Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another Ethics Investigation at the PLCB: this time at the top

The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who's been covering the PLCB, Angela Couloumbis, dropped a bomb in this morning's edition. The headline:

Top LCB officials said to take gifts, favors from vendors 

That got my attention. The article (citing a leaked report from the Inspector General that was supposed to have been delivered to Governor Corbett in late March) detailed how Joe "Da CEO" Conti, PJ "I Used to Matter" Stapleton, and PLCB marketing director James Short have been found to have "accepted gifts and favors from vendors and other businesses with an interest in liquor," according the Inspector General's office. The IG, Kenya Mann Faulkner
wrote that her agency's watchdog role was limited because the liquor board is an independent agency [a situation I've pointed out before, and one that leads to the agency's incredible arrogance] and its officials could not be compelled to cooperate. As a result, she wrote, investigators did not interview LCB employees or vendors. But they did review e-mails sent on state computers and concluded that the Ethics Act had been breached.
What are the unethical actions that the IG's investigation turned up?

Joe Conti allegedly accepted Phillies and Union tickets from companies doing business with the LCB and "lobbied a vendor and pressed others inside and outside the agency - including Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr - for jobs for his brother and daughter."

PJ Stapleton? "...one LCB vendor secured a round of golf with a pro for Stapleton during a tournament at Aronimink - and sent two employees to serve as Stapleton's caddies." Stapleton also
accepted several gifts from an LCB vendor, North Wales-based Capital Wine & Spirits. The gifts included about $1,700 worth of alcohol for an event at the Hotel Hershey last year that Stapleton and his ex-wife organized - the annual Keystone Weekend, billed as a forum for business, civic, sports, and entertainment leaders to exchange ideas on current issues. Stapleton solicited the alcohol and the LCB vendor donated 60 bottles, the report said. It quoted an e-mail sent to him last Sept. 12 by a Capital executive: "The wine and spirits for Keystone weekend is taken care of."

And James Short? I almost feel sorry for the poor bastard: all he did was take Conti's freebie Union tickets one night when Conti couldn't be bothered to accept one more gift.

According to the article, the report has also been forwarded to the state Ethics Commission. What did the accused have to say for themselves? 
Conti, Stapleton, and Short declined through LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec to be interviewed for this article. Witalec said, "The board has never been presented with the report, or notified of any formal investigation. We will be prepared to discuss any details when formally notified."
You know, when I saw that headline, the first thing that flashed through my mind, even before "Ah-HA!", was this. Three years ago, there was a scandal in North Carolina about one of their county ABC Boards (their control is even more byzantine than ours) accepting a sumptuous meal from Diageo reps, a Del Frisco's steakhouse meal for 28 ABC officials and their spouses. This was part of a string of scandals involving the ABC, which included gross nepotism and $20,000 of missing inventory at one store. Now, I'm not saying that the PLCB is the NCABC, it's not like there's been a string of scandals at the PLCB...

No, wait a minute. There is a whole list of truly questionable decisions that have been made by the PLCB: you can find it here. There's the wine kiosk single-bidder fiasco (which triggered a special audit by the Auditor General's office), the questionably-awarded 'courtesy contract' misstep (another audit...), the inventory software screwup (wow, another audit?!), and, of course, the still unexplained incident involving "widespread financial irregularities at the PLCB's Philadelphia warehouse where over 20 employees were suspended.

And before anyone accuses me of dredging up the past, re-hashing old issues...there was this little beauty just two days ago: another Angela Couloumbis article on the lax work habits of the PLCB's stable of private judges. This paragraph pretty much sums it up:
Investigators found that LCB judges rarely stuck to normal workdays, often arriving hours late, leaving the office for hours at a time without taking appropriate leave, and going home early, according to the report. Sometimes, the report said, they didn't show up at all.
Guess we know why it's so hard to get a nuisance bar closed.

These stories are like Christmas morning for me. This is exactly the kind of malfeasance that government monopoly retail breeds, and I was pretty sure it was there...and thanks to Angela Couloumbis, now we know it is. It's very satisfying to see how her stories have changed from slightly pro-PLCB to a more adversarial relationship. After all, as Mencken put it, the only way a journalist should look at a politician is down.

Does this mean anything for privatization? You bet it does; it makes it a LOT harder for the PLCB to claim the moral high ground. Time to press the advantage. Tell your legislator you don't want want a monopoly in the hands of arrogant people with questionable ethics who are clearly out of touch with what Pennsylvanians expect. Break the monopoly; privatize. We have a bill on the floor...fix it, pass it, and let it happen.

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