hearings, but they declined to comment afterward.

Members of the Guru Nanak Foundation, a religious organization of which Ravinder Melhi is a member of the board of trustees, circulated a petition labeling the Melhis “very dedicated parents that are very much involved in the community [and] pose no threat.”  The petition had more than 200 signatures on it, organization officials said.

The Melhis and Kim were arrested Nov. 15 as part of a sweeping FBI corruption probe in Prince George’s County that also ensnared County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, County Council member-elect Leslie Johnson. The Johnsons were charged Nov. 12 with evidence tampering and destruction of records in a federal investigation of county officials’ sweetheart deals with developers. They are expected back in court for a preliminary hearing Dec. 13.

Phone taps revealed the county executive told his wife on Nov. 12 to find and tear up a $100,000 check written to him by a developer, and to flush it down a toilet in their home. He also told her, as FBI agents were knocking on the front door of their Mitchellville home, to hide $79,600 in cash in her underwear, court records state. Soon after, FBI agents entered their home, searched Leslie Johnson and found the cash in her bra, court documents state.

Prosecutors allege Amrik Melhi paid off law enforcement officials, including Kim and Prince George’s County Police Sgt. Richard Delabrer, 45, of Laurel, to help transport untaxed cigarettes and alcohol in Maryland and Virginia. Four others, including Ravinder Melhi, were charged in connection with this scheme. Delabrer pleaded not guilty last week.

Two others – Prince George’s County Police Officer Sinisa Simic, 25, and Mirza Kujundzic, 30, both of Woodbridge, Va. – were charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine and unlawful possession of firearms for drug trafficking.

Schultze scheduled Dec. 10 motion hearings for the Melhis and Kim. An eight-week jury trial is expected to begin Jan. 18.

--By Maryland Newsline’s Michelle J. Nealy

The Comfort Zone Controversy

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Have you been to the Comfort Zone in College Park?

Is it an adult book or video store? Or is it a variety store?

Share your thoughts.

--From Maryland Newsline’s Tami Le

Two Plead Not Guilty in Federal Corruption Probe

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

GREENBELT, Md. – Two of the nine men arrested last week in a sweeping FBI corruption probe in Prince George’s County pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday.

Prince George’s County Police Sgt. Richard Delabrer, 45, of Laurel, and Jose Moreno, 49, of Alexandria, Va., pleaded not guilty to conspiring to interfere with commerce and a related forfeiture count in separate hearings in U.S. District Court.

Delabrer was released and will remain under electronic monitoring. Moreno would have been released under the same terms, but is being held until a land line phone is installed in his home, said U.S. Magistrate Judge William Connelly.

If found guilty, both men could face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, Connelly said.

The two men were arrested Nov. 15 as part of an FBI corruption probe in Prince George’s County linked to the arrest of Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, County Council member-elect Leslie Johnson.

While the Johnson arrests allege corruption in connection with development, the men in court Tuesday were named in an indictment that outlines a scheme to transport untaxed alcohol and cigarettes in Maryland and Virginia.

The courtroom was full of Delabrer’s friends and family, with more waiting in the hall, including his wife, Eri Delabrer, and two of his four children.

Little was said publicly in either of the hearings Tuesday.

Delabrer’s lawyer, James Papirmeister, said afterward his client has been with the police department for 22 years.

“He has outstanding evaluations,” said Papirmeister. “Perfect? No. Most of us in our careers are not perfect.”

Moreno’s lawyer, Michael Lawlor, could not be reached afterward.

Jury trials for each are scheduled to begin Jan. 18, and will last about eight weeks, Connelly said.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Ilana Yergin

Hearings Delayed in Federal Corruption Probe in Pr. George’s

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

GREENBELT, Md. – Detention hearings for two of the Prince George’s County Police officers charged with aiding in the transport of untaxed alcohol and cigarettes were postponed Thursday.

The lawyers for Sgt. Richard Delabrer and Cpl. Chong Chin Kim requested more time to prepare and, in Delabrer’s case, to confirm permanent legal representation. Both lawyers, James Papirmeister for Delabrer and Pat Woodward for Kim, declined to comment afterward.

