Pa. ethics panel investigating three LCB officials

Posted: August 22, 2012

HARRISBURG - The state Ethics Commission has launched an inquiry into allegations that three top officials at the Liquor Control Board accepted gifts and favors last year from vendors and other businesses with an interest in liquor regulation.

Ethics Commission officials have interviewed at least five employees of the LCB, most of them in the last week, about the allegations contained in a confidential report completed in March by the Inspector General's Office and forwarded to Corbett administration officials.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, described LCB chief executive officer Joe Conti, board member Patrick J. "P.J." Stapleton III, and marketing director James Short as having accepted gifts and favors in 2011, including wine and tickets to sporting events and golf tournaments.

LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec called the probe "a pending investigation" and said the board was cooperating. Conti declined through a spokeswoman Tuesday to speak about the matter, as did LCB chairman Joseph "Skip" Brion.

John J. Contino, executive director of the Ethics Commission, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Generally, his office neither confirms nor denies the existence of a pending investigation.

But according to two people familiar with the inquiry, ethics officials have brought in five LCB employees within the last week to question them. Conti was among those interviewed, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Ethics Commission is an independent agency empowered to investigate alleged violations of the Ethics Act, which applies to public officials and employees. Portions of the act also apply to candidates and nominees for office.

Generally, the commission keeps information related to its investigations confidential. According to its website, if the agency receives a complaint about a possible ethics breach, it can initiate a preliminary inquiry and, subsequently, a full investigation.

In its confidential report on the LCB, the Inspector General's Office noted that the Ethics Act barred officials from using their positions to gain benefits for themselves or their families - and that state liquor law made it a felony for LCB employees and their relatives to receive gifts from vendors. Penalties include firing and possible prosecution.

Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner wrote that her agency's watchdog role was limited because the LCB was an independent agency and its officials could not be compelled to cooperate. As a result, she wrote, investigators did not interview LCB employees or vendors. But they did review e-mails sent on state computers and concluded that the Ethics Act had been breached.

Among the findings of the report, which was forwarded to the Ethics Commission as well as Gov. Corbett's office:

One LCB vendor secured for Stapleton a round of golf with a pro during a tournament last year at the Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, and sent two employees to serve as Stapleton's caddies for the round.

Stapleton, a onetime LCB chairman, accepted several gifts from another LCB vendor, including about $1,700 worth of alcohol for an event at the Hotel Hershey that he and his then-wife organized. Another LCB vendor allegedly lined up a celebrity chef for the same event. Stapleton could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

As for Conti, the report suggests that the LCB executive lobbied a vendor and pressed others inside and outside the agency - including the Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr - for jobs for his brother and daughter.

Conti was also described in the report as having often attended Phillies games as a guest of LCB vendors. Investigators reported finding no evidence that Conti or his family members paid for the tickets.

The LCB's latest travails come amid a continuing call from top Republicans, including Corbett, to privatize the agency, which operates more than 600 liquor stores and employs about 5,000 people.

A privatization bill pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is stalled and unlikely to come up for a vote in the fall, given the legislature's truncated schedule before the November election. But both Turzai and Corbett have said that privatization was a priority for them and that it could become a front-burner issue again in 2013.


Contact Angela Couloumbis

at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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