Ethics board: LCB execs took gifts from vendors

Posted: March 19, 2014

Three former high-ranking Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officials violated ethics rules between 2008 and 2012 by accepting gifts, donations, and hospitality from vendors who had business dealings with the agency, the state Ethics Commission has found.

The gifts included entry into golf tournaments, meals at upscale restaurants, and, in one case, an engraved bottle of high-end scotch. Together, the items were worth more than $23,000, the commission said in reports released Monday.

Former Chairman Patrick J. Stapleton 3d, former chief executive officer Joseph Conti, and former marketing director James H. Short Jr. each have 30 days to repay the state for the value of the gifts received, and to amend statements of financial interests for the years they failed to report them.

Stapleton, a Malvern lawyer who served 15 years on the LCB, owes $7,258, the commission said. Conti, a former state senator from Doylestown, owes $2,388 and Short owes $13,586, the agency said.

The decisions end a probe that began almost two years ago, when the state Inspector General's Office issued a confidential report detailing gifts and favors they received from vendors. All three men have since resigned or retired from the agency.

State liquor law makes it a felony for LCB employees and their relatives to receive gifts from vendors, but none of the men has been charged with a crime.

The Ethics Commission cannot file criminal charges, but its executive director, Robert P. Caruso, said the Attorney General's Office reviews all commission reports and could pursue charges.

In interviews with The Inquirer, Conti called the investigation fair and said he considered the matter behind him, and Stapleton said he might have been "sloppy in how I addressed some of these interactions," but he believed all of the interactions "served a true business purpose."

Short could not be reached for comment.

The reports issued Monday depict the men as regularly accepting perks from liquor companies with little concern over whether the gifts were legal.

In one example, an executive at Capital Wine & Spirits arranged the delivery of six bottles of fine wine to Short while he was vacationing on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Short then sent an e-mail to the liquor distributor who delivered the wine.

"Thank you very much for the prime selection," he wrote from his state e-mail address, ethics investigators found. "Be well."

Free or discounted golf outings associated with professional tournaments were also common, the report shows. Stapleton and Conti paid for their rounds in several instances, the reports say, but paid just a portion of the true cost.

In 2010, for example, Conti paid $200 and Stapleton $160 to play in an outing before the AT&T national tournament hosted by Tiger Woods at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square - even though the report estimated the cost to participate was closer to $1,200 per person.

When asked whether it was appropriate for LCB executives to participate in free golf outings with vendors, the report says, Stapleton replied, "This is how the real world works if it's not the PLCB."

Stapleton, like his coworkers, also received a gift more tailored to his specific wants: liquor donations for a conference his nonprofit group hosted in Hershey each year, according to the report.

Short got four tickets - valued at $1,000 - to see the musical Wicked on Broadway, while Conti was given a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch - custom-engraved with "Super CEO," the report said