What we know and don’t know about Providence’s battle with Shark Bar

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

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lawyers for the Thayer Street bar whose owners federal prosecutors say bribed former House Speaker Gordon Fox in order to obtain a liquor license are expected to appear in front the Providence Board of Licenses Monday, as the city seeks void all of the bar’s business permits.

Mayor Jorge Elorza has asked the board the strip Shark Bar & Grille of its licenses because Fox admitted to accepting $52,500 in bribes from three of the bar’s partners in 2008 when he was vice-chairman of the board. Monday’s meeting will take place at City Hall at 1 p.m.

Earlier this month, Fox pleaded guilty to bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return and reached a plea deal in exchange for a three-year prison sentence.

So where do things stand now? Here’s an overview.

What we know

Gordon Fox admitted to accepting bribes in exchange for a liquor license.
As part of a plea agreement, the former House Speaker admitted that he was paid $52,500 in bribes to help Shark Bar & Grille obtain a liquor license in 2008. At the time, Fox was vice-chair of the Board of Licenses. Meeting minutes show that Fox said “this establishment will enhance the experience” on Thayer Street and then made a motion to approve the license. A week after the vote, federal prosecutors say three partners in the bar gave Fox four checks worth $35,000 and another $17,500 in cash. If U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi agrees to Fox’s plea agreement, he will be sentenced June 11. He is facing three years in prison.

Gordon Fox wasn’t the only one board member who voted for Shark’s license.
While Fox is the only one who has been charged in connection with the bribes, the Board of Licenses voted 3-0 to approve the bar’s liquor license. Board Chairman Andrew Annaldo and Allene Maynard also voted in favor of the license. A fourth member, Arys Batista, did not vote because he didn’t attend a prior meeting where the owners of the bar and neighborhood groups made arguments for and against the license. No members of today’s board were on the board when the license was granted.

There was a lot of opposition to Shark’s license.
The decision to approve the license came over the objections of Providence police, Brown University and a sitting member of the City Council. At one hearing, 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. In a letter that was read to the board, Brown 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.” Former Councilman Cliff Wood told the board he was “concerned about the amount of liquor licenses on Thayer Street, especially late night, early morning.”

Shark has been cited for eight city ordinance violations since it opened.
Records reviewed by Target 12 the bar has paid $1,750 in fines since 2009, including two for selling alcohol to a minor in 2012 and another for a brawl that occurred inside the restaurant in 2013. In 2012, Fox was the restaurant’s lawyer when the owners agreed to pay a $350 underage drinking fine during a pre-hearing conference.

What we don’t know

Does the city have the legal authority to void Shark’s licenses?
Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he wants to send a “strong message that there will be no tolerance for corruption in our city,” but it is unlikely this matter will be settled by the Board of Licenses. No matter what happens, Shark’s owners can appeal the decision with the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR), Superior Court and ultimately, the state Supreme Court. The board typically sides with the city’s lawyers – and they’re making the case that the licenses can be voided because of the “admitted malfeasance” of Fox.

Exactly who bribed Gordon Fox?
Federal prosecutors have only identified the partners accused of bribing Fox as “Persons B, C, and D,” and no one else has been charged in connection with the matter. We know that Joseph Dalomba and Ray Phillip Hugh were named in Shark’s 2008 corporate filings and the city has identified Bahij Boutros as a silent partner in the business. (Records show Boutros became an official partner in the business in 2011.) Dalomba is the only one of the three who has confirmed to Target 12 that he did speak with law enforcement, but he declined to comment further. Hugh said “that’s not true” when a reporter informed him of the bribery charge. Boutros has referred all questions to his lawyer.

Will someone else be charged in connection with the bribe?
The federal statute of limitations on bribery charges has already expired – as part of his plea agreement, Fox agreed to not use the statute as a defense – but the state has 10 years from the date of the alleged bribe to bring charges. A spokeswoman for the attorney general has told Target 12 “we continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to review the information developed during the course of this investigation.”

If Shark’s licenses are voided, can they reapply?
City officials have been very careful to say they are seeking to void – not revoke – the business licenses of Shark. While doing so would undoubtedly force the bar the shut its doors for at least some period of time, the city has not yet said it believes the bar should be closed for good. If the board does go through with voiding the licenses and the owners want to stay open, they could submit a new application to the board in the future.

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

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