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Felons can still get liquor licenses in D.C.

Process yet to change

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Antoine Jones didn't mention his prior felony drug-dealing convictions in Virginia and the District on the 2004 application he filled out to receive a liquor license from the D.C. government.

Nonetheless, Jones breezed through the city's application process thanks to the District's policy of not conducting nationwide criminal background checks on liquor license applicants.

In fact, officials at the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), which issues and renews licenses enabling businesses to sell and serve alcoholic beverages, learned about Jones' past only after his 2005 arrest when federal authorities charged him as a central figure in a multimillion-dollar drug operation.

Jones' criminal past went undetected, in part, because city regulators require only police clearance of liquor license applicants in the District and in the states where applicants live. Jones lived in Maryland, so his 1991 conviction in Arlington never surfaced.

Officials also didn't know about a 1994 federal drug conviction because the case had been sealed.

After The Washington Times first reported on Jones' case in 2007, D.C. officials, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, called for reforms to the troubled background check system. But more than three years later, regulators say the system remains unchanged, though they promise action soon.

ABRA spokeswoman Cynthia Simms said Tuesday that the agency "has been working diligently on making changes to the criminal background check process since early this year."

"ABRA will be implementing both nationally and locally criminal checks system," she said, adding that the agency was working with the Metropolitan Police Department and awaiting congressional review of recently passed local legislation.

The since-razed converted warehouse near the Metropolitan Police Department's 5th District headquarters that Jones turned into a nightclub called Club Levels helped his drug business grow, prosecutors argued during his trial in federal court in Washington.

In court records, prosecutors suggested that he and others communicated through a coded language captured on a wiretap — with words such as "VIPs," "tickets" and "half-tickets" — which referred to amounts of cocaine.

But Jones and his attorney balked at the characterization, arguing in court that the government's case relied on informants motivated to testify against Jones as a way to get leniency at sentencing in their own cases.

Sentenced to life in prison in 2008, Jones recently won a key legal victory and garnered national attention when an appeals court reversed his conviction. The court's ruling earlier this month criticized the government's use of a satellite tracking device on his vehicle without a search warrant.

Last year, the D.C. office of the inspector general cited the Jones case in a little-noticed report alerting ABRA and the Metropolitan Police Department about flaws in the liquor license background check policy.

The inspector general's report found that "ABRA does not require Alcoholic Beverage Control license applicants to undergo national criminal background checks.

"This deficiency prevents ABRA from determining whether an applicant committed a crime elsewhere in the country that would disqualify him or her from receiving a license," the report found.

Other jurisdictions, such as Virginia and Montgomery County, require those seeking liquor licenses to undergo national criminal background checks, officials said.

In response to the report, ABRA last year told the inspector general's office that the agency was working on an agreement with the city's police department to conduct background checks using the National Crime Information Center, which is administered by the FBI but available to law enforcement agencies.

But officials also said a transition to a system of national criminal background checks requires a change to D.C. regulations.

ABRA's director, Fred Moosally, who previously served as the agency's top attorney, said officials were committed to a national criminal background search system, including requiring the submission of fingerprints.

Mr. Moosally told the inspector general's office last summer that plans called for liquor license applicants' fingerprints to be submitted to the Metropolitan Police Department, which then would forward them to the FBI to run against the national database.

But he said implementing more comprehensive background checks would require ABRA to amend its existing rules. Asked about the time ABRA needs to implement the background policy, Ms. Simms said Tuesday that the agency is waiting on legislation recently approved by the D.C. Council to pass congressional review.

"ABRA has been working with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to implement a national background check system," she said.

Still, former FBI agent William Lowrance, now a lawyer and private investigator, said in an interview that other commercial databases are available that can already provide criminal information through records from most major metropolitan areas in the country.

While these databases aren't comprehensive, they can provide information about convictions that wouldn't necessarily surface based on the background checks that ABRA now requires, he said.

Mr. Lowrance called the District's system of requiring police clearances in Washington and in applicants' home states "very limiting."

In 2007, ABRA officials said they were working on a more comprehensive background check, a move that D.C. politicians such as Mr. Fenty and Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas supported.

"In this case it looks like there's a need for a more stringent law, and we'll do that expeditiously," Mr. Fenty said in March 2007, when asked about the Jones license application.

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