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Oregon DOJ says no criminal charges warranted in bourbon scandal


Oregon DOJ says no criminal charges warranted in bourbon scandal

May 14, 2024 | 9:03 pm ET
By Ben Botkin
Oregon DOJ says no criminal charges warranted in bourbon scandal
Oregon liquor regulators had rare Kentucky bourbons set aside so that they could buy them. This whiskey was distilled in Kentucky in August 2016 to mark the total lunar eclipse from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Oregon Department of Justice concluded that no criminal charges are warranted for the six former Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission employees who set aside bottles of in-demand bourbon for their personal use.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum on Monday announced the conclusion of the investigation, which started in February 2023, in a letter to Gov. Tina Kotek. The criminal investigation has no bearing on the separate question of whether any state employee violated Oregon’s civil ethics laws. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which can levy fines, in July 2023 paused its ethics investigation during the criminal probe.

“It is critical that Oregonians have trust in our state agencies, their leaders and employees,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “I am pleased with the thoroughness of the investigation and the professionalism demonstrated by our DOJ team.”

The six employees, including former commission director Steve Marks, faced accusations of diverting rare bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon to designated stores that they could purchase themselves. The lengthy investigation involved the review of more than 10,000 agency documents, reports and emails and interviews with more than 40 people, including state employees, liquor store agents and lawmakers. Special agents also examined records from liquor stores and distributors.

The summary of the investigation noted the agency had “a long-standing agency practice where an employee could request that a specific product be transferred to a liquor store so that the employee could purchase that liquor for personal use.” One employee with the agency for more than three decades told investigators the practice predated her employment.

In a statement, Kotek thanked Rosenblum and Oregon Department of Justice staff for the investigation, adding the documents will be available to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission as its ethics review proceeds.

Susan Myers, executive director of the state ethics commission, said in an email the commission will lift the pause on its investigation with the criminal probe finished. At this time, the ethics commission has 99 days remaining of the 180-day period allowed by state law to complete an investigation, Myer said.

Oregon is a “control state,” which means it oversees the distribution and sales of liquor in the state. The liquor commission is the regulatory agency that has oversight on the process, which includes setting the price of liquor sold by liquor agents, who are independent contractors that operate stores.

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