Delabrer and Kim will both remain detained until new detention hearings are scheduled.

At least 10 Prince George’s County Police officers were at the U.S. District Courthouse in support of Delabrer.

After the hearing, Delabrer’s brother, John, accused Prince George’s County Police Chief Roberto Hylton of convicting his brother in the public eye.

“He threw [Richard] under the bus, instead of supporting him,” John Delabrer said. “He convicted him right in front of the cameras.”

Delabrer was referencing Hylton’s comments at a Monday press conference, in which he said Delabrer, Kim and Officer Sinisa Simic, charged in a separate indictment in the sweeping FBI corruption probe, were “bad guys who needed to go away.”

–By Maryland Newsline’s Justin Karp

DJS Secretary Donald DeVore Stepping Down

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services Donald DeVore announced Thursday that he is stepping down in order to pursue “an opportunity in another state.”

DeVore, who has presided over the troubled agency since March 2007 after serving in the same capacity in Connecticut, declined through a spokesman to speak to the Capital News Service.

“It was truly a pleasure to serve as Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services,” DeVore said in a statement announcing his resignation. “A new job opportunity presented itself and I felt it was the right time to pursue it. I am going to miss all of the people at DJS with whom I had great working relationships and friendships.”

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, would not comment on whether the governor had asked DeVore to step down. He said a national search is on for a replacement and that DeVore is expected stay on through the transition.

“I want to thank Don DeVore for his service, and wish him well in his future endeavors,” O’Malley said, in the statement from the Department of Juvenile Services announcing DeVore’s resignation. “Despite inheriting a long-troubled agency, important strides have been made in the last four years.”

Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said he believed it was DeVore’s decision to leave.

Though problems and inefficiencies plagued the department long before DeVore arrived, advocates say the agency is just as troubled as it was in 2007.

“There have been some major events over the past several years that I frankly don’t understand have not been considered issue enough for his departure before this,” said Shelley Tinney, executive director for the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.

Such events include multiple escapes from the Charles H. Hickey School throughout the past three years, a mass escape in 2009 at the Victor Cullen Center, and the 2010 rape and murder of a teacher at Cheltenham Youth Facility.

Advocates also say the secretary fell short in improving conditions for female offenders in the system.

In December 2009, the Capital News Service reported on problems at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, the only state-run facility for both detained and high security female juvenile offenders. Since then, there has been legislation proposed to close the facility.

An audit report released in September outlined 14 findings of “significant deficiencies” in the Department of Juvenile Services, including failure to apply for an estimated $3 million in available Medicaid money and failure to follow purchase-of-care contract approval requirements.

Most recently, at a Wednesday Board of Public Works meeting, DeVore requested $171 million in retroactive contract approvals, which the board approved with a 2-1 vote.

– By Capital News Service’s Alexis Gutter.

Maryland Congressmen Say Lame Duck Session Likely Pretty Lame

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

It seems everyone is talking about what Congress will do during the lame duck session that stretches from now until probably early December: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the DREAM Act immigration bill, the extension (or not) of the Bush tax cuts.

The way politicians have taken to the soapbox since the elections would indicate a lot of upcoming legislative drama — but Maryland Democratic congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger and Elijah Cummings are pessimistic about anything significant getting done before the end of the 111th Congress.

“I don’t think a lot’s going to happen during this session,” Cummings, D-Baltimore, said outside the Democratic Caucus yesterday.

But while Cummings may have just been pessimistic, Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, seemed to not want much to happen, saying now was not the time for Congress to rock the boat.

“You don’t want to push through something that’s controversial or that will repealed later on,” Ruppersberger said. “I think right now in a lame duck session you only try to work through things that weren’t completed that both sides can agree to.”

Ruppersberger also said he “can’t imagine at this point” that any progress would be made on the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he is “committed” to bringing DADT to the Senate floor after the Thanksgiving recess, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the issue is “a priority” for President Obama. Some Democrats have balked at the vote, however, saying that Congress should wait to see the findings of a Pentagon study scheduled to be released Dec. 1.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released yesterday showed 50 percent of Americans support the repeal of the regulation.

