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How did a white-collar criminal get a key mayoral appointment—and become Rotarian of the Year?

When Max Salas first arrived on the Washington political scene five years ago, he made a name for himself as a “mainstream” activist with perfect English and little interest in alpaca sweaters, Che Guevara buttons, or immigrant amnesty programs. As director of corporate development at the Virginia high-tech firm Cornet Technology, he shunned the social service groups that employ many of the city’s politically active Latinos. Instead, he joined the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and that white-male business bastion, the D.C. Rotary Club—which named him Rotarian of the Year this summer.

With those credentials, Salas became a board-pickers’ dream—and a hot political commodity. Earlier this year, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams dumped most of former Mayor Marion Barry’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board appointees in favor of community-friendly types, he re-appointed Salas.

It’s easy to understand why. Eager for Latino endorsements, city pols love to claim him as a supporter. Before appointing him to the ABC Board, Williams had tapped Salas as president of his inaugural committee and chair of his transition team on Latino issues. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham picked Salas as co-chair of his 1998 campaign. After Salas was named Rotarian of the Year, longtime activist Pedro Lujan told the Washington Post that Salas “is the key personality in a new wave of Latino leadership that will be taking the city by storm in the coming years.”

That’s quite a transformation for a guy who first came to the D.C. area back in late 1993 to serve the last half of a 10-month criminal sentence at a halfway house. Unbeknownst to many of the admirers who have elevated him to political prominence, the smooth, bespectacled Salas is a convicted felon. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to two counts of federal tax evasion after he was accused of embezzling nearly $200,000 off the beer and food concessions at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.

A former carnival worker who once owned a string of airport concession stands, Salas owes more than $100,000 in legal judgments stemming from unpaid bills related to various business enterprises—bills he refused to pay even while handing out gobs of cash to D.C. and federal political candidates. And he is currently facing criminal charges for failing to file sales-tax returns and underreporting sales taxes for a Tallahassee airport yogurt shop he owned.

Salas says he is sorry and ashamed of what happened in his past. “In the end, all it was was cheating on my income taxes. I’m ashamed and embarrassed. I made some mistakes,” he says. “I’m sorry I did it. I can’t lie about it, and I can’t crawl in a hole for the rest of my life. I’ve paid a lot for that. It’s cost me a lot.”

That’s a pretty standard mea culpa for an ex-con trying to get back into the political game. But what’s really amazing is how seamlessly Salas has inserted himself into the center of D.C. politics without ever having to account for that past—even getting appointed to regulate liquor licenses that he would be barred from holding himself.

Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose campaign Salas co-chaired last year, says he was unaware of Salas’ criminal record or of his recent arrest, which occurred shortly before the primary election. “I did not know. I’ve not been privy to his background,” Graham says.

Marie Drissel, special assistant to the mayor for boards and commissions, says neither she nor the mayor was aware of Salas’ conviction before nominating him to the ABC Board, nor were they aware about his current felony charge in Florida. “We did not know,” she says.

Waiting to testify last week at a D.C. Council hearing on ABC Board legislation, Salas looks convincing in his role as D.C. liquor-law expert. And with his conservative gray suit, busy cell phone, and perfectly groomed white beard, he’s equally convincing in his new role as paterfamilias to the fledgling D.C. Latino political establishment. It’s a personal reinvention that comes as a surprise to people who knew him elsewhere—particularly the prosecutors who put him in jail in Tennessee. “He’s quite notorious,” says Wendy Goggin, the assistant U.S. Attorney who handled his case.

Born and raised in Denver, Salas got his start in business as a carnie, selling balloons at carnivals and state fairs, according to a 1989 interview he gave to the trade publication Amusement Business. He has also sold souvenirs at Red Sox games, owned a video-game business, spent 13 years traveling as a concessionaire with the James E. Strates Shows, and spent five years selling amusement park junk in Sandusky, Ohio.

Around the same time, he began winning lucrative food-service contracts with the federal government—particularly in airports, through the Small Business Administration’s minority contracting program. The business grew into a multi-million-dollar operation.

In the mid-1980s, Salas also landed a concessions contract at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville, where his legal troubles started. In 1991, IRS agents raided the fairgrounds as part of an investigation into possible kickbacks paid to government officials who controlled the concessions contracts. Agents raided Salas’ home and office, seizing more than $200,000 in cash along with Rolex watches and other jewelry.

Prosecutors alleged that Salas had been skimming money off the fairgrounds concessions and failing to report the income on his federal taxes. Two years later, Salas pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and was sentenced to 10 months in prison, the first five of which he spent in a federal prison camp in Manchester, Ky., according to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In December of that year, Salas transferred to a federal halfway house in Northern Virginia, where he stayed until April 1994, according to the BOP.

It didn’t take him long to get back on his feet in the District. Barely six months after leaving the halfway house, Salas appeared in the Washington Times, which profiled the “grand opening” of El Bodegon, an old Spanish restaurant on R Street that Salas had bought with his son and was trying to revive. From there, Salas quickly scaled the heap of District politics, showing up at galas for Hispanic scholarship funds and getting involved in local Latino organizations.

