Fox did legal work for bar at center of bribery scheme

Shark Bar & Grille on Thayer Street in Providence. (photo: WPRI 12/Walt Buteau)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former House Speaker Gordon Fox did legal work for the same Thayer Street restaurant whose owners prosecutors say paid him $52,500 in bribes in order to obtain a liquor license, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.

Fox represented Shark Bar & Grille in front of the Providence Board of Licenses in 2012, when the restaurant was accused of allowing an underage patron to purchase an alcoholic beverage. The restaurant agreed to pay a $350 fine.

Fox was vice-chair of the board in the summer of 2008 when he pushed for the restaurant to receive its liquor license in the face of staunch opposition from Providence police, Brown University and a sitting city councilman. The board voted unanimously to approve the license on Aug. 29, 2008.

What was unknown at the time was that Fox had received $35,000 in four checks and another $17,500 in cash from the owners of the restaurant in exchange for the license. He pleaded guilty on Tuesday to bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return and reached a plea deal in exchange for a three-year prison sentence.

“There is nothing to indicate there will be a problem,” Fox said in 2008 before he made a motion to approve the liquor license for the restaurant.

But there were problems.

Records reviewed by Target 12 show Shark Bar & Grille has been cited for eight city ordinance violations since 2009, including two for selling alcohol to a minor in 2012 and another for a brawl that occurred inside the restaurant in 2013. All told, the restaurant has paid $1,750 in fines since it opened.

Fox – who left the Board of Licenses in 2009 and became speaker in 2010 – was the restaurant’s lawyer following an underage drinking incident that occurred on Oct. 27, 2012.

Acting on an anonymous tip, Providence police sent a 19-year-old male to the restaurant, according to an incident report obtained by Target 12. The door host told the teenager “just don’t drink” and allowed him to enter. He proceeded to purchase a rum and coke. Police charged the restaurant with a liquor law violation.

The restaurant agreed to pay a $350 fine during a pre-hearing conference that occurred behind closed doors on Dec. 6, 2012. Fox’s signature is on the agreement with the board. The city does not keep transcripts of pre-hearing conferences.

Serving alcohol to minors was exactly the type of incident Shark Bar & Grille’s owners pledged to avoid when they made the case to the Board of Licenses that they deserved a liquor license in 2008. John Mancini, a lawyer representing the restaurant, told the board there would a “zero tolerance policy” for underage drinking.

At the time, Providence police, Brown University and former City Councilman Cliff Wood all asked the board not to approve the liquor license, citing the number of license already granted on Thayer Street. A police lieutenant said, “I don’t know if we can take another liquor license up there.”

“It is not his intention to operate a bar or pub up here, which would attract any type of late night maliciousness,” Mancini said, referring to one of the restaurant’s owners.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 26, 2013, police responded to Shark Bar & Grille to find “tables, chairs, drink glasses and other debris” on the restaurant’s floor following a fight, according to an incident report obtained by Target 12. One patron was found “covered in blood” from a laceration.

The restaurant paid a $1,000 fine following the incident. Fox did not represent the owners in front of the licensing board on that matter.

Prosecutors have not identified the names of the owners they believed bribed Fox. Joseph Dalomba, one of the restaurant’s former co-owners, told Target 12 he has spoken to law enforcement, but declined to say if he was involved in paying off Fox. Raymond Hugh, another co-owner, hung up the phone when a reporter asked if he talked to law enforcement.

Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he plans to consult with the city’s legal department to see if it can revoke the liquor license for Shark Bar & Grille. Johanna Harris, the current chairwoman of the licensing board, has said the board would need “more concrete information” before making a decision.

If U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi accepts to Fox’s plea agreement, he will be sentenced June 11.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI

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