Ruppersberger also dismissed any optimism regarding the DREAM Act, a bill that came up in September but failed to get enough votes to bring it to the Senate floor as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. The bill would give a path to citizenship for those who came to the U.S. illegally before age 16, granting permanent residence to those who apply to the program and complete either two years of college or two years of military service.

But Democratic leaders in both houses have said they intended to bring the measure to a vote, and Obama said he would begin calling individual legislators to get them to vote for the bill, according to Politico’s Simmi Aujla.
What Ruppersberger did support, however, was the reduction of government spending — and the extension of all the Bush tax cuts.

“We have to change gears and start focusing on the deficit,” Ruppersberger said. “We have to stop the spending. This deficit literally is making us weak as a country. We can’t compete.”

But he then said that all of the Bush tax cuts — set to expire Dec. 31 — should be extended for a year, even though they will “cost us more money and add to the deficit,” adding that extending tax cuts for the wealthy will encourage investment and spur jobs growth. CNN Money’s Jeanne Sahadi reports that “based on Treasury Department numbers, the cost is likely to range anywhere from $200 billion to $500 billion, depending on whose cuts are extended and for how long.”

Cummings, D-Baltimore, said his biggest priority was extending unemployment benefits. The current package expires at the end of the month, but the House introduced a “last-minute addition” to the voting docket to extend benefits for another 90 days, according to NBC’s Shawna Thomas and Luke Russert.

“The thing that we ought to be concentrating on is this unemployment insurance situation. We’ve got two million people that are about to lose their unemployment benefits,” Cummings said. “We’ve had hours upon hours of discussion about tax cuts for the rich, but when it comes to people who will be getting no check to even be taxed, there’s very little being said.”

– By Capital News Service’s Rich Abdill

Baker Looks Forward Despite County Executive’s Arrest

Monday, November 15th, 2010

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — The Baker administration will remain focused on campaign promises — improving the school system, expanding the tax base and creating jobs – despite the federal probe that resulted in the arrests of the current county executive and his wife, Prince George’s County Executive-elect Rushern L. Baker III said today.

“Despite recent events, these are not sad days in Prince George’s County,” said Baker. “The alleged acts of a few in no way should deter the direction of all of Prince George’s County.”

When asked if he was surprised by recent events, which on Friday resulted in the arrests of County Executive Jack B. Johnson and wife, Leslie E. Johnson, Baker said he ran because he wanted to participate in making the county great.

“In a few days, or a few weeks quiet honestly, we’re going to get the chance to do that [improve the county],” said Baker, who will be sworn in Dec. 6.  “That’s why I ran, and that is what I am going to focus on.”

–By Maryland Newsline’s Rabiah Alicia Burks

Mental Health Concerns Raised at Veterans Day Ceremony

Thursday, November 11th, 2010
Retired Gen. Warner I. Sumpter (Photo by Capital News Service's Alix Farr)

Retired Gen. Warner I. Sumpter (Photo by Capital News Service's Alix Farr)

CROWNSVILLE, Md. – A retired general addressed the urgent need to support veterans with mental illness in the keynote speech at the Veterans Day ceremony at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery Thursday.

Retired Gen. Warner I. Sumpter of the Maryland National Guard spoke to a crowd of about 200 veterans and their friends and families about a Marine injured in Vietnam with whom Sumpter had served.

After suffering from alcohol and drug abuse for nearly two decades, this Marine was “one of the lucky ones” who was able to receive counseling and treatment after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Sumpter said.

“Not all veterans are so fortunate.”

His speech was timely.  Hundreds of headlines this year have addressed the issue of increasing rates of mental illness in soldiers after data released in January from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs showed a 26 percent increase in suicide among 18- to 29-year-old men who have left the military.

There are veterans and active duty service members who continue to face adversity, Sumpter said.  “Make sure they are remembered.”

Also present at the ceremony, which was organized by the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, was Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who emphasized his commitment to bringing better health care to veterans.

