In the end, though, Mirage’s money woes were the least of its problems. There were stabbings, drug use, sex in public. A staff member once beat up a customer. The community around the club came to despise it. By 2005, after endless 911 calls and visits by the cops, the Boston Licensing Board had had enough. It placed Mirage at Estelle’s on six months’ probation. In February 2006 the club filed for bankruptcy. In 2007 Soto pleaded guilty to dealing cocaine.
Despite all the problems with Mirage, however, Wilburn wanted to expand his empire. In 2004, a year before Mirage’s probation, he went to Wilkerson and — as he later testified — bribed her with at least $1,000 to help him open another nightclub. By early 2007, that plan had come together. He had a new business partner, and a name for the club: Dejavu. He then went before the Boston Licensing Board, which grants liquor licenses in the city.
IN MASSACHUSETTS, STATE LAW mandates the number of liquor licenses a city or town may issue. In most places, that number is tied to population. But not in Boston. This quirk in the law owes itself to the election of Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in 1906. It bothered the Yankee establishment that an Irish guy had been chosen to lead Boston. Surely the city would descend into drunken orgiastic excess. So the state decided to cap the number of liquor licenses that could be granted in the city. A century later, that cap still exists. Today there are 1,031 liquor licenses in Boston.
This limited supply creates a pentup demand, which results in licenses selling for a great deal — in some neighborhoods, north of $350,000. To get one, a restaurateur needs not only money but also connections: Businesses must be approved by the local neighborhood association and local elected officials.
The role these officials play in granting a liquor license cannot be overstated. In most cities, it’s a mere commercial transaction. But here, entire state committees and boards are given to the handling of liquor and its licenses — which practically invites corruption. After Wilburn approached Wilkerson, for instance, she ultimately helped draft a law granting more liquor licenses in the city of Boston.
But there are also the subtler, more insidious conflicts. Consider outgoing state Treasurer Timothy Cahill. Among his duties is heading the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which regulates restaurants and bars and issues the actual liquor licenses after local boards have granted them. So it’s a little concerning that the successful law firm in Boston that handles liquor licenses on behalf of restaurateurs — McDermott, Quilty & Miller — held fundraisers for Cahill that were attended by representatives from the very restaurants and bars that Cahill was tasked with regulating. All of this, the grubby give and take of the political process, is perfectly legal, of course. And David Kibbe, a spokesman for the treasurer’s office, likes to remind us all of that. He argues that political donations don’t influence Cahill’s decisions, because “the treasurer appoints three commissioners to hear the [ABCC’s] cases and is not involved [with the process].”
Cahill is hardly the only one with a potential conflict. Boston city councilors are supposed to recommend restaurants, bars, and nightclubs for their neighborhoods. Since 2008 McDermott, Quilty & Miller has donated money to at least eight of the thirteen Boston city councilors. And since 2001 Stephen Miller, a partner in the firm, has given more than $50,000 to local politicians. The relationship between the firm and the council members is so cozy that the head of fundraising for outgoing City Council President Mike Ross is a McDermott, Quilty & Miller lawyer named Joe Hanley. By e-mail, Ross says his relationship with Hanley is friendly and that Hanley “has been the chairman of my campaign for several years, which I notified the City Clerk of as required by law. It has always been my policy to evaluate any licensing requests on their merits, not by the law firm which represents them. I have supported some, and opposed others, of the requests the firm has propounded.”