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A number of top officials in charge of regulating alcohol in the state of Oregon may have drunk themselves under the table — and out the door.
According to an internal investigation, at least six members of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (OLCC), including the agency’s former executive director, used their authority to divert rare and expensive bourbon whiskey so they could buy it for their personal use. The officials allegedly used their connections to push the rare spirits to a particular store where they could be kept away from the public.
“After requesting the head of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission’s resignation, my administration became aware that leaders within this agency, including the director himself, abused their position for personal gain per their own admission in an internal investigation,” Oregon Governor Tina Kotek wrote in a letter to the commission. “This behavior is wholly unacceptable. I will not tolerate wrongful violations of our government ethics laws. I urge the commission to install new leadership and remove the managers and executive leadership who have taken advantage of their access and authority to benefit themselves.”
The investigation found that OLCC Executive Director Steve Marks and at least five other officials used their knowledge and connections at the commission to obtain the expensive whiskey. Local news outlet Willamette Week notes that when manufacturers set aside rare bottles of their products for customers, the OLCC has the authority to determine where those bottles go. Some are distributed to retail stores, some to bars and restaurants, and others given away by lottery.
According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Marks told an investigator that he requested agency staff to divert some liquor to a specific store where he could buy it away from the public. Other bottles were also set aside by the agency so that managers could buy them. The officials paid for the spirits, but using their connections to obtain them may violate Oregon laws prohibiting officials from using confidential information for personal gain.
Marks reportedly denied breaking Oregon laws, but he did admit to receiving preferential treatment “to some extent” because of his position. “I don’t know, a few times for my personal use,” he reportedly told investigators. “Pappy’s 23 is remembered in the last few years.” Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Year is an extremely rare and expensive bourbon. A Google search reveals that the whiskey costs $5000 a bottle or more. One bottle of the 2008 release sold at a December auction for $52,000.
Other officials said during the investigation that the practice of setting aside rare bottles was widespread and had been going on for years. OLCC Director of Distilled Spirits Chris Mayton said he served as a “facilitator” for customers, employees, and even state lawmakers, hundreds of times, and considered it part of his work duties, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Nikki Leslie, an employee in charge of distributing the liquor, said that the practice had been going on since she took her position some eight years ago. She told investigators that often she was asked to direct the bottles to a specific store in the city of Milwaukie, near the agency headquarters, and tell employees when the spirits would arrive, so they could buy the bottles ahead of the general public.
“This incident underlines the importance of having public accountability,” agency spokesman Mark Pettinger told the Associated Press. “The OLCC will need to work on rebuilding and restoring our public trust … and adhere to Oregon’s ethics laws.”