We must “make sure we do what’s right for those who have served,” he said.

A representative for Gov. Martin O’Malley read a declaration of Veterans Day in Maryland, calling military service the “highest form of citizenship.”

-By Capital News Service’s Alix Farr

Officials Hope Next Thirsty Turtle Tenant Will Be Good Neighbor

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – If Bob Ryan had his way, the next establishment at the current site of the Thirsty Turtle would include duckpins.

“My understanding is that the building was built as a bowling alley,” Ryan, director of public services for College Park, told the Prince George’s County Board of License Commissioners Wednesday night. “I’m sure our council will approve of that.”

Ryan’s suggestion got chuckles from the board, making brief light of the more serious topic the Liquor Board took up – what’s next for the College Park bar whose owner, Alan Wanuck, surrendered its liquor license earlier in the day.

Wanuck did not appear at the hearing, but several public officials expressed their opinions about a business owner’s responsibility to the community.

“I expect the proprietor would obey the law,” University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell said. “They need to act in the best interests of the students of the University of Maryland that go there.”

The board originally was to hear testimony surrounding a fight that took place Oct. 12 inside the Thirsty Turtle. The altercation led to four men involved in the fight being stabbed across the street from the bar after they had been ejected by Turtle employees.

Since then, Mitchell has railed against underage drinking in College Park, specifically focusing on the Thirsty Turtle as a bar that had too frequently served underage patrons alcohol and served people who were already intoxicated.

Wanuck’s lawyer, Linda Carter, laid blame on the bar’s employees for the license revocation.

“[Wanuck] has gotten to the point where he doesn’t trust anybody to do the job that he would do,” Carter said.

–by Maryland Newsline’s Justin Karp

Governor Thanks Veterans at Maryland’s WWII Memorial

Thursday, November 11th, 2010
Allen Pindell, who was an Airman Second Class in the U.S. Air Force, steadies the flag on Thursday morning during a Veterans Day ceremony at the Maryland World War II Memorial. Pindell, of Annapolis, served 13 years in the military, through the wars in Vietnam and Korea and the Cuban missile crisis.

Allen Pindell, who was an Airman Second Class in the U.S. Air Force, steadies the flag on Thursday morning during a Veterans Day ceremony at the Maryland World War II Memorial. Pindell, of Annapolis, served 13 years in the military, through the wars in Vietnam and Korea and the Cuban missile crisis. By Abby Brownback, Capital News Service.

ANNAPOLIS – A former Tuskeegee Airman listened intently as Gov. Martin O’Malley paid tribute to veterans at a Thursday morning ceremony at the Maryland World War II Memorial.

“Your today was the greatest gift you could have given your country,” O’Malley told veterans during his brief remarks at the American Legion Post 141 event on Veterans Day. “We can never repay that.”

Before a crowd of about 50, the governor thanked veterans who “advance, protect and defend the common good,” saying the strength of this country depends on people in uniform. O’Malley also spoke of Maryland’s role in fighting back British troops during the American Revolution, and of his own father, a World War II veteran who is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It’s our day to celebrate all the guys I knew and those I did not that served the country,” said James Pryde, the former Tuskeegee Airman of Upper Marlboro.

Pryde said he’ll attend another Veterans Day event, because there aren’t enough living Tuskeegee Airmen, a group of men who were the first African-American U.S. military aviators, to get to every Veterans Day event.

Robert A. Mays Jr., the commander of the American Legion post, said the original keynote speaker was deployed, and O’Malley volunteered to step in for the 11th annual ceremony.

The mild weather ushered in a better-than-usual turnout, said Mays, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam War veteran, though simultaneous events in downtown Annapolis and Crownsville might have decreased attendance.

Samara Firebaugh, of Annapolis, brought her 5-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old son to the ceremony. The children’s father is a veteran of the Iraq war.

“They should know it’s not just a day off school, but the meaning behind the day,” Firebaugh said.

Brian Jones, of Arnold, said he attended in memory of Vietnam veterans who didn’t make it home.

“They’re my brothers,” he said.

–By Capital News Service’s Abby Brownback.