He is being brought back under a provision in the state retirement code that permits former employees to return on an emergency basis while still collecting pensions.
The move comes as the LCB continues to try to fend off the Corbett administration's push for privatization and contends with a state Ethics Commission probe into allegations that top officials at the agency, Conti among them, accepted gifts and favors from vendors.
Conti, a onetime Republican legislator from Bucks County, declined to comment Thursday.
LCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said in an e-mail that the agency was bringing Conti back to help with coming legislative hearings on the agency's budget as well as the search for someone to fill his shoes.
"Since he possesses important strategic information as well as expertise critical to the daily operation of the PLCB," Kriedeman wrote, "the agency will also benefit from his guidance on the continued effective operation of the PLCB."
"What's the emergency here?" asked Harrisburg activist Eric Epstein, cofounder of the watchdog group Rock the Capital. "The only emergency I can see is that he is out of work."
According to the state Office of Administration, which approved Conti's temporary return, the law defines an emergency as a "serious impairment of service to the public" created by an employee's exit. For instance, at the height of the recession, the state called back retirees to work in its unemployment compensation call centers. And the Revenue Department often calls in former employees during tax season to help.
It was unclear Thursday how many hours Conti will work in his temporary role. If he puts in a typical 37.5-hour state government work week, for instance, he would be paid roughly $3,000. Over 95 working days, he would earn roughly $57,000. And the law doesn't require the days to be consecutive. They can be stretched out over a calendar year.
Also not immediately known was how much Conti will be eligible to receive in pension benefits. That is based in part on years of service and his three highest-salaried years. Conti served in the House and Senate for 12 years before being tapped by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2006 to fill the new post of LCB chief executive. The move was controversial, as some critics questioned whether the agency needed a CEO in addition to a salaried three-member governing board.
Conti oversees an agency that runs 620 state liquor stores with a 4,500-employee payroll. He was paid $156,000 at the LCB's helm, more than twice what he made when he left the Senate.
Corbett, a longtime proponent of privatizing the agency, has said he would like nothing more than to abolish Conti's post. But to do so, he needs the LCB's approval. The three-member board is operating with a vacancy, and only one of its members is a Corbett appointee.
The circumstances surrounding Conti's departure were not entirely clear. For his part, he issued a statement Friday night saying his six years with the LCB had been "my greatest source of career satisfaction."
According to the LCB, Conti submitted a letter to the board in December saying he would "retire" Feb. 15. Kriedeman, the agency spokeswoman, said Conti then asked the board to move up his last day on the job to Feb. 1.
"Joe had a verbal conversation with the board at the last board meeting and . . . the board agreed," Kriedeman wrote in an e-mail. "That was a decision between Joe and the board."
As for the ethics investigation, a source close to Conti speaking on condition of anonymity said it did not factor into his decision. The allegations that triggered the probe were contained in a confidential report completed in March 2012 by the state Inspector General's Office.
That report, a copy of which The Inquirer obtained, described Conti, LCB 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 sports events and golf tournaments. Stapleton has since quit the board.
The report also suggested Conti had lobbied a vendor and pressed others inside and outside the agency - including Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr - for jobs for his brother and daughter.
Conti has declined numerous requests for comment on the report and ethics investigation.
Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.