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Tony sings the blues: was it crime or is it just punishment?



You've probably heard about Tony Mangiullo's troubles. He'll tell anybody who'll listen--about the way he's being persecuted by the licensing commission, about how they want to shut down his blues bar because of a drug transaction that may or may not have taken place inside it, about how they say his dear old mother watched it happen. The commission says he's responsible for what goes on in his establishment. Mangiullo insists he's being punished, unfairly held up as an example. Any way you look at it, the case raises more questions than it answers.

Mangiullo's problems began sometime around midnight on May 20, when the police burst through the front door of Rosa's, his northwest-side blues club, and arrested a waitress for allegedly selling cocaine. As a result of that arrest, the city closed Rosa's for a week, barred Mangiullo from operating a T-shirt booth at this year's blues festival, and revoked his liquor license. Rosa's remains open while the revocation order is appealed, but Mangiullo says he's facing financial ruin.

City officials aren't sympathetic. They say his penalties and setbacks are the price Mangiullo must pay for allowing--or at least not preventing--a drug deal to take place in his club. "The law was broken," says Winston Mardis, director of the Mayor's License Commission. "It's no excuse to say, 'I didn't know.' We cannot tolerate establishments in which drug deals take place, with or without the owner's consent."

But Mangiullo says he's the innocent victim of a misguided, reckless city crackdown on lawless bars and clubs. "The city is trying to crush me to make an example to others, but it is a bad example because I haven't done anything wrong. Rosa's is one of the cleanest blues clubs in Chicago. This should not be happening to me."

Responding to public outcry, Mayor Daley has for the past couple years been vowing to rid Chicago of troubled bars and clubs. In 1992 79 liquor licenses were revoked after police complaints, up from 58 in 1991.

Mangiullo says Rosa's has been a good neighbor ever since he opened the club at 3420 W. Armitage, on a rough-and-tumble stretch in Logan Square, nine years ago. The club is named for his 60-year-old mother, a tiny, white-haired woman known as Mama Rosa.

Mangiullo says the only previous blemish on Rosa's record occurred a few years ago when he was fined $400 for selling drinks to minors (he denies the charge and says he paid the fine to avoid costly litigation). He's had no major disputes with local residents or groups, many of whom praise him in the letters of support they've written. The Mayor's Office of Special Events even invited him to join its Blues Festival Advisory Committee, which helps organize the annual Grant Park Festival, and he's been on the committee every year since 1985. "Within the music community Rosa's has a reputation as one of the finest clubs in the city," says WLUP radio personality Buzz Kilman.

Yet Joseph Airhart, the undercover cop who was allegedly sold the cocaine, says Mama Rosa herself witnessed the transaction, which took place at the bar during guitarist Phil Baron's thundering set. Mama Rosa denies it.

On May 24 Mangiullo received a phone call from Barry Dolins, who coordinates the blues festival. "Barry said I was out of the blues festival. He said I wouldn't be able to operate my T-shirt booth there."

Mangiullo was surprised. For one thing, he considered Dolins a friend. For another, Mangiullo never expected to be punished for the drug sale--he wasn't even in the club when it allegedly happened. "Barry said, 'We can't let you jeopardize the integrity of the festival.' That got me mad. I love the blues. I love Chicago. Now I'm a bad guy for something I didn't do? I don't do drugs. I don't even drink. I said, 'Barry, this is crazy. How can you punish me if I'm not guilty?' He told me that I had to talk to the liquor commissioner. I said, 'What does he have to do with this? I'm not selling liquor. I'm selling T-shirts.' I should have known then that this was bigger than Barry, that he was carrying out someone else's orders. I lost my temper. I told him that he was exercising power without reason and that I was going to sue the city if they tried to keep me out of the festival.

The next day Mangiullo's lawyer, Cecile Singer, called Dolins. "Mr. Dolins told me finally that the decision to exclude Rosa's was made by [Mardis], and that he [Dolins] played no role in the decision," Singer said in a sworn statement.

Singer called Mardis and was eventually directed to a lawyer in the city's law department. According to Singer, that lawyer said the city could not bar Rosa's from selling T-shirts at the festival so long as the club was in "good standing and open."

By then Mangiullo says he was starting to figure out what was going on. "The city didn't want to wait for a hearing to see if we were innocent or guilty. They're being so tough on liquor clubs that they were determined to keep us out of the festival, even if we had done nothing wrong. So they told Barry to kick us out. When I threatened to sue, they talked to their lawyers and discovered that the only way to keep us out of the festival was to close Rosa's."

In other words, city officials realized that they would have to close the club before they could bar it from the blues fest. "They did things backwards," says Mangiullo. "Instead of closing us and then barring us from the blues fest, they barred us from the festival and then realized, uh oh, we'd better close them before Rosa's goes to court."

Of course all of this is speculation, as Mangiullo readily admits. (Dolins calls it "ridiculous.") But Mangiullo says the city's next action supports his theory.

That took place on May 26, only a few hours after Singer spoke to the city's lawyer, when several police officers, accompanied by crews from four TV stations, knocked on Rosa's door with an order to close the club. Mangiullo wasn't there, but Mama Rosa was: blinking in the glare of the sun, mikes in her face, stammering in broken English as the police waved the court order in her face. (The club was closed for a week.)

On Friday, May 27, Mangiullo went to court seeking an order barring the city from barring him from the blues fest. His request was denied. He later received a letter from James Sheahan, executive director of special events, saying that "due to the May 26, 1993, suspension of the liquor license, Rosa's will not be allowed to participate in a booth at the Blues Festival this year."

"They wanted the whole city to know that Rosa's was being shut down," says Mangiullo. "I listen to the news all the time, and I've never seen such exposure over a small club that's being shut down. You know something, if I had just stayed away from blues fest, if I hadn't yelled at Barry [Dolins] and threatened to sue, the whole thing would have probably blown over. But I forced the city into a corner, and they came out fighting."

Dolins says he has only a vague recollection of his phone conversations with Mangiullo and Singer. "I called Tony stating my disapproval with what had happened," he says. "But I can't remember the conversation. It was a long time ago." Yet he's sure that he didn't tell Mangiullo he couldn't sell T-shirts at the blues festival. "I didn't tell him that. Never."

Yet Ben Kim, in the June 10 NewCity, quoted what Dolins then remembered of that May 24 phone conversation with Mangiullo: "I called him as a friend to say how disappointed I was--and to tell him the Blues Fest couldn't be associated with Rosa's in light of these developments. . . . My right to bar Rosa's from the festival was upheld in court, so that's not even an open issue anymore." Dolins now says he can't remember what he told Kim.

On June 9 the License Commission held a hearing. Mangiullo called two witnesses who testified that Baron's blasting blues made it too noisy for Mama Rosa to have heard any part of the alleged drug deal. Airhart, the undercover cop, countered that she was watching when the waitress allegedly handed him a plastic bag filled with white powder. A few weeks later Mardis revoked Rosa's license, noting that the "testimony of [Rosa's witnesses was] biased and unbelievable," and that none of them had "directly contradicted Airhart's testimony relating directly to the sale of cocaine at the bar."

Mangiullo is pressing the appeal of Mardis's decision. "If I had kept quiet when Barry called that would be like admitting guilt--and I'm not guilty of anything. My name and my reputation are at stake. I'll fight to my last drop of blood."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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