A former state liquor enforcement officer pleaded not guilty yesterday in federal court to charges that she turned her job into a shakedown operation, replete with intimidation and hard-luck stories.
Gina Marie Kepler, 34, formerly of Warrington, was represented by Mara Meehan from the Federal Community Defender Office. In response to a reporter's question, Kepler said Meehan had instructed her not to discuss the case.
"I will say this: There's way more to this story, way more," Kepler said before her arraignment. "You need to tell people that there are two sides to every story."
Kepler, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a yellow terry-cloth hoodie, did not hesitate when asked for her plea to seven counts of extortion.
"Not guilty," she declared.
Kepler was released after agreeing to abide by court conditions that included not possessing firearms and not traveling outside the tristate region.
According to court records, Kepler owned a .357 Magnum, which she sold Oct. 5.
A nine-year employee of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, Kepler was responsible for inspecting businesses serving alcohol, investigating illegal alcohol sales, and issuing citations and ordering closures for state liquor-law violations, according to the state police, who run the bureau.
A 15-page indictment, filed Sept. 29 by the U.S. Attorney's Office, alleges that Kepler used her position to intimidate seven bar owners in Bucks and Montgomery Counties into giving her more than $11,000 in cash between 2006 and 2008.
Court records suggest she was strapped for money, having filed for bankruptcy three times since 2004.
According to the indictment, Kepler employed a variety of tactics to obtain the money.
At the Chill Bar & Grill in Holland, Bucks County, she allegedly collected $1,100 for Philadelphia Eagles tickets that she never produced. She begged a $2,000 loan from the owners of Kenny's Spirited Eatery in Southampton, Bucks County, for "a personal problem" and never repaid it, the indictment said.
In December 2007 or January 2008, Kepler said she would close Johnny Apples Restaurant in Holland after "the LCB had assessed a penalty on them because some of their checks to beer distributors had bounced," the indictment said.
Kepler told the owners "that if they gave her $1,100 in cash, she would assist them in resolving their penalties," which they did, not knowing the checks had never bounced, the indictment said.
The other alleged victims were Maggio's in Southampton, the Langhorne Hotel in Langhorne, Jerzee's Sports Bar in Glenside, and Bobby's Burgers Tavern in Conshohocken.
Maj. John Lutz, who has led the Liquor Control Enforcement Bureau since 2006, said Kepler, who worked for the state police from 2000 to February, earned about $45,000 a year. She was suspended after the allegations surfaced, and she later resigned, Lutz said.
If convicted on all seven counts of Hobbs Act extortion, Kepler could face a term of up to 140 years and a $1.7 million fine.