by Bobbi Hodguest contributor
Southbridge residents are accustomed to dirty politics, especially during the contentious election season. This year's town council race is no different and in fact, may have reached a new pinnacle of sleaze. A recent campaign being waged to unseat Steve Lazo, the sitting Southbridge Town Council Chair is no exception. His opponents hope to achieve their goals through any means necessary including official and semi-official investigations of the entire Lazo family, information packets distributed to government bodies and an allegation-filled anonymous letter sent to town residents. Who is behind this effort and to what end? Are the accusations justified, or are the Lazos being singled out for political and possibly economic gain? There are a lot of topics to cover in dissecting this but first let's start with a suggestion of guilt by association and the attempted seizure of a family asset: the full pour restaurant liquor license held by brother Scott Lazo.
On Friday, June 24th, the Worcester T & G published an article by Brian Lee entitled, Southbridge bar’s status raises doubts Lazo pins tiff on politics. The article mentions a key element in the timeline of events "On a related note, and at the suggestion of Councilor Denise Clemence, councilors on Monday delayed reappointing Bruce W. Newlands and alternate Michael Daniels to the liquor board, saying they wanted to examine the board’s handling of Mr. Lazo’s license." It is no mystery to residents that Councilor Clemence and Councilor Lazo have been at odds on many issues over the last couple years, often leading to verbal sparring at Council meetings. Was councilor Clemence right to delay these reappointments for the reason given, or is this politically motivated? What was made clear during the Liquor Licensing Board meeting of 6/22 was that Mr. Lazo had a valid Certificate of Good Standing and his corporation had been exonerated by the Town Treasurer of any tax delinquency status that could jeopardize his license renewal.
As someone who professes to be concerned about the integrity of following the rules for corporations that hold liquor license, Councilor Clemence does seem to be particularly focused on Mr. Lazo. To this end, one would be remiss to not examine the other town awarded licenses and the status of their users. Since we're examining motive, let's first take a look at the license and ownership where Councilor Clemence and her activist group, The Future of Southbridge, held their regular meetings: 12 Crane Street and The Twelve Crane Street Corporation.
Dale Ferron's focus at the liquor board meeting was initially directed at the corporate entity K Kita Inc. of which Scott Lazo is the Registered Agent and brother Steve Lazo is the President. Ferron commented on an administrative dissolution of said company that occurred on 05/31/2007, asking why they were allowed to continue holding a license as a dissolved company. Fair enough, but at this point it's water under the bridge. In a two day period from 6/21/ - 6/22/2011, Mr. Lazo was able to file a decade of annual reports and have his company reinstated. He produced the required document, A Certificate of Good Standing to demonstrate this to the Liquor Licensing Board. Now let's take a look at the Twelve Crane Street Corp. According to the Secretary of State's Office for Massachusetts (MA Corporate Database), The Twelve Crane Street Corp. has not filed an annual report since 2007. Though they have not been forced into dissolution, they are also clearly not in good standing (an up-to-date filing of annual reports is required). Now that the town has focused their efforts on bringing licensees in line and requiring these certificates annually, will they follow suit with anyone else beyond K Kita Inc.? Will Councilor Clemence demand full compliance from all licensees and add these to her reasons for stalling appointments?
After Scott Lazo had satisfied the corporate entity question, Mr. Ferron directed his attention toward tax issues. According to MA Land Records, K. Kita Inc has had two separate instances of tax taking with regard to property at 7 Mill Street (the property to which the license is affixed). One from 2006, which has been fully satisfied, and one from 2009 which is under a payment plan. According to MA Land Records, the Twelve Crane Corp has a whopping 18 separate tax liens imposed on it by the State of Massachusetts. One of these delinquencies alone totals over $24,000 (see figure below). These include unpaid meals taxes dating back to 2007, when the business first opened. These are taxes on a company that has profited from use of their full pour restaurant liquor license, in sharp contrast with Mr. Lazo who has yet to make dollar one off of his. If Councilor Clemence and Mr. Ferron are concerned with a license holder having unpaid taxes, why have they focused on a licensee whose tax issues are peripheral to the use of the license and considered in good standing? Why not focus on a company that failed to pay their obligations as they made their money instead of one struggling to open?
As most Southbridge residents are aware, last Summer 12 Crane Street had its license suspended for circumstances surrounding a "rave party". Though the owners originally claimed their business was "closed for holiday vacation" it was later revealed that they were actively involved in the rave event (Police Chief Charette claimed he felt he was "lied to" by the owner). The chaos of the evening led to several arrests including the owner's son, John Gabriel McCarthy, who police determined was dealing illegal narcotics while acting in a managerial capacity for the business. At the time, pending the conclusion of the investigation, The Twelve Crane Street Corp had its license suspended for two weeks and were forbidden use of their outdoor patio until the end of the year. Southbridge Police Chief Charette stated that there could eventually be further penalties once lab results determined what type of substance the younger McCarthy was dealing. Charette stated at the time that because there were only two crime labs that processed this information for the state, it could take as long as six months to receive the information. Fast forward to almost one year and the police, the business owners and the town have all been tight lipped about the results. When the Twelve Crane Corporation attempted to transfer their license in February, 2011, the Southbridge Police liquor agent, Carlos Dingui indicated that the company owed an outstanding debt to the Southbridge Police Department stemming from the event. He said that his department would object to any transfer until this obligation had been fulfilled. It should be noted that the Town of Southbridge has a precedent for dealing with a business where one of its managers is caught dealing narcotics: In 2008, Mr. D's Raging Bull, owned by Councilor Nikola relative Nicolas DiGregorio had its doors closed permanently as a result of a similar arrest. The owner eventually went on to sell the use of the license to a new establishment.With regard to liquor license compliance, Denise Clemence, The Town of Southbridge and The Southbridge Liquor Licensing Board have to demonstrate an even hand in their pursuit of investigations and accountability to maintain any sense of credibility. Since official government departments were used in the attempt to seize Lazo's license, liability and severe abuses of authority may also be an issue.