- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is calling for tougher scrutiny of liquor-license applicants after a convicted drug felon won a permit to open a nightclub that authorities later said was a front for a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring.

“In this case it looks like there’s a need for a more stringent law, and we’ll do that expeditiously,” said Mr. Fenty, a Democrat.

The Washington Times reported Monday that Antoine Jones was granted a liquor license in 2004 to open Club Level’s on Montana Avenue in Northeast, though he had served the better part of the past decade for dealing cocaine.

Jones had convictions on his record in Virginia and the District when he was awarded the license. A year after opening the club, he was arrested on charges of running the drug ring. After a mistrial earlier this year, Jones will be tried again in November and faces life in prison if convicted.

City officials said the convictions never surfaced for two reasons. First, the city’s policy for liquor-license reviews is to require criminal checks in the District and the state in which an applicant lives. So for Jones, a Maryland resident, his 1991 cocaine conviction in Arlington never surfaced.

Also, Jones was sentenced to 10 years prison in a federal cocaine case in the District in 1994, but the conviction remains sealed. Because the conviction was sealed, it never surfaced during a check of his background.

The District’s Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration’s director, Maria Delaney, said officials are moving toward a system that will include a nationwide check of criminal records.

“I’m glad the director is moving in a direction so that we’ll make sure the liquor-license application process protects the citizens of the District of Columbia,” Mr. Fenty said.

The mayor’s comments came after a Arboretum Neighborhood Association meeting Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Police Department’s 5th District headquarters, which is within walking distance of Club Level’s.

The club closed after an FBI raid in 2005. Some community leaders have expressed concern that Jones was able to get a liquor license. Jean Mason, president of the Arboretum association, has called it “ridiculous” that the District awarded the license.

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, said the District should have a mandatory, nationwide search of criminal records before awarding liquor licenses.

“We need to be very stringent,” he said. “We need responsible people running these nightclubs. I’m very concerned about how liquor licenses are handed out.”

For more than a year, authorities say, the converted warehouse that was Club Level’s 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 amounts of cocaine.

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

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

“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.

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