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City revokes business licenses

Posted: September 28, 2010 11:40 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Camden City Council voted unanimously Tuesday morning to revoke the business licenses for Midtown Market on Rutledge Street and Shop 'N' Go on North Broad Street after determining both businesses had engaged in unlawful activity. Councilman Pat Partin was not present.

A hearing encompassing both businesses was moved to the end of council's regular agenda Tuesday that included sworn testimony from Camden Police Department (CPD) officer Damian Burris. Burris was one of the lead investigators on both cases, monitoring activity conducted by at least one wired confidential informant.

The hearing was held similarly to a court hearing with a desk pulled out from its normal position to act as a "witness box." Audrey Clark, who had been the primary focus of the Midtown Market case, and her husband, Terry Clark, the actual licensee for the business were on hand for Tuesday's hearing. Shop 'N' Go owner Kirtikumar D. Patel was also present. Each was given the chance to cross-examine Burris and Camden Finance Director Mel Pearson after they were questioned by City Attorney Charles Cushman.

Burris, who has been a CPD officer for four years, testified that he had received information earlier this year that food stamp fraud -- through the use of S.C. Department of Social Services (DSS) electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards -- was being conducted at Midtown Market. At Cushman's direction, Burris explained to council how the EBT program works, including the fact that the debit-like cards are only to be used for specific food items, not cash.

Although Audrey Clark had been accused in 2009 with similar charges, Burris' testimony only covered dates in 2010 when the CPD's confidential informant conducted illegal transactions with Midtown Market. The first was on July 14.

"We found that she had dispensed cash in the amount of $66," said Burris, adding that the CPD did not know how much of the $66 she may have retained for herself.

The CPD/DSS case against Clark has included accusations that she retained up to 14 percent of each cash transaction while still hitting up DSS for the full cash reimbursement. In June, the CPD has said, the Clark's conducted approximately $20,000 worth of EBT card transactions when the norm for similar businesses in Kershaw County is less than $500 per month.

Referring to individual file folders for each transaction, Burris said Audrey Clark made illegal transfers of cash of $63 on Aug. 6; $38 on Aug. 9; and on Sept. 3, the day she and her husband were arrested, when she made another illegal transfer of $71.39. That last time, Burris said, they had proof she kept some of the money for herself.

"She gave $50 to the informant and kept the remainder," Burris testified.

He also explained that he was in touch with a DSS employee as each transaction was conducted.

"Anytime an EBT card is used, the transaction shows up immediately," said Burris. "I was on the phone with the representative who told me the transaction had taken place and how much it was."

Answering Cushman, Burris confirmed there was no doubt in his mind who had made the illegal transactions and that he had the receipts and the merchandise as evidence to prove it.

Audrey Clark took Cushman's place to cross-examine Burris but appeared to use the time to state her own case. She claimed to have recalled that the $71 transaction was actually $21, accounting for the $50 difference.

"I've never seen you come in my store but one time before you arrested me," Clark told Burris.

Cushman that had Pearson confirm that he is the city official charged with approving, denying or revoking business licenses in Camden. Pearson also testified, as he would in Patel's case later, that once he had made a determination that illegal activity might be taking place, he brought it to council's attention.

As the actual license holder, Terry Clark cross-examined Pearson, questioning the timing of an order suspending Midtown Market's license. He said while he and his wife were arrested Sept. 3, the suspension was not issued until Sept. 21.

"But there was no activity during that time. We had been accused, not convicted, so why was this issued before a trial?" asked Terry Clark.

Pearson said city code specifies that business licenses may be suspended if a licensee is "charged" with a crime.

Terry Clark, however, read from a different section of the pertinent city code that spoke to the "conviction" of a licensee. He and Pearson went back and forth -- with Mayor Jeffrey Graham speaking as well -- over the use of the words "charged" and "convicted" in the city code.

At issue were paragraphs D and E of Section 110.15 of the city code. City officials prosecuting the case were using paragraph E, which states that a license can be suspended if the licensing official -- Pearson -- determines unlawful activity was taking place at the business, pending a hearing such as Tuesday's before city council. Terry Clark kept going back to paragraph D, which covers the same process but when a licensee has already been convicted of a crime.

