Their View | Pa. liquor officials drank for free

March 24, 2014 

Former Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board CEO Joseph Conti made $156,000 annually until his retirement last year, followed by months of “emergency” service at $80 an hour, for a job that did not exist before or since. In that sense, he may have earned the title “Super CEO,” which was engraved on a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue presented to him by an executive with the alcohol giant Diageo, ethics officials found. “He seemed very appreciative,” the executive recounted. No wonder: The premium Scotch whisky retails for about $170 — or, at LCB prices, $230.

The state Ethics Commission reported last week that Conti and two other top LCB officials accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and entertainment from the wine and liquor companies that do business with the agency, exposing a culture of casual venality made uniquely possible by Pennsylvania’s Precambrian approach to alcohol regulation.

Total state control makes the commonwealth the nation’s largest single buyer of wine and spirits. Government functionaries and political appointees decide precisely which brands are sold in State Stores. The Ethics Commission found that some of those officials often took favors from companies that profit handsomely from those decisions.

The commission found that Conti, former LCB chairman Patrick Stapleton III and former marketing director James Short owe the state a total of about $23,000 for benefits received in violation of ethics laws. While it found the officials failed to disclose some of the gifts, company representatives claimed them as business expenses, leaving no doubt as to their purpose.

Liquor firms repeatedly treated Conti, Stapleton, Short and other LCB officials to golf outings, the commission found. Conti and Stapleton paid only nominal fees to play with a pro before the AT&T National hosted by Tiger Woods at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, it reported. Short accepted a three-day, all-expenses-paid golf trip to California’s Pebble Beach, among others. All three were treated to outings organized by vendors just for them – though only Short was clever enough to claim state reimbursement for his expenses at the same time.

Recently retired from his $114,000 job to plaudits from his bosses, Short was directly responsible for the State Stores’ selection as well as a particularly egregious pile of swag, officials found. It included deliveries of booze to his office, home, and vacation destinations; gift cards from Neiman Marcus and Ferragamo; a designer shirt and cuff links; an iPad 2; and tickets to the Broadway musical Wicked.

Meanwhile, Stapleton, a Malvern lawyer who resigned as LCB chairman in 2012, was found to have wheedled thousands of dollars in wine and liquor donations from beverage companies for a schmooze fest he founded. Asked about his perks, he told officials, with palpable cynicism, “This is how the real world works if it’s not the PLCB.”

There is indeed something otherworldly about the LCB, as well as the behavior and attitudes of its officials. The same can be said of a state that responded with no more than a mild scolding.

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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