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Sheraton Charlotte hotel representative claimed to have influence over alcohol permitting board

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/02/20/44/1finhI.Em.138.jpeg|201
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    The former Blake Hotel underwent a major renovation and was under pressure to be ready in time for the CIAA basketball tournament.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/02/20/44/1mDuiK.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    The Sheraton Hotel, formerly called the Blake, is on the corner of McDowell and Stonewall streets.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/02/20/44/GfOas.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    The former Blake Hotel underwent a $20 million renovation and is now the Sheraton Charlotte.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/02/20/44/leXXe.Em.138.jpeg|220
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon.

Until February, the new Sheraton Hotel uptown had a problem: The hotel didn’t have a valid alcohol permit, according to state records obtained Wednesday.

But in November, according to a report from an Alcohol Law Enforcement agent, a hotel representative named Larry Parks told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to sign off on the hotel’s liquor license application despite incomplete paperwork because he knew someone at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission “who would take care of it.”

The claim by a hotel representative that he had influence with the ABC board – which state ABC Commission officials dispute – comes a week after the arrest of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon. Cannon is charged with taking $48,000 in bribes and gifts in exchange for promises to influence permits, liquor licenses and zoning issues.

Liquor licenses are crucial to the profitability of full-service hotels.

An investigative file from the state ABC Commission recounts the hotel’s struggles with its liquor license both before and after a March shooting during the CIAA tournament that injured two people.

The state ABC Commission grants alcohol permits. But local officials must submit “opinions” saying whether they approve of the applicant and the location. Locally, that job falls to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s ABC unit, which conducts background checks on applicants.

In November, CMPD wouldn’t accept the Sheraton’s initial application because the renovation didn’t yet have building and zoning approvals.

In February, a CMPD detective went to the hotel with an ALE agent and found the hotel selling alcohol without a valid license. Two days later, and without any sanctions, the Sheraton obtained a temporary permit. Since CMPD had refused to complete the opinion, it’s not clear what changed.

ABC Commission spokeswoman Agnes Stevens said the agency does not have to follow the usual rules in the case of long-established businesses where the ownership structure has changed – as happened at the Sheraton.

In such instances, she said, “the Commission staff will exercise discretion in issuing temporary permits even if all of the supplementary documentation is not yet completed.”

Two days after that, gunfire erupted at a crowded CIAA party featuring rapper then-known-as P. Diddy. ALE agent Omar Qureshi, based in Charlotte, reported the incident to the state ABC Commission, which then suspended the hotel’s liquor license.

Eight days after the suspension, on March 11, state officials gave the Sheraton its license back, after telling the hotel to train its employees on alcohol rules and to “provide a completed inspections form and a completed local opinion form.”

The ABC records don’t show a link between Cannon and Parks, the hotel representative. But Cannon’s E-Z Parking company manages the Sheraton’s parking, charging $80 a month to regular parkers and hourly rates to others. Cannon also held his victory party there in November.

A person named Larry Parks is listed in campaign finance records as giving $1,250 to Cannon’s city council campaign in 2011.

Asked if federal authorities were investigating whether Cannon had any influence on the hotel’s liquor license, Lia Bantavani, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, said, “The investigation is ongoing and all leads will be investigated.”

Attempts to reach Parks by phone were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The cost of renovation

At the time Parks claimed influence with the ABC, the former Blake Hotel on McDowell Street was undergoing a $20 million renovation to turn it into a combined Le Meridien and Sheraton Hotel. The out-of-state owners, Carolina Hospitality Group LLC, hoped to revitalize it after the California delegation panned the Blake as decrepit during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

But the Blake’s liquor license wasn’t valid at the new Sheraton, which opened in August, because such licenses are not transferable.

Qureshi’s report quotes CMPD Detective Matt Lewis about what happened when the hotel tried to get a temporary permit in November.

“The location was still under construction. ... Detective Lewis stated that the new ownership’s representative, Larry Parks, made comments to the CMPD secretary to go ahead and sign the paperwork anyway because he knew someone at the ABC Commission who would take care of it,” Qureshi wrote in his March report.