"That's not the portion of the code we're working under today," Cushman said.

Cushman closed the city case and allowed Audrey Clark to make hers. She called no witnesses, instead using the time to issue an apology.

"I do want to apologize to council, staff, our customers and the citizens of Camden," she said tearfully. "I am regretful; sometimes you put yourself out on a limb. I'm sorry that I've become a public spectacle and I hope this never happen again."

Council discussed the matter briefly, learning from Cushman that the Clarks (and Patel) would be able to reapply for their license at any time.

"There is, however, a provision for Mr. Pearson to deny that license because of the illegal activity," said Cushman.

If, for some reason, Pearson were to re-grant the license, Cushman said, the Clarks would be able to reopen the store immediately.

"It appears to me illegal activity took place," said Councilman Walter Long. "What might change something is if something happened during the criminal phase."

Cushman said if Pearson were to deny the a new license application, the applicant has the right to appeal to city council.

"I'm sorry we're in this position, but we need to maintain the integrity of our businesses," said Long as Audrey Clark repeatedly tried to interrupt but was deemed out of order.

Council then voted to revoke Midtown Market's license.

The process was very similar for Patel. Burris testified that the CPD's investigation into the Shop 'N' Go began April 30 when Patel allowed an EBT card to be used to purchase non-food items: beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

"On May 11, he allowed beer and cigarettes on the EBT and there was an exchange of $33," said Burris, who added that in Patel's case, the receipts did not show exactly what was purchased.

Burris would later testify that the CPD's confidential informant immediately brought the items purchased to him after each transaction.

Burris then detailed nine additional transactions between May 17 and July 23. On May 17 and 18, Burris said, Patel exchanged small amounts of cash for the ability to use the EBT card to purchase liquor, beer and lottery tickets. Between July 12 and 21, five transactions were for $50 cash; July 22, $49 cash; and July 23, $65 cash.

Patel was given the chance to cross-examine Burris, but used the time to issue a short apology.

Cushman had Pearson reconfirm his previous testimony. Again, Patel was given the chance to cross-examine Pearson, but used the time to state that he had voluntarily surrendered his license.

As with the Clark's, council was not forgiving.

"Taxpayer dollars were used illegally," said Councilman Ned Towell. "We need to be tough. We need to let our businesses know this won't be tolerated."

Council then voted to revoke Shop 'N' Go's license.

It has been since the mid-1990s that council has voted to revoke or block renewal of a business license in Camden. In June 1996, council voted 5-1 to revoke and refuse renewal of a license for the Swap Shop on South Broad Street after the CPD accused the business of selling stolen goods. Two years earlier, June 1994, council voted unanimously not to renew a business license for the 49er Diner nightclub at the intersection of Lyttleton Street and Railroad Avenue because of criminal activity taking place immediately outside the business. In addition, a man was run over by a train after leaving the nightclub; there had also been a drive-by shooting.

In other business:

* Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the consumption of alcohol during the Carolina Downhome Blues Festival, running Oct. 7-9. Mayor Graham said this would help downtown businesses during the festival and that the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County would be responsible for any vendors.

* Council unanimously awarded a low bid to Conder Construction Inc. in an amount not to exceed $120,260 for the closure of wastewater treatment plant lagoon No. 2. Graham explained that the overflow lagoon's closure is being done in order to prepare for the future construction at or near the site of the city's new $34 million wastewater treatment plant mandated by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

* Council unanimously proclaimed October as Archives Month. Towell and Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford said they have both spent time at the Camden Archives and Museum lately and have been impressed by the staff and enjoyed their time there.

* Council unanimously proclaimed October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.

* Council approved a façade grant of $2,500 for Blake & Ford Inc. for improvements to its rear entrance.

One item dropped from council's agenda following its Sept. 23 work session was first reading of an ordinance that would have accepted ownership of streets in the Rutledge Place subdivision. Bronson said after the meeting that owners of the subdivision had not submitted some required S.C. Department of Transportation documentation and that the item was not originally meant to be on the agenda.

Council will next meet in work session at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 7; it's next regular meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12. All meetings are held on the second floor of Camden City Hall, 1000 Lyttleton St., and are open to the public.


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