HARRISBURG - Since 2004, the three men who controlled Pennsylvania's state-run monopoly on wine and liquor racked up more than $100,000 in public travel expenses, including stays in luxury hotels and resorts from coast to coast and beyond.
Jonathan H. Newman, who recently resigned as chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in a dispute with Gov. Rendell, accounted for nearly half of the spending as he scouted for deals on wines in Northern California, France and Italy.
He often stayed in style, at times booking $500-a-night New York City hotel rooms, an Inquirer analysis of documents obtained through the state's Right to Know law shows.
Newman yesterday vigorously defended the travel, arguing that his wine-buying trips to Napa Valley, the Bordeaux region and Rome generated millions in profits for the state through sales from the Chairman's Selection program he started three years ago to give consumers better wines at a better price.
Haggling for the best wine bargains can't be done over the phone, "sitting on your derriere," he said.
"I'm working my tail off. I'd rather be home with my family. I'm working from 8 in the morning to 10 at night," he said. "And I brought back these new, great products and generated millions in profits for the commonwealth."
Between 2004 and the end of last year, the PLCB spent $47,188 for Newman's travel. Expenses for the two other board members - Thomas Goldsmith and P.J. Stapleton - totaled $35,887 and $20,048, respectively.
Activists who are pushing for greater financial restraint in Harrisburg pounced on the spending reports.
"There is no justification for this type of extravagant, excessive and lavish lifestyle," said Eric Epstein, founder of RockTheCapital.org. "When you become drunk with power, you make impaired decisions."
Stapleton, who replaced Newman as chairman, said yesterday that he was unaware until recently of many of the travel bills, but planned to send a memo to the agency's senior staff next week mandating that more discretion be given to picking hotels.
"I think we need to be reasonable and prudent and understand that we are public employees," he said. "It's beyond the pale to be staying at $500 hotels. I can't foresee where people will be staying in $500-a-night hotels anymore."
Since 2004, Newman has traveled to Napa Valley five times. His last time there, a weeklong trip in October, cost the agency a total of $2,454 in airfare, lodging and meal per diems.
It was during that trip, Newman said, that he arranged to purchase 44,000 cases of wine at discount prices, and later the agency saw a profit of $3.2 million from the deal.
In January 2005, Goldsmith joined Newman on one of the the wine-buying trips to Napa Valley.
Initially, he said he thought the room rates were high - including $359 a night for the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco - but later realized how pricey hotels are in that part of California.
Goldsmith said the trip was all business-related, but acknowledged that he took along his wife. He paid all of her expenses out of his own pocket.
In each of the last three years, all three members attended the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America annual convention in Las Vegas and Orlando. Those trips, on average, cost the PLCB $1,300 per member.
Over the last three years, Newman also traveled to Aspen, Colo.; Chicago; and Burlington, Vt. But the priciest hotels were booked for stays in Washington and New York City to attend award ceremonies and industry trade shows.
In September, Newman stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington for three nights, each costing the agency $498. And, during the last three years, he booked rooms four times at the New York Palace, which Condé Nast Traveler magazine named one of the "World's Best Places to Stay" in 2006.
Newman's per-night rate there ranged from $445 to $564.
The former chairman said that if he didn't attend such events, many of which select the hotel accommodations, he wouldn't have been able to network with industry leaders and convince them that Pennsylvania "has transformed itself from a backwater" when it comes to selling liquor.
Newman said he flew coach on all of his trips, except when he traveled to Italy in February. The state paid about $1,000 more for his business-class ticket because he was to spend 10 hours on planes.
Although the PLCB runs 635 state wine-and-spirit shops and regulates liquor licenses for 16,000 bars and restaurants, its inner workings have long been obscure, generating little attention from the media.
That changed last month with a very public flap between Newman and Rendell over the governor's push to create a CEO position for the agency and his quickly recommending State Sen. Joe Conti (R., Bucks) to the job.
Among other things, Newman, who was outnumbered 2-1 in hiring Conti for the $150,000-a-year post, complained that the action amounted to a hastily decided, high-salaried political appointment.
And, Newman argued, perhaps it was unneeded because, as chairman, he was already performing many of the duties of a CEO and being paid $65,572 annually, less than half what Conti is making. The other board members made about $63,000.
Newman resigned from the board three weeks ago after serving seven years, the last 41/2 as its chairman. He said with the CEO in place, the duties of the board were diminished.
In defending his travel, Newman pointed out that he had given up his state-leased car three years ago, and rarely had put in for food reimbursements. And, he said, he infrequently stayed overnight in Harrisburg when attending board meetings, preferring to drive back and forth from his Montgomery County home.
When he stayed overnight in the state capital - six times in 2006 - Newman did so at the Harrisburg Hilton. So did Goldsmith, the former mayor of Easton who still lives in that city. Goldsmith stayed in Harrisburg about 20 nights in 2006. The Hilton charges about $160 a night.
Goldsmith said he prefers the Hilton because it is close to the Capitol and makes it easy for him to meet with lawmakers and other state officials.
Stapleton drives just several miles from the capital to Camp Hill, where he stays at the Radisson for half the cost - $81 a night.
Goldsmith's expenses also show that when he travels to Philadelphia for wine festivals and other events, he has stayed at the best hotels, including the Four Seasons ($345 a night) and the Ritz Carlton ($349 a night). He said that whenever he travels, he asks for the government rate at hotels - which provide rooms at a discount - but that it's not always available.
"I'm entitled to modest accommodations," Goldsmith said. "I don't think I have to stay at the absolutely cheapest hotel. I don't think that is expected."
Next month, Goldsmith and Stapleton are planning to travel to the Napa Valley on a wine-buying trip that Newman had booked before he resigned.