PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the Providence Board of Licenses voted to award a liquor license to Shark Bar & Grille in the summer of 2008, it ignored the vocal objections of neighboring Brown University, a sitting city councilman, and the Providence police.
It’s now becoming clearer why.
Former House Speaker Gordon Fox, who served as vice-chairman of the board at the time, pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting $52,500 in bribes from the owners of the Thayer Street bar. Fox is also charged with wire fraud and filing a false tax return. He reached a plea deal in exchange for a three-year prison sentence.
- Watch: Exclusive interview with Gordon Fox
- PDFs: Gordon Fox case part one, part two | Plea agreement
- Timeline: The Gordon Fox investigation
Fox accepted $35,000 in four checks and $17,500 in cash from three of the restaurant’s partners around Sept. 5, 2008, a week after the board voted unanimously to approve the liquor license, according to court documents obtained by Target 12.
“There was nothing to indicate there will be a problem,” Fox said during the Aug. 29, 2008 board meeting, according to transcript obtained by Target 12. He explained that “this establishment will enhance the experience” on Thayer Street, then made a motion to approve the license.
Several opponents of the license told the board they believed there were already too many establishments serving liquor around Thayer Street.
During an Aug. 13 meeting, Providence Police Lt. John Ryan told the board, “I don’t know if we can take another liquor license up there,” referring to Thayer Street. He said he was concerned about the congestion in that part of the city.
At the same meeting, a spokesman for Brown University read a letter to the board of behalf of the school that said the school “respectfully and vigorously objects to the issuance of said license.” The university raised concerns about the large number of already-existing “establishments licensed to serve and sell alcoholic beverages on and near Thayer Street and neighboring areas.”
Another objector, former Councilman Cliff Wood, said he was unfamiliar with the owner of the restaurant and was “concerned about the amount of liquor licenses on Thayer Street, especially late night, early morning.”
Edward Bishop, a well-known insurance agent who owns several pieces of real estate on the East Side, told the board he was concerned about the lack of parking at the restaurant. He said the “facility at this time is not appropriate.”
Reached Tuesday morning, Joseph Dalomba, one of the restaurant’s former co-owners, confirmed to Target 12 that he did speak to law enforcement, but declined to comment further. Raymond Hugh, who has co-owned the restaurant since 2008, said “that’s not true” when he was informed of the bribery charge for Fox. When a reporter asked Hugh if he talked to law enforcement, he hung up the phone.
During the Aug. 13 meeting, Hugh, who also owns Shanghai Restaurant on Thayer Street, told the board he wanted “an upscale, one of a kind restaurant different from anything in the state.” Dalomba, the owner of a Central Falls construction company, said the shark tank inside the restaurant cost $225,000.
Andrew Annaldo, who chaired the Board of Licenses in 2008, told Target 12 everything he knew about the license for Shark Bar & Grille happened “in public.” He said he wasn’t aware of the bribe Fox accepted.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Annaldo said.
The two other members of the board at the time included Arys Batista and Allene Maynard. Fox, who was appointed to the board in 2001 by former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., resigned from the panel in 2009.
Commissioners for the Board of Licenses are paid $19,713 a year and generally meet about three times each week. The board processes thousands of entertainment and liquor licenses annually.
The current board includes Chairwoman Johanna Harris, Rev. Jeffrey Williams, state Sen. Juan Pichardo, Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan and Luis Peralta.
Harris, who was named chair of the board in 2014, told Target 12 she has worked to create a more transparent process for approving licenses. She said she requires each member to explain every vote they take to the public.
“There can be no secret deals,” she said.