Monica Yant Kinney: In Pennsylvania, liquor regulators drunk with arrogance

Only in Pennsylvania would an effort to privatize an archaic state-run liquor system dry up the same week public officials got caught accepting gifts from vendors and using wine as a weapon.

Lording over who gets to buy Yuengling when, where, and in what quantity has been a nonstop party for political heavyweights. Underage drinkers plan their beer bashes via text messages, but officials at the Liquor Control Board are so drunk with power, they use state e-mail servers.

Thanks to the Inspector General's Office, we now know that VIPs at the PLCB go to Phillies and Union games for free.

As revealed by my colleague Angela Couloumbis, liquor peddlers happily comped wine and spirits for shindigs hosted by PLCB member Patrick J. Stapleton. One vendor even offered up the services of Zahav chef Michael Solomonov to impress Stapleton.

In one of the more flagrant acts of arrogance, PLCB chief Joe Conti decided it wasn't enough to get his daughter hired at a State Store. He took nepotism to a new level by assigning an administrator to aid her job search.

Then, in January, Conti - who earns $156,000 a year to regulate beer - propositioned restaurateur Stephen Starr to hire his little girl.

"Team PLCB," Conti wrote in an e-mail, would love to "partner" with Starr in opening a wine boutique.

"Thank you," the official added, for considering the plea "from a proud father" of a gal with "great hospitality potential."

 

A little privacy, please

PLCB members are appointed by the governor, but the agency operates independently. Autonomy led to complacency and audacity. If these liquor lords answer to no one, what's to stop them from using commonwealth e-mail servers to arrange the gifts they felt so entitled to receive?

It's worth pausing to shudder that Harrisburg remains so clueless about the need to separate public business and political enrichment in the aftermath of Bonusgate and Computergate, the scandals and trials that led disgraced former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese to share a prison cell.

Have those who run this state learned nothing about relegating greed to their home networks? Surely these guys can afford a second BlackBerry. After all, Gmail is free.

 

A hot syncing mess

Stapleton may have felt efficient after syncing his law firm e-mail with his @pa.gov account to coordinate board meetings, party planning, and golf invites from connected companies. But wouldn't a lawyer know that using the commonwealth portal to corral electronic missives would expose him to the state Ethics Act and the PLCB Code of Conduct?

The liquor agency rules are as clear as vodka about the pain to be inflicted for using the public job for personal gain:

Mandatory termination and possible criminal prosecution.

Turns out, it was Stapleton himself who inspired a whistle-blower to go to the inspector general in 2011 after the PLCB chairman chose "not to address" recommendations from an internal investigation into another employee's misdeeds.

Stapleton must have known that to oust an underling for soliciting and accepting gifts could lead to exposing himself for more egregious transgressions. If the booze boss followed the rules, he would have had to fire himself, too.

 


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.