SNOW HILL — For the second time in two years, the Maryland Comptroller’s Office has launched an investigation into the alleged unlawful business practices of Worcester County’s liquor dispensary.
Spokeswoman Christine Feldmann confirmed reports that last Friday the Comptroller’s field enforcement officers descended upon the Snow Hill headquarters of the new county Department of Liquor Control (DLC), seizing documents and a small portion of the $175,000 liquor shipment the county bought and received from the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Oct. 31.
“Usually in a case like this, we would have seized all of the illegal alcohol, but we neither had the space, nor the manpower to store such a large amount,” she said.
Feldmann said the rest of the liquor must be shipped back to Alabama and added that the county has received a direct order from Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office to do so immediately.
The reason being the state of Alabama has not secured the proper licensing it needs in order to sell booze in the state of Maryland, making the transaction illegal.
Although Alabama is one of 19 controlled states the DLC may purchase alcohol from, as per a clause in State Senator Jim Mathias’ bill that abolished the old LCB and established the DLC, sources in the Comptroller’s office say the Alabama ABC had yet to even apply for a license when this story broke last week.
County officials were quick to admit they were in the wrong, claiming they “jumped the gun” on the so-called “sweetheart deal” they had brokered, saying in an email statement from Public Information Officer Kim Moses that “we failed to consider the licensing aspect of it.”
County Attorney Sonny Bloxom said the DLC is now working with the State’s Attorney’s Office to help Alabama get the license they need so bulk purchases of alcohol can be made here in Worcester County at what he called “much better rates than what we can get from the wholesalers in Maryland.”
From a business perspective, buying large quantities of booze at a cheaper rate than the county could get them for in-state would help the county’s profit margins while presumably keeping the markup prices they charge the local restaurant and bar owners at a reasonable rate. However, the Comptroller’s office believes the county made a major error in making the deal before a license was in place.
It’s also interesting and perhaps contrary to the county’s claims that the deal is in hopes of raising revenue while helping the area licensees when reports surfaced this week that the county’s retail stores were selling bottles of liquor for as low as $3 a bottle. A local store clerk, when asked about the bargain basement deals, responded it was an effort to clear our inventory.
Worcester County Licensed Beverage Association President Doug Buxbaum said he’s content with that.
“We are watching this unfortunate incident unfold with great interest, but we realize that we are just pawns in a much bigger game that has to do with dollars and cents and we are at a point in the season where we are just trying to survive what could be a very difficult winter,” Buxbaum said.
Since an investigation has now been officially launched by the Comptroller’s office, Feldmann says she will likely not to be able to make any more detailed statements about the case, but did say “we are trying to get to the bottom of what happened and wrap this up as timely as we can.”