SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Justice is opening a criminal investigation into allegations that senior officials in the state's alcohol regulatory agency violated ethics laws by diverting rare, sought-after bourbons for personal use, the state attorney general said Friday.
The officials said they were paying for the whiskey, which can cost thousands of dollars a bottle, but they allegedly used their knowledge and connections at the commission to obtain the products, according to an internal investigation by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.
The practice had purportedly been going on for many years and involved not only state employees but also members of the Oregon Legislature, the OLCC investigator was told.
The practice consequently deprived well-heeled whiskey aficionados among the public of the tiny-batch boutique bourbons.
It also violated several Oregon statutes, including one that prohibits public officials from using confidential information for personal gain, according to the commission’s investigation.
Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek expressed outrage at the findings and on Wednesday asked the OLCC board of commissioners to fire Executive Director Steve Marks and others who have been implicated.
Kotek also asked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to conduct an independent civil investigation. Instead, the justice department's criminal division opened an investigation, Rosenblum announced, adding that a civil probe would come later.
“The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission will comply fully with the criminal investigation announced today by the Oregon Attorney General,” commission spokesman Mark Pettinger said in an email.
Criminal law involves prosecuting defendants and holding offenders accountable, usually through imprisonment or probationary sentences. Civil law addresses situations in which an economic award or penalty might help remedy a situation.
Chris Mayton, distilled spirits program director, who was one of the people accused of abusing his position, told the OLCC investigator that he had served as a “facilitator” for commission employees and legislators hundreds of times in acquiring the whiskeys as part of his work duties. He did not name any lawmakers.
The officials purportedly had very limited bottles of top-shelf bourbon routed to a liquor store, often in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie where the commission headquarters is located, and would reserve them for pickup later.
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is in charge of investigating ethics violations by lawmakers. To date, the commission hasn't received any complaints against legislators about the matter, Executive Director Ronald Bersin said in an email Friday.
Marks has not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press, but in his responses during the investigation, he denied that he had violated Oregon ethics laws and state policy. However, he acknowledged that he had received preferential treatment “to some extent” in obtaining the whiskey as a commission employee. Marks and the other officials denied they resold the whiskeys they obtained.
The board of commissioners is appointed by the governor and in turn selects the executive director, according to a commission spokesman. The commissioners’ next regular meeting is Wednesday. The agency is the state’s third-largest revenue generator.