Oregon Attorney General Announces Criminal Investigation of OLCC Rare Liquor Graft

Agency officials admitted diverting rare, valuable bottles for personal use and for lawmakers.

(Thomas Teal)

The stakes of a breaking scandal at the state liquor commission ratcheted up this afternoon as Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced that the Oregon Department of Justice had opened a criminal investigation into “ethics violations related to the purchase of liquor by some staff of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission and possibly others.” (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, the co-owner of WW’s parent company.)

Gov. Tina Kotek had previously asked Rosenblum to open a civil investigation into the admissions by six top agency officials, including director Steve Marks, that they had claimed the right to purchase rare bottles of Elmer T. Lee and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon not available to the public. The officials also told internal investigators that unnamed lawmakers also got favorable treatment, allowing them to purchase bottles.

Related: Lawmakers and Top OLCC Officials Benefited From Diversion of Rare Whiskey, Investigation Finds

Oregon ethics laws prohibit public officials, such as OLCC managers and legislators, from using their official positions for private gain that would not be available but for those positions. In the case of the rare whiskeys—which may have a market value of 10 or 20 times the state price because of their scarcity—the private benefit would simply be the opportunity to purchase bottles not generally available to the public.

All the OLCC officials told investigators they did not resell the bottles they improperly obtained, but the veracity of those claims is now likely going to be tested by DOJ investigators. Another possible avenue for investigation: whether OLCC officials used the rare whiskeys to improperly influence lawmakers who control the agency’s budget and its scope of work.

In a statement, the DOJ said its criminal probe would take precedence over the civil investigation.

“In light of this decision,” DOJ said, “the civil investigation requested Wednesday by Gov. Kotek will be delayed until the completion of the criminal investigation.”

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