Time running out on LCB probe

Posted: June 04, 2013

HARRISBURG - The clock is quickly running down for state ethics investigators to complete an inquiry into allegations that top officials at the Liquor Control Board accepted gifts and favors from vendors and other businesses with an interest in liquor regulation.

The Ethics Commission launched its probe last summer on the heels of a confidential report by the state Inspector General's Office that described LCB Chief Executive Officer Joseph Conti, former board member Patrick J. Stapleton III, and marketing director James Short as having accepted gifts and favors in 2011, including wine and tickets to sporting events.

Over the last year, investigators have interviewed current and former LCB employees in what two people familiar with the probe described as an inquiry that has expanded beyond the allegations in the inspector general's report. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators were exploring whether other LCB employees had accepted trips and gifts in violation of ethics laws.

Ethics investigators are given up to 360 days to report findings to the full commission, which then determines whether rules were broken. Though the exact date the inquiry began could not be learned, several lawyers involved in the case said they first were told of it in mid-summer.

The inquiry is also wrapping up at a sensitive time for the LCB. Facing action this month in the legislature is a proposal, strongly supported by Gov. Corbett, to privatize the system and eventually put all or most of the 600-plus State Stores in private hands.

Robert P. Caruso, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said his office neither confirmed nor denied the existence of any pending investigation.

Stapleton, through his lawyer, said he was cooperating with the investigation and did nothing improper on the liquor board.

"We've continued to have contact with the Ethics Commission, and we hope and expect to reach a positive resolution in the very near future," said Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia whose work involves white-collar criminal defense.

Matt Haverstick, Conti's lawyer, declined to comment. Efforts to contact Short were unsuccessful.

Then-Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner's confidential report, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, was completed in March 2012 and forwarded to Corbett's office and the Ethics Commission. Among its findings:

An LCB vendor secured for Stapleton a round of golf with a pro during a 2011 tournament 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 gifts from another vendor, including about $1,700 worth of alcohol for a charity event at the Hotel Hershey that he and his then-wife organized. Yet another vendor allegedly lined up a celebrity chef for the event.

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

Conti also was described in the report as having attended Phillies games as a guest of vendors.

Investigators reported finding no evidence that Conti or his family members paid for the tickets.

The Ethics Commission is an independent agency empowered to investigate alleged violations of the Ethics Act, which applies to public officials and employees.

The commission does not have prosecutorial powers but can refer matters to law enforcement.

In her 2012 report, Faulkner - who recently left the administration to become vice president and general counsel of the University of Cincinnati - noted that the Ethics Act bars officials from using their positions to benefit themselves or their families.

She also wrote that state liquor law makes it a felony for LCB employees and their relatives to accept gifts from vendors.

Penalties include firing and possible prosecution.

Faulkner wrote that her agency's role was limited because the LCB is independent 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 the Ethics Act had been breached.

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

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