|Williamstown Convenience Store Hit With Double License Suspension|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
02:45AM / Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Police Lt. Mike Ziemba reads his report on how police determined that alcohol and cigarettes were being sold to minors.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Gulf Food Mart on Main Street (Route 2) is facing 30-day suspensions of its licenses to sell tobacco and alcohol after actions by two town boards on Monday.
The enforcement actions arise out of a November sting operation conducted by the Police Department against the store that resulted in eight criminal charges against one of its three full-time employees.
Police say Inderjeet Singh, known commonly as "Indy," sold alcohol to a person under 21 on three different occasions in November. On two of those occasions, he also sold tobacco products to the same 17-year-old, who was cooperating with the police, according to a memo prepared by Lt. Michael Ziemba. Singh also is charged with three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a child.
The Board of Health, which regulates tobacco sales leveled a 30-day suspension with an additional 30 days held in abeyance, after a Monday hearing on the third floor of Town Hall.
Later that evening, the Select Board, which serves as the town's liquor license granting authority, held its own hearing, at which Abbas Chaudhry, manager of the store's alcohol license, appeared with legal counsel Stanley Parese.
The Select Board voted 5-0 to suspend the Chaudhry's license for 30 days starting Dec. 15 at 12:01 a.m. It declined to add an additional 30 days that could be suspended with compliance, as the Board of Health did. But the members of the Select Board were clear that they intended to come down harder on the business if it runs afoul of the law again.
"You're the owner," Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Thomas told Chaudhry just before the vote. "You hold the license. You're the responsible person. … I'm responsible for the organization where I work. You're responsible, sir. If management practices aren't what they should be, that's your responsibility."
Thomas, whose day job is executive director of the North Adams non-profit Lever Inc., appeared to be agitated as he addressed the licensee at the end of a 90-minute hearing.
"I also think it's important that we are clear to other vendors of alcohol in this community that we're very, very serious about selling to minors," Thomas continued. "I would implore you to address the problem.
"If you're in front of this board again, I'm going to work hard to revoke your license altogether. I'm kind of up to here, frankly."
In December 2018, Chaudhry missed a deadline for his annual renewal of his alcohol license.
At that time, the board leveled a three-week suspension against the business. His license lapsed and the store was unable to sell alcohol for a three-week period; Chaudhry was called before the board at that time and reminded of the town's expectation of strict adherence to the laws regarding alcohol sales.
The issue Monday was far from a paperwork "snafu."
According to Ziemba's memo, Gulf Food Mart has been the subject of complaints to the police by nearby community members and school staff. They have told police that " 'the word is out' and persons under the age of 21 have been traveling to this store as a destination to purchase items illegally," Ziemba wrote.
"It was reported that Singh only sells to youth that he is familiar with so it would take a stranger at least one appearance with a 'regular' trusted juvenile for Singh to sell to same," Ziemba continued. "This would help explain why past compliance checks at this location have failed to find a violation."
The police caught a break when Ziemba was talking to a 17-year-old on a different matter and she admitted to buying alcohol and tobacco products at Gulf Food Mart.
"When asked if she would be willing to assist with a compliance check of this store, she agreed," Ziemba wrote in his memo, which he read to the Select Board on Monday.
On three days in early November, the cooperating minor purchased items from Singh at the store while officers — who drove her in their private cars and wore plain clothes — observed through the store's windows.
Parese, who stressed that he represents Chaudhry in the civil matter and not Singh, who is charged criminally, did not contest the assertions made in Ziemba's memo. But he did raise the issue of whether the town or police should have notified Chaudhry about a separate criminal charge of selling liquor to a person under 21 that Singh faced from an incident in August.
"As serious as this is, the sense of outrage that Mr. Chaudhry is somehow aware of all this activity and is indifferent to it is not accurate," Parese said. "That's not coming from my mouth. That's coming from the police.
"They could have sent him a certified letter [about the August incident]. … None of that happened."
Select Board member Hugh Daley questioned whether the town should have some sort of automatic notification for employers in that situation.
Town Manager Jason Hoch, however, said the August charge — resulting from a third-party complaint to the police — is fundamentally different from the November compliance check, which was observed by police officers.
"Say someone in your company has a criminal charge against them for something that happened outside the workplace," Thomas said to Daley. "Should you be notified?"
"That's not this," Daley replied.
"I understand that, but that's the principle we operate under," Thomas said.
Daley said he would like the town to find out if, in situations like Singh's in August, it would be legal for the town to make such a notification.
"Here, the violation is a violation of the license," Daley said. "The assertion of the license holder is that he didn't know the employee did the thing, so he couldn't address it. … The employee [in August allegedly] did something in violation of my license to operate, so, yeah, you should tell me about it.
"I'm asking for clarification of what we can do or should do [to notify]."
All of that said, Daley was in complete agreement with colleagues on the assertions before the board and the need to take action.
"I think there's an agreement on the findings of fact," Daley said. "This happened.
"Secondly, it does feel like it's a true statement to say Gulf Mart is responsible. They are the license holder. Unfortunately, when you employ people, ultimately you're responsible for their actions. It's just part of the game."
Jane Patton took Chaudhry to task for not being a more involved manager.
She questioned him about the number of hours of operation for the Main Street business and how many hours per week he spends at the site. She also appeared incredulous when Chaudhry told her that Singh is not TIPs (Training in Intervention Procedures) trained.
"The store is open 15 to 16 hours per day, and you're there for six," Patton said. "And is the other employee TIPs trained?"
"I don't know," Chaudhry answered.
"This is going to sound snarky, but don't you think you should know?" Patton said.
Patton, whose day job is general manager of the clubhouse at Taconic Golf Club, has first hand experience managing an alcohol license.
"It is hard for me not to feel as though you bear significant responsibility for this," she said. "And, as such, I will also recommend the 30 days [suspension]. But I would be open to something stronger if anyone wanted to recommend that."
In the end, no one made a motion for a lengthier suspension, and Gulf Food Mart was issued the 30-day hit. Chaudry estimated that he would lose between $40,000 and $50,000 in gross sales from the tobacco suspension and $15,000 to $20,000 from the alcohol suspension.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board:
Extended the option held by Berkshire Housing Development Corporation to develop affordable housing at 330 Cole Ave
• Discussed intergovernmental cooperation with North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, who noted that such efforts are more important than ever in a time when declining population in Berkshire County will translate to declining returns of federal tax dollars.
• And learned that the group looking at creating a town-owned broadband service will survey residents in January to assess their interest in the initiative. Select Board member Andrew Hogeland, who serves on the group, said a paper survey will be included with the town census and that residents will have the chance to answer the broadband survey on the town website. Hogeland said his group discussed a partnership with Charter/Spectrum, but the internet giant said it is not interested in joining with the town. If the town moves forward with the project, it will have to woo customers away from their current private provider.
This story was updated on Wednesday morning to clarify the nature of the three-week break in alcohol sales at the Gulf Food Mart last winter.