Salas also offered something most other Latino activists in town don’t: money. Salas says he had long been involved in national politics, so he knew the drill. (In fact, he gave the Democratic National Committee $5,000 only days before entering prison in 1993.) He began handing out campaign cash with a vengeance, starting with Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, who oversees the economic development committee. Before long, he knew everyone who was anyone in D.C. and Latino politics. “It’s easy,” he says. “It’s a very small town.”

When Salas arrived in D.C., he walked into a political vacuum that was custom-made for a guy with a good suit, Mexican roots, and all-American gumption. Without a politically dominant ethnic group—like Cubans in Florida or Puerto Ricans in New York—Latino politics in D.C. suffers from a lack of organized leadership. The community has rarely been able to field a single Latino candidate for elective office aside from an advisory neighborhood commissioner. The city’s Office of Latino Affairs is in a state of perpetual disarray.

The leadership gap doesn’t stop the politicos from knocking. Desperate to lay claim to multiculturalism, politicians routinely seek out Latinos for board appointments and campaign outreach projects. Salas, for one, says people were always calling him. That’s how he ended up on the board of Cora Masters Barry’s Recreation Wish List, which has just secured $3.7 million from the city to build a tennis center in Southeast Washington. “The Wish List people called because they were having a tennis tournament and wanted some Latinos to help out, so I went,” he says.

Salas says he answered the calls because that was the best way to advance Latino causes. “You gotta join the clubs,” he says. “It’s easy to be part of the Latino Civil Rights Center. You gotta move into mainstream America.”

Few people seem to have noticed that the politically ubiquitous Salas has had no particular political agenda. Roberto Frisancho, president and acting executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Center—where Salas sits on the board—says Salas is very active. Yet he can’t cite a single policy objective Salas has advanced. “Max is not very ideological,” Frisancho concedes.

Despite his popularity, local political figures who have been so quick to embrace Salas also come up blank when asked where he came from or what he does for a living. “You know, I have no earthly idea what his business is. And I’ve spent a lot of time with him. He could be making widgets or pesticides for all I know,” said Graham in an interview last week.

That blind spot is rather glaring given that Salas’ run in unsavory headlines continued even after he came to D.C. He made national news as part of the Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandal that broke in 1997. That year, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would be returning $11,000 in soft money that Salas had donated because of his felony conviction. The Clinton-Gore re-election committee also refunded $250, although the Clinton folks kept the nearly $5,000 Salas paid for tickets to the inaugural celebration.

Despite the widespread coverage of Salas’ criminal record in national news stories on the fundraising scandal—whose epicenter was right here in Washington—D.C. candidates performed no hand-wringing over Salas’ contributions. Last year, he donated $1,000 each to mayoral candidates Williams and Harold Brazil, and he and his wife gave $3,000 to Jack Evans, for whom they held a meet-and-greet event in March 1998. He also donated $500 to Graham’s Ward 1 campaign.

Salas’ notoriety also failed to slow down his 1998 and 1999 ABC Board confirmations. In an interview last week, Salas said he disclosed his history when appointed, but Councilmember Sharon Ambrose—whose Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs handled the nomination—says she had no idea Salas had a criminal record. “We assume that that kind of vetting would be done in the mayor’s office,” she says. “I assume that if the mayor sends the name forward that nothing egregious is wrong.”

Drissel, who vetted Salas for the mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions, says her office does not have the budget to perform criminal background checks on everyone nominated to the 450 seats on city boards and commissions. Drissel says Salas told her he disclosed his past to the Barry administration when appointed to the ABC Board in 1998, but she says there is no mention of it in the file on him.

She says the administration learned about Salas’ criminal conviction through the grapevine in July, after his confirmation. At that point, Salas’ lawyer discussed the matter with one of the mayor’s lawyers, who determined that his record was not grounds for removal from the ABC Board. Drissel says if she had known about his record earlier, the administration would have thought twice about nominating him and would at least have shared the information with the D.C. Council.

Still, she says, Salas was nominated because he was very popular in the community on a number of fronts, and she says he is doing a good job on the board. “No one has questioned his integrity on the ABC Board,” Drissel says.

Douglas Fierberg, an attorney who represents neighborhoods in liquor license protests, concurs, saying that Salas “is bright, nonbiased, thoughtful, intelligent. I think he wants to do right.”

“He was one of the only sober heads on that board last year when it was so dreadfully bad,” says community activist Warren “Bud” Lane, who has long monitored the ABC Board.

Ambrose says that while the law does not prohibit felons from serving on the ABC Board, Salas probably should not serve. “It doesn’t make sense to have someone with that kind of record making those determinations,” she says.

Community leaders give Salas high marks for organizing the new D.C. Latino Chamber of Commerce. Lujan says that Salas works hard for the “little people”—by, for instance, bringing ABC Board representatives to Mount Pleasant to educate Latino merchants about their rights—and notes that his work is unpaid. Lujan says he knew Salas had some kind of criminal record, but wrote it off as cheating on his taxes, which Lujan says just about everyone does. “The only thing I know is that he does a lot to help the business community. He’s doing a good job,” he says.

