Comptroller Blasts County For Illegal Liquor Purchase

SNOW HILL — Thousands of dollars’ worth of alcohol purchased last fall by the Worcester County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) is heading back to Alabama this week after Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot wrote a scathing letter to county officials about the legality of the purchase.

In October, the county’s DLC, created by legislation last year after the former Liquor Control Board (LCB) was dissolved amid controversy, purchased roughly $175,000 in liquor from the state of Alabama for redistribution in the county agency’s retail and wholesale operations.

County officials evoked a clause in the legislation that afforded the DLC an opportunity to purchase wine and liquor from “any source for resale” and justified the purchase from Alabama by pointing out the significant savings on the deeply discounted booze.

However, the purchase was immediately called into question because Alabama did not have the requisite permit or license to sell the alcohol to the DLC. County officials believed the purchase could be legitimized retroactively if Alabama could secure the necessary permit or license after the fact and the booze was stored in a Delaware warehouse until an opinion was garnered.

Worcester County got that opinion this week in the form of a scathing letter from Franchot addressed to DLC Director Bob Cowger and it clearly wasn’t the answer county officials were seeking.

“Allow me to be as clear as possible,” the letter reads. “First, your purchase of alcohol from the state of Alabama was illegal. It was illegal because the state of Alabama had no license or permit at the time that would make it a lawful supplier to the DLC.”

As a result, the $175,000 worth of illegal liquor is being returned to Alabama this week after the comptroller made clear his position regarding the purchase.

“We’re in the process of sending the liquor back to Alabama right now,” Worcester County Public Information Officer Kim Moses said yesterday. “We’re planning on addressing the situation with the County Commissioners during their regular meeting on Tuesday, but in the meantime, the liquor is on its way back.”

County officials were hoping the purchase of alcohol from Alabama could be legitimized through the issuance of a license or permit retroactively, but again, Franchot made his position clear.

“In fact, that is not the case,” the letter reads. “There is no provision in Maryland statute that retroactively legitimizes an illegal transaction of this nature through the issuance of a license or permit. Therefore, my office regards this shipment as contraband. We would strongly encourage the DLC to return the illegal inventory to the state of Alabama with due haste. Regardless of what you ultimately decide to do with the shipment, it cannot, under any circumstances, be brought into the state of Maryland.”

County officials have attempted to evoke a clause in the legislation creating the DLC which provides the opportunity to purchase “wine and liquor from any source for resale” to justify its purchase from Alabama. However, the comptroller clearly did not agree.

“It is at best preposterous, if not disingenuous, to suggest that the legislature intended to allow the DLC to purchase products from sources with no legal authority to distribute alcohol in the state of Maryland,” the letter reads. “Rather, this legislation that was enacted into law simply enables the DLC to operate outside the three-tier system by purchasing product from any lawfully authorized source.”

As a result, Franchot made it known in no uncertain terms his office regarded the purchase from Alabama as illegal and urged county officials to take immediate steps to remedy the situation.

“In the spirit of clear and forthright communication, allow me to put the Worcester County Department of Liquor Control on notice,” the letter reads. “This is a serious and costly violation of state law. Rest assured that any further issues arising from this purchase, or any other illegal activity, will result in vigorous enforcement actions by my office. This will include the confiscation of all illegal products, and may include the filing of criminal charges against any and all individuals responsible.”

Franchot urged strict compliance with the law as written and encouraged county officials to pursue legislative changes through its representatives in Annapolis is believes changes in the law are warranted.

“In the future, should you believe that the DLC requires relief from the laws that govern the distribution and sale of alcohol in our state, I would strongly encourage you to seek legislative remedies through the Maryland General Assembly rather than engaging in selective compliance with the law,” the letter reads. “In this instance, an agency of county government that was created to change the culture established by the Worcester County Liquor Control Board has chosen to mimic its predecessor. It is my hope that an incident of this nature will not happen again, and that this will prove to be an aberration and not a trend.”

However, Senator Jim Mathias this week did not appear anxious to take up the battle again during the current General Assembly session just one year after getting the legislation creating the new DLC approved.

“First of all, the legislation was challenging at best and it represents what is best for both parties, the county and the industry,” he said. “Both sides made some concessions. The bill was based on four basic pillars — transparency, accountability, public discussion in open forums and a working dialogue between the parties and the public. I’m not certain this recent action lives up to the spirit of the legislation.”

Mathias did not address the Alabama purchase specifically, essentially saying the rules are the rules.

“I’m not an attorney and I’m not going to give an opinion on who did what and where,” he said. “But I would think allowing the DLC to buy from anyone would have to be subordinate to the laws of Maryland.”

From the county’s standpoint, it remains uncertain if legislation is desired clearing up the language in the bill.

“That’s probably going to be a consideration, but it’s a little premature to talk about that until we get an overview of the situation on Tuesday,” said Moses.