An East Baton Rouge Alcohol Beverage Control Board member was arrested Monday and accused of accepting a bribe in exchange for his support of a liquor license application, according to the arrest warrant.
Ralphael “Ralph” Johnson, 27, 928 Champaigne Drive, Kenner, was booked on counts of felony extortion and public bribery.
It was unclear Monday whether Johnson was actually living in Baton Rouge and had not changed his address on his driver’s license.
Investigators with the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commission arrested Johnson.
“Ralph had no intention of personally benefiting from anything,” said Johnson’s attorney Chris Alexander. “All he does is try to help his community. He is a man of integrity. We look forward to defending these charges fully.”
According to the warrant, Donmoor Food Mart, owned by NADA 2 Inc., applied for an alcohol license with the ABC during the summer, but the license was contested by the neighborhood organization Melrose East Community Association.
Johnson is both a Metro Council-appointed board member with the ABC and the vice president and executive director of the Melrose East association.
Johnson, on behalf of the neighborhood association, expressed opposition to issuing the permit because of concerns that there was an over saturation of liquor outlets nearby that were hurting the area, according to the warrant.
But last week, according to the warrant, Johnson told the store owner the neighborhood association would drop its opposition if the business joined the 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.
The store owner gave Johnson a check, according to the warrant, but it does not say what Johnson did with it.
The business owner contacted ABC Director Chris Cranford about the contract Johnson had proposed, and Cranford referred the matter to ATC for investigation.
After Johnson received the check, he deferred the item at an Oct. 13 ABC meeting, explaining that the neighborhood association was no longer planning to oppose the application because an agreement had been reached, according to the warrant.
Johnson’s bail was set at $20,000. His attorney said he expected Johnson to post bail by Monday evening.
“This type of activity undermines the entire permitting process. I commend the local ABC authorities for working with ATC to ensure that we maintain integrity and confidence in issuing permits to sell alcohol and tobacco in Louisiana,” Troy Hebert, ATC commissioner, said in a statement.
Johnson has been an ABC board member for about a year and a half, Cranford said. The appointment is for four years, but, Cranford said, the Metro Council may decide to replace him.
Last year Johnson ran for the District 5 seat on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and lost to Evelyn Ware-Jackson.
He is also a former legislative aide to East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker.
“This is a very unfortunate situation,” Wicker said. “Whenever we as council members trust individuals on those boards, the expectation is that they do it with the utmost integrity.”
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, whose district encompasses the Melrose neighborhood association, said she’s worked well with Johnson in the past and was surprised by the arrest.
“He’s innocent until proven guilty,” Collins-Lewis said. “I’ve never seen anything dishonest in Ralph’s character before.”