- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

Antoine Jones had spent most of the past decade in prison for dealing cocaine when he applied to the D.C. government for an alcohol-beverage license in 2004.

The District nonetheless awarded Jones a license, allowing him to open the Club Level’s on Montana Avenue in Northeast, a popular nightclub that authorities say was really a front for a multimillion-dollar cocaine-dealing network with ties to Texas and Mexico.

Jones, 47, was arrested and charged in 2005 with drug trafficking and other felony charges. A jury failed to reach a verdict in January, and he now awaits a second trial that could result in life in prison if convicted.

D.C. officials acknowledge that when Jones applied for the license they were unaware of his criminal history, which an FBI agent in a 2005 wiretap affidavit called “extensive.”

“Mr. Jones answered on the application that he did not have any convictions,” said Maria Delaney, executive director of the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). “Had we known about the conviction, he would not have received a license.”

One reason Jones’ criminal past went undetected is that D.C. applicants are required to obtain police clearance only in the District and the state in which they live.

In the case of Jones, a Maryland resident, officials missed his 1991 conviction for cocaine dealing in Arlington, which resulted in a six-year prison sentence with three years suspended.

Court records also show Jones was arrested in 1993 in the District on drug-related charges, and while out on bail was arrested again for possession of more than 600 grams of cocaine. In 1994, he pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to 10 years, according to court records. That conviction was then sealed.

On Jones’ application packet, reviewed by The Washington Times, ABRA employee Jolly Harper indicated that the District obtained a police clearance for Jones.

However, a sealed conviction would not appear in a criminal-background search, said Lt. William O’Conner, of the Metropolitan Police Department’s records branch.

He also confirmed the board’s policy is to check only records for the District and the applicant’s home state, so Jones would have receive clearance despite his Virginia conviction.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on why Jones’ records were sealed in the 1994 case.

An ABRA official said the agency once required applicants to submit fingerprints, which were then run through an FBI check, but the policy was discontinued in the early 1990s.

Miss Delaney said the agency is attempting to make changes to avoid a similar occurrence, but no changes have been made since ABRA learned about the Jones case about 18 months ago.

She said the agency could enter into an agreement with a law-enforcement agency to conduct nationwide searches of criminal records for liquor applicants.

For now, the District still must rely, in part, on an applicant’s truthfulness, Miss Delaney said.

“If there was a felony conviction, he should have told us about it,” she said.

Community activist Kathy Henderson, a former neighborhood advisory commissioner in Ward 5, said the District “can’t rely on a criminal to self-report” his or her criminal history.

“This clearly never should have happened,” she said. “A mistake was made. Somebody needs to take ownership of the mistake. People with these types of records shouldn’t be given a liquor license.”

Other community leaders in Ward 5, home to Club Level’s, also are upset.

“If you have a person who has a demonstrated track record of being involved in these acts and you grant them a license, that’s ridiculous,” said Jean Mason, president of the Arboretum Neighborhood Association.

With its back windows overlooking the police department’s 5th District headquarters, the nightclub appears a brazen place to oversee a major drug operation.

But for more than a year, authorities say, the converted warehouse provided enough cover for the illegal business to thrive, complete with its own language.

The wiretap on Jones’ cell phone recorded conversations about “VIPs,” “tickets” and “half-tickets” — a coded language that investigators said referred to various amounts of cocaine.

“To a person that’s just listening, the average person just thinks we were talking about selling legitimate tickets,” a cooperating witness testified in court.

“We talked about things that surround the nightclub that wouldn’t raise suspicion to anyone,” he said.

Jones’ attorney, A. Eduardo Balarezo, said his client wasn’t operating a drug ring out of the club.

“This case is based mostly on the interpretations of what it calls ‘coded’ telephone [calls] allegedly involving Mr. Jones, and the use of informants and other individuals with motives to testify in favor of the government and against Mr. Jones,” he said in court.

But prosecutors say the club was where Jones arranged drug deals worth as much as $100,000 and laundered the proceeds.

There is no indication that Jones ran other nightclubs, but he had a major financial stake in Kili’s Kafe & Lounge in Northwest, which went bankrupt in 2005 and eventually closed after shootings and other violence, according to court records.

Jones and a business partner loaned Kili’s owners more than $70,000 to help the business erase its tax debt in exchange for percentage of the bar revenue and admissions, according to bankruptcy records.

Jones did not testify in his trial last year, in which two co-defendants were acquitted and a jury deadlocked on most of the charges he faces.

But in pretrial hearing, he denied wrongdoing.

“If you look at my record, I’m not violent,” he told a judge. “I would not do anything that would send me to hell.”

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