The attorney for ABC board member Ralph Johnson, who was accused of accepting a bribe for his vote, said Wednesday that Johnson did not break the law because he had recused himself from voting on that liquor permit application.
Johnson, 27, was arrested and booked Monday on counts of extortion and public bribery by the ATC .
Johnson was accused of asking a business that was applying for a liquor permit to contribute $1,500 in a lump sum and then make monthly contributions of $150 to Johnson’s neighborhood association.
“It’s absurd that they are wasting their time on this,” Chris Alexander, Johnson’s attorney, said in an email response to ATC’s investigation. “Ralph has never bribed anybody — in this case or any other. This is a tragic rush to judgment. They are maligning a decent man based upon a shoddy investigation.”
But on Wednesday, Troy Hebert, a commissioner with the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, said his office is expanding its investigation of Johnson because of “additional information given to the ATC after media reports of the recent arrest.”
Johnson is both an East Baton Rouge Metro Council appointed member of the office of Alcoholic Beverage Control and executive director of the nonprofit neighborhood association Melrose East Community Association.
During the summer, when Donmoor Food Mart, owned by NADA 2 Inc., applied for an alcohol license with the ABC board, the Melrose Association expressed its opposition because of its concerns over the many liquor outlets in the area.
But last week, according to the warrant, Johnson told the store owner the neighborhood association would drop its opposition if the business joined the Melrose association and made a lump sum contribution of $1,500 to the group with monthly contributions of $150.
Johnson also told the owner that the store would have to agree to limit its alcohol sales to 20 percent of its gross sales per month, open its books to an independent auditor to ensure it stays in compliance and not sell alcohol before 11 a.m. or after 11 p.m., according to the warrant.
Alexander said that Johnson recused himself on the record at a board meeting from voting on the issue. “He did it in front of the entire board. Everybody knew he was singularly aligned with Melrose on this issue as its executive director and had no voting power on the ABC Board,” Alexander said. “How can they possibly suggest that Ralph wanted to sell his vote when he had no vote to sell?”
ABC Executive Director Chris Cranford could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Alexander said the agreement was between two private organizations who were attempting to “resolve a community dispute.”
“It is frankly none of ATC’s business,” Alexander said.
The store did give Johnson a check for $1,500, but it was written out to Melrose East Community Association, not to Johnson and “is still sitting on the desk of MECA’s secretary,” Alexander said.
Johnson indicated through his attorney that he would not resign from the board.
Councilman Chandler Loupe said he plans to place an item on the council’s agenda to dismiss Johnson from the board.
“I serve at the pleasure of the council,” Johnson said in a statement relayed through Alexander. “I respect whatever decision it makes.
“But I would hope the council would embrace the constitutional presumption of innocence instead of the presumption of guilt,” Johnson said. “Men died for it, and I have done nothing criminal.”