Ralph Johnson, the board member for the parish’s Alcoholic Beverage Control office who was accused of extortion last week, suspected the business owners who applied for the liquor permit were attempting to bribe him and made an audio recording of two conversations to protect himself, said attorney Chris Alexander.
Alexander provided recordings of two separate meetings to The Advocate for review, which he said he believes prove Johnson’s innocence.
In the recordings, Johnson meets with Gehad A. Alrabeei and Adnan Saleh Ghanem, the owners of Donmoor Food Mart, owned by Nada 2 Inc., at the Melrose East Community Association office on June 29 and July 8, Johnson said.
In the recordings, the business owners discuss joining MECA, and Johnson repeatedly tells them that joining the association does not mean MECA will drop its opposition.
“We appreciate the donation, but we don’t want you to say, ‘We’re going to give a donation, if you guys don’t oppose us,’ ” Johnson said in the July 8 recording. “You know we’re opposing you because we’ve told you upfront. But if you do come in, we want you to be a part of the neighborhood, and we would expect that contribution to come in.”
Alexander said Johnson made the recordings because he was suspicious about the way he was being approached by the store owners and was sensitive to the fact he was a member of both MECA and the ABC board.
“He was trying to avoid precisely the things that are going on right now,” Johnson’s attorney said.
Alexander also said Johnson approached ABC Executive Director Chris Cranford to tell him he felt like the Donmoor Food Mart owners were attempting to bribe him.
Cranford told Johnson he could continue to meet with them if he was doing it on MECA’s behalf, Alexander said.
When asked about the exchange, Cranford said, “Mr. Johnson never expressed any concerns to me or anyone else in this office.”
In the first recording, Johnson explains that he is meeting with Alrabeei and Ghanem to let them know MECA will be formally opposing the liquor permit.
Alrabeei and Ghanem are present in both meetings, Alexander said. While the two can be heard on the recording, their exact words are often unclear.
They could not be reached to confirm if it was their voices in the recordings.
Johnson explains in the recording that MECA does not support another alcohol outlet in the neighborhood.
But he also tells him that if the business does get a liquor license, it is still invited to join MECA, an association which supports local economic development, if it pays the $1,500 fee and monthly dues.
Johnson also repeatedly tells Alrabeei and Ghanem over the course of the two meetings that he does not know how the ABC board will vote on the issue, and that he will not lobby ABC board members to support the permit in exchange for membership.
“I’m not going to fight your case for you,” Johnson said. “I can’t do that; that would go against my consistency as a board member and as the executive director of this association.”
In both recordings, Johnson asserts that MECA will not drop its opposition regardless of the business joining the association and making the $1,500 donation.
But on Oct. 12, the business owners provided Johnson with a check made out to MECA for $1,500.
On Oct. 13, at the ABC Board meeting, Johnson asked to defer a discussion of the Donmoor Food Mart for two weeks, because MECA had decided it may not go forward with opposing the application, according to Johnson’s arrest warrant.
Alexander said Johnson changed his mind only after subsequent conversations with the business owners, which led to them signing a contract that said their alcohol sales would not exceed 20 percent of their overall sales, and some other stipulations.
Alexander wouldn’t say whether Johnson recorded any of the other conversations.
The Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control has a video recording of the meeting where Johnson received the check and the business owners signed a contract agreeing to the alcohol restrictions, but Commissioner Troy Hebert said he could not release it.
Kris Perret, ABC board chairman, said Johnson, to his knowledge, did not ask him or other board members to vote one way or another.
Perret also confirmed that Johnson had recused himself from the ABC board for this permitting issue and did not vote on July 14 when a temporary liquor permit was issued to the store.
But he said some board members found it improper for Johnson to make the motion to defer the item when it came back up in October.
“There was some discussion of, ‘Why are you making motions on the record when you already recused yourself,’” Perret said.
Johnson was arrested Oct. 17 on counts of bribery and extortion. He was accused of accepting a $1,500 lump sum and $150 every month to drop his opposition to the permit.
Hebert said ATC’s investigation is ongoing.
He also said it doesn’t matter that the funds in the transaction were for MECA.
“Businesses should not have to pay off government officials or other private parties in order to obtain alcohol or tobacco permits,” Hebert said in an email.