Qureshi referred questions to an ALE spokeswoman, who declined to discuss the case. A CMPD spokesman said the agency couldn’t comment.

In his report, Qureshi describes visiting the hotel at the end of February and finding it in disarray.

“The restaurant was closed down and construction crews were tiling the lobby floors. Other crews were building or repairing walls on scaffolding in the lobby and hallways.... This location did not appear to be ready for the type of large events planned for the weekend,” his report said.

Big CIAA parties starring rappers P. Diddy and Nelly were being advertised for that weekend.

More problematic, the hotel didn’t have a valid liquor license, and was serving patrons.

“I spoke with Parks who admitted he knew the permits weren’t correct and said he knew this day would come,” wrote Qureshi. “Parks said he was surprised it took so long before they got caught.”

Qureshi said Parks told him “the owners had already taken $125,000 for the event and they were scared the promoters or patrons would destroy the rooms.”

The hotel was given two days – until Friday, Feb. 28 – to get a valid alcohol permit. Parks drove to Raleigh and obtained the permit on Feb. 28. Records show the hotel paid $2,552 to the ABC. Stevens, the ABC Commission spokeswoman, said she did not think CMPD submitted an opinion form.

‘Complete disarray’

Two days later, on Sunday, March 2, at a party during the CIAA, two people were shot in the leg and a man was beaten over the head with a champagne bottle and robbed.

“The location was in complete disarray with broken glass and overturned furniture everywhere,” wrote Qureshi. “Many female patrons had to leave there (sic) shoes in order to flee the scene quickly.”

The Sheraton’s license was revoked March 3. George Dfouni, one of the hotel’s out-of-state owners, flew down to meet with the ABC Commission in Raleigh the next week.

“After that review and a meeting with the location’s representatives, the Commission was satisfied that public safety was not endangered by the businesses selling and serving alcohol,” said Stevens in an email. She said no one attempted to improperly influence the ABC Commission.

Dfouni said he was surprised to hear that Parks allegedly told people he could influence the ABC. He said Parks was an architectural consultant.

“This is news to me,” he said. “I’m actually surprised by this. ... He was introduced to me as somebody local who knows a lot of architects. He was like a middleman between me and contractors. I really don’t deal with Larry that much.”

Michael Herring, chief administrator of the ABC Commission, said he didn’t believe Parks’ claims of having influence.

“Larry Parks has no clout here. ... He has no influence over any of my staff here,” he said.

Herring said he has never met Parks but has heard of him. He believes that Parks has helped businesses get established in Charlotte, and that he has sent representatives to Raleigh with the paperwork that businesses need to get ABC permits.

Jim Gardner, chair of the three-member N.C. ABC Commission, said he doesn’t know Parks and doubts he has influence.

“I don’t think that would be possible knowing the people we have,” said Gardner, who was just appointed in February by Gov. Pat McCrory. “He might know some people in Charlotte, but not in Raleigh that I know of.”

Gardner said he was satisfied after meeting with Dfouni that the Sheraton had cleaned things up.

‘I didn’t ask for favors’

Hotel co-owner Dfouni said he knows Cannon and has met him several times, but never sought influence from him. He said he dealt with Jeff Feemster, E-Z Parking’s co-president, when dealing with parking, not Cannon.

“I didn’t ask for favors,” he said. “What do I need the mayor for, with all due respect to the mayor?”

Gardner and Joel Keith, another commission member, said they don’t believe that the FBI agents investigating Cannon have spoken to anyone at the commission.

A member of the Mecklenburg ABC Board said he did not think the FBI had contacted anyone with the county board.

Herring said that the FBI agents investigating Cannon haven’t talked to his staff.

“No one here knows Mayor Cannon. Nor has Mayor Cannon made a phone call here to my knowledge,” Herring said.

Staff researcher Maria David and staff writers Gavin Off and Michael Gordon contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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