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SHARMA GOES ON OFFENSE

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

Feeling intense heat as a result of last week’s bust of an employee for the alleged sale of beer to a minor, Best Liquors owner Sunny Sharma broke his months-long silence this morning to defend the employee and his store.

“I do check IDs,” Sharma told redbankgreen. Referring to a security videotape of the July 10 incident involving 19-year-old customer Javier Lopez-Ruiz, which he did not show us, Sharma said, “You can see on the camera that he had a Mexican consul ID, issued by the Mexican embassy. He showed legal ID.”

That’s not what the police report says. Lopez-Ruiz (who police Capt. Steve McCarthy says is a Middletown resident, not a Red Bank one, as previously reported) was arrested, and Best Liquors clerk Balvinder Singh was issued a warrant for selling Lopez-Ruiz a 12-pack of Modelo Especial beer without asking for any proof of age.

The police report said Lopez-Ruiz had no ID in his wallet when he was stopped on his bicycle or on his person when he was searched later. (Download supplemental_charges_and_specifications_71207_with_exhibits_redacted.pdf)

The latest incident set off a flurry of legal activity by the borough council, which only two weeks earlier had revoked the store’s liquor license over prior cases of sales to minors and other violations.

Late last week, borough attorney Tom Hall asked the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division to lift a stay of the borough’s revocation, which has allowed the store to continue selling booze as long as it appeals the council’s unanimous decision. In legal papers, Hall called Best “utterly unfit and unworthy” of the responsibility of holding a liquor license.

A decision on the borough’s request is expected to follow a July 25 ABC hearing. Meantime, Singh is to scheduled to appear in Red Bank municipal mourt tomorrow.

Sharma said he hadn’t spoken out before today because he didn’t want fan the flames of controversy that surrounded his case. The Middletown resident talked quietly of his frustration of being in the spotlight, which has caused him to lose sleep in fear of losing his license.

Today, though, he teed up his most vocal critics from the neighborhood, as well as the borough council, while claiming that his efforts to clean up the store’s act haven’t adequately been recognized.

He cited three neighborhood critics — John Ross and Krishna and John Tyler — for leading the charge to shut down his business. He claims they are not representative of the wider community, which he said supports his business. Customers and neighbors have signed petitions in support of keeping the store open, he said.

“I have said nothing against them while they attacked me,” Sharma said of Ross and the Tylers, a married couple. “I don’t want to lose my license, and I’ve taken a lot of heat.”

Wallace Woods of Leighton Ave. happened into the store with his son to buy a can of soda while redbankgreen was interviewing Sharma. Wallace agreed with Sharma that John Tyler, who is now a Republican candidate for council (more on that soon) does not represent the whole neighborhood in calling for Sharma’s ouster.

“I don’t drink, but I come in here a lot,” Wallace said. “I have no problems with the way (Sharma) runs his business.”

Sharma said the council’s decision to revoke his license was a foregone conclusion. Because of complaints against the store, the governing body’s members had made up their minds that he should lose his license before they even began hearing evidence, he said.

“I had to pay for attorneys to be there, and that wasn’t cheap,” he said. “And all to do what they were planning to do anyway.”

Sharma said he has been diligent about complying with the law. Just yesterday, he said, he refused to serve a 20-year-old Middletown man who attempted to buy beer with an Illinois license. Police were nearby and, alerted by the customer’s suspicious behavior, stopped and arrested thim for attempting to purchase alcohol while underage, Capt. McCarthy confirmed.

“I thought he looked suspicious,” Sharma said. “And I didn’t serve him, even after he showed me his ID that said he was 21.”

“The police officer said I did good by not serving him,” Sharma added.

But the continual police presence has intimidated some customers, and he’s lost business because of it, he said.

Sharma said that violations of the kind Best Liquors has faced, and acknowledged in court, are not uncommon, but don’t merit a permanent license revocation.

“If everybody with violations lost their license,” he said, “there’d be no liquor stores left.”

* * *

Also of possible interest to followers of the Best Liquors saga is news today that the state Supreme Court has ordered ABC Director Jerry Fischer to reconsider the suspension of a South Jersey bar’s license because of an employee’s conviction for selling cocaine.

The Star-Ledger has the story; here’s the court decision.

From the Ledger:

In a 7-0 decision, the high court remanded the matter to the ABC director and suggested the official consider a finding by a state Administrative Law judge who recommended either a fine or no more than a 60-day license suspension.

Attorneys for Maynards’ Cafe, a bar and restaurant that has operated in Margate, Atlantic County, since 1954, appealed the ABC suspension plan and asked the justices to consider whether the holder of a liquor license is strictly liable under ABC statutes for illegal acts committed on the premises by an employee, and, if so, what circumstances must be considered when determining the punishment.

In remanding the case to the ABC director, Justice Roberto A. Rivers-Soto stated, “We do so in the expectation that, at the remand, the state ABC will continue to honor its reputation for acting reasonably because it conducts itself sensibly in carrying out its regulatory mission while at the same time being cognizant of the needs of the industry it regulates. Neither the state ABC, nor its licensees, nor the public both serve, are entitled to anything less.”

The case was sparked in 2002 when Peter Barone, a cook, sold a small amount of cocaine to an officer from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office on six occasions in Maynards. Barone was arrested, pleaded guilty and was given five years of probation providing he take part in a rehabilitation program.

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