As a bar and grill, East Gloucester's Harbor House was probably best known for large television screens and free fish fries.
But with bright orange seizure signs now gracing the windows, the watering hole's new notoriety is for being secretly owned, the state says, by a Beverly businessman who for years has been a fixture on the list of Massachusetts' biggest tax scofflaws.
Robert Lockwood owes the state $2.6 million in back taxes, according to the Department of Revenue, ranking him fifth on the state's tax scofflaws list for businesses.
With a $4 million oceanfront mansion on Beverly Farms' West Street for an address and business interests throughout the state, Lockwood has become a top target for tax collectors, who have been chasing him since the 1980s.
So when some of the bar's managers told investigators this year that Lockwood really controlled the establishment, the state jumped at the chance to get back at least some of what it says it has lost to him.
"We have been nipping at his heels for a while, but this is the first time we have a property that we have proof is controlled by him," said Robert Bliss, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue. "This is taking the department's efforts for something of what he owes to a different level. It is a fresh effort, and it is being done because Mr. Lockwood is, in the judgment of DOR, a particularly egregious delinquency."
Although his name appears on no deed, bank account or permit connected with the Harbor House, the Department of Revenue says Lockwood has owned the restaurant for several years with acquaintances acting as paper owners in return for an opportunity to manage the place.
A Harvard graduate, Lockwood has built a reputation as a financier working with distressed enterprises. His commercial interests have included mobile phone companies, as well as restaurants.
In 2000, he was convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to 17 months in prison.
According to the Department of Revenue, Lockwood ran up much of his tax debt from 1989 to 1993 while running 33 Dunster Street, a restaurant in Cambridge's Harvard Square now home to a chain brew pub.
Since he began appearing on the state's top 10 tax delinquency list, designed to shame those in arrears into paying up, Lockwood has denied owing taxes in media reports, including a WBZ-TV story where a helicopter flew over his estate, videotaping expensive cars in the driveway.
Messages left on Lockwood's answering machine yesterday were not returned.
Despite his comfortable lifestyle, the state has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to collect from Lockwood because of his use of corporate entities to shield his ownership of assets, including the Beverly Farms mansion, Bliss said.
Lockwood's secret control of the Harbor House was an example of those arrangements, Bliss said, and his dissolving relations with one of his former managers presented the rare opportunity to prove ownership and grab the property.
Formerly named the Catfish Grill, the Harbor House has been under Lockwood's control since at least the early part of the decade, according to court records filed by the Department of Revenue connected with the seizure.
In 2004, Christopher Gleeson, a laborer from South Easton who worked for Lockwood for years in various capacities, including selling mobile phones and cleaning his yard, was installed by Lockwood to run the business, according to sworn statements Gleeson made to the state.
It was an unusual arrangement. Gleeson's name was on the deed of the property and the liquor license, and he was the sole executive in the corporate entity in control of the business. But he had little understanding of how things worked, he said, and was taking orders from Lockwood.
Gleeson paid himself a small salary and would deposit almost all of the receipts in a bank account controlled by Lockwood, according to his statement. Lockwood would pay most of the bills.
After investing $25,000 of his own money in the restaurant, Gleeson said he was forced out of the business under threat of being held liable for taxes it owed.
Christopher Gleeson Trust is still listed as the owner of the Harbor House property, at 116 East Main St., which is valued at $500,700 in Gloucester assessors records.
Gleeson was replaced by Vincent Orlando of Manchester as the manager of the Harbor House in January, ushering a period when the establishment became known as Vinnie's Harbor House.
In his own statement to DOR investigators, Orlando said he was working unsuccessfully in Gloucester in mobile phone sales when Lockwood, an old acquaintance, offered him financial help and eventually suggested he run the Harbor House.
Starting in January, Orlando began running the restaurant under what appears to be an arrangement similar to Gleeson's, with an absentee landlord he assumed was Lockwood not charging any rent.
A call to Orlando's Manchester address was not returned.
Ed Pasquina, chairman of the Gloucester Licensing Board, said this week that the board had not had any issues with the operation or management of the Harbor House that he was aware of.
He said he expected the bar and its liquor license would be auctioned off by the state in the coming weeks or months.
Bliss said plans to sell the Harbor House and its liquor license had not been set.
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