Oregon Republican legislative leaders on Tuesday asked Gov. Tina Kotek to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate a scandal involving top managers at the state liquor control agency who diverted rare, expensive bourbons for their own use.
They also asked that the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who is pursuing a criminal investigation into the commission, identify any lawmakers who received special access to the rare, high-priced bourbon because of their positions.
“To preserve public trust, it is imperative the names be released,” Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend, House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville and the Senate’s sole Independent, Brian Boquist of Dallas, wrote in their letter.
Kotek’s press secretary, Elisabeth Shepard, said that Kotek already asked the Justice Department to investigate.
In a short speech on the House floor Tuesday, Breese-Iverson thanked Kotek for moving quickly to remove the agency’s former executive director, who was implicated in an internal investigation into the bourbon hoarding scandal, and appointing a new director who pledged to clean house.
But Breese-Iverson said that wasn’t enough.
“We must not think that we’ve accomplished all that needs to be done for transparency at this point,” she said. “We cannot expect the people of Oregon to trust us unless full transparency happens in the agencies designed to serve them.”
Knopp, meanwhile, asked his Democratic colleagues to imagine if they would feel confident in an investigation run by Republicans in a GOP-controlled state. Democrats have long controlled the Legislature and nearly every state-level office in Oregon.
An internal investigation last year, first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive, found that former executive director Steve Marks and five other high-level commission employees routinely set aside rare liquor for their own personal use instead of making it available for public sales. They could do so because Oregon is one of 17 states that regulates where and how liquor can be sold, storing bottles in state agency warehouses before distributing it to local liquor stores.
One of the employees, distilled spirits program director Chris Mayton, told the internal investigator that he regularly procured liquor for lawmakers, though he didn’t name them. Past and present legislators, including Kotek, the longtime speaker of the House, have denied knowing anything about the practice.
Knopp, Breese-Iverson and Boquist also asked for independent scrutiny of the commission’s plans to build a new warehouse. The commission last year paid more than $40 million for 33 acres in Canby that had been appraised for $22 million. The agency’s predicted construction costs had ballooned to $172.5 million by January from $62.5 million in 2019.
“On the outset, this suggests a negligent breach of the agency’s fiduciary duty,” the lawmakers wrote. “In the spirit of government transparency, working Oregonians deserve assurance they can trust the Legislature and state agencies with their tax dollars.”
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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.