BALTIMORE — A lively mix of regulars and families with small children ate lunch at a kosher pizzeria in northwest Baltimore on Wednesday, and several said they have no problem with the restaurant's new employee: disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Tov Pizza's owner hired Abramoff because he thought his business savvy could jazz up the shop's marketing. Abramoff could not be spotted behind the counter, and owner Ron Rosenbluth said he would not be working in the kitchen.
"He's in the back. He's working," said Rosenbluth, who declined to make Abramoff available for an interview. He said it was his understanding that Abramoff could not speak to the media while he remains under the supervision of the Bureau of Prisons, which lasts until Dec. 4.
Abramoff was released from a minimum-security prison camp in western Maryland on June 8 after serving about 3 1/2 years for fraud, corruption and conspiracy. He spent three days in a halfway house in Baltimore before he was placed in home confinement, in part because he has a job, said Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons.
Rosenbluth declined to disclose Abramoff's salary but said he would look to the former lobbyist, who once charged clients $750 an hour, to provide some new ideas for his 26-year-old restaurant. He said he didn't know Abramoff until recently. He said he was told he was getting out prison and needed a job, so he interviewed him.
"There are certain things that I know that I'm short on. I'm not very good at keeping up on our website," Rosenbluth said. "It's always good to have a fresh eye on the place."
Several customers told The Associated Press that they admired Rosenbluth for hiring Abramoff and were surprised but untroubled to learn that he was working there.
"The man needs a job. It's a good opportunity," said Bob Rosenfelt, 58, of Baltimore. "Knowing the owner as I do, he reaches out to people of all denominations who need help."
Susan Sonenthal, an independent bookseller who lives nearby, conceded that some might view Tov Pizza in a negative light for hiring such a notorious figure, but the move made perfect sense to her.
"Based on his previous experience, it's the right fit," Sonenthal said. "He's not going to be making the pizza."
Tov Pizza has little in common with Signatures, the swanky Pennsylvania Avenue eatery once owned by Abramoff, where his clients enjoyed free meals worth thousands of dollars.
A slice of cheese pizza costs $2.26. The walls are decorated with certificates thanking Tov Pizza for its work with local charities, and tapes and CDs of a rabbi offering advice on "Love & Marriage & Harmony in the Home" were available for $2.
Its customer base comes from the conservative and Orthodox Jewish communities in northwest Baltimore and nearby Pikesville. Most of the men inside wore yarmulkes, and several women wore headscarves, long sleeves and long skirts on a sweltering, 95-degree day.
As Rosenbluth spoke to an AP reporter, he stepped away to close the door and fix a vent on a refrigerator holding bottled drinks. He said he'd barely gotten a chance to speak with Abramoff and was more concerned with keeping his business running smoothly.