Last week, Graham, too, raved about Salas. “I think he has a passion in terms of his fellow Latinos, and I think it’s quite genuine,” he says. “He’s not someone who uses that as a steppingstone. That gives his work integrity. It’s not about ambition.”

Graham says he is saddened to learn about Salas’ criminal history. “I’m sorry. You know why I’m sorry? It’s because this is a good person who works hard, who is properly motivated,” he says, noting that Salas has never shown any evidence of self-interest or approached him about any kind of for-profit business venture.

Salas has, however, infiltrated local politics elsewhere to help further his own business ventures. In 1990, he recruited the wife of the Phoenix mayor’s chief of staff as a partner in a sports store, which later received a contract to operate an outlet in the Phoenix International Airport, according to Arizona news accounts.

Salas also cozied up to former Texas Congressman Albert Bustamante to try to break into business at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. In 1993, when Bustamante was tried on federal racketeering and bribery charges, he admitted on the witness stand that he had arranged a breakfast business meeting between Salas and a Dallas airport official at Salas’ request, although he denied allegations that Salas gave him cash for his trouble. Salas was never called as a witness, and he says the only money he gave to Bustamante was a campaign contribution.

Salas says he has no business with the District government, although he doesn’t rule it out in the future. He says he’s involved in local politics because he wants to have an impact on Latino causes—particularly in the business community. “I’ve done the national thing, but I think the real impact is in the grass-roots level. That’s the thing that motivates me. It’s fun. I like to see things happen,” he says. “Money was a big motivator at one time in my life, but now different things start to turn you on. It ain’t for the money, I can tell you that.” He also says that the community work supporting Latino businesses may be his way of trying to redeem himself for what he did in the past, according to Patrick Malone, Ramirez’s lawyer.

At least one Latino businessman in Texas was surprised to hear about Salas’ redemption strategy. Shortly after finishing his criminal sentence, Salas recruited Andrew Ramirez to invest in an Austin, Texas, airport restaurant and lounge he owned. On the verge of losing his liquor license because of his criminal record, Salas sought out successful businessman Ramirez, who also satisfied his need for a minority partner.

Once Ramirez was invested, he learned that the business was a “minefield,” says Malone. Salas owed nearly $10,000 in back taxes and had thousands of dollars’ worth of unpaid bills. Pepsi had a $2,000 lien on the company, and Salas owed the landlord, Host International, $13,000 in unpaid rent, according to legal filings. The night the restaurant was evicted, Salas cleaned out all of its fixtures and left Ramirez holding the bag for all the unpaid bills, according to Malone.

The same year Salas donated $11,000 to the DNC, Ramirez sued Salas, and in 1996 he won a $121,276 judgment against him, but Ramirez has yet to see a dime. “Tell that sorry sonofabitch that he owes my client money and if he doesn’t pay we’re going to come up there and get him,” says Malone.

Salas concedes that he did not defend himself in the lawsuit, but says the bills incurred by the business were Ramirez’s fault, not his. He says Ramirez had been running the business for him, and that he decided to pull the plug on the operation rather than incur more debt. Salas says taking the fixtures from the restaurant was just part of the process of closing down the shop. “The airport authority knew about all that,” he says.

Salas insists that his recent troubles, including the suit filed by Ramirez, are the result of his business’ failure after he was sent to prison. He says he was unable to manage all the airport shops during his “vacation” and that when he returned, some were in trouble. He no longer has any airport concessions, but they continue to haunt him.

According to the Florida Department of Revenue, in August 1998, Salas was arrested in Virginia for the charges filed against him in Tallahassee: a third-degree felony theft of state funds, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. He also faces 19 misdemeanor charges for failing to file sales-tax returns between April 1995 and March 1998. Salas blames those troubles on an employee who ran the shop for him. He says, “It’s not very much money.”

But the state of Florida takes sales tax very seriously, in part because it has no income tax, and failing to pay as little as $100 in sales tax constitutes a felony. Prosecutors allege that the yogurt store manager forwarded about $8,000 in sales tax to Salas, which Salas never turned over to the state. Salas says that he has offered to pay back the money—prosecutors are seeking about $25,000 in back taxes and other fees—and that the case is being negotiated.

Mike Bauer, the Florida prosecutor handling the case, says he offered Salas a fairly good plea bargain, but says Salas told Department of Revenue investigators he couldn’t plead guilty to a felony because he was still on federal probation for the Tennessee charges. But Salas’ three-year probation ended in 1997, and when Bauer found out that Salas—whose lawyer recently dumped him as a client—wasn’t being straight with him, he pushed ahead with the trial. Salas is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 29 for a hearing on the plea offer.

“His past is full of reprehensible actions,” says Malone. “He just doesn’t pay bills. In particular, he doesn’t pay taxes. He, frankly, is quite a con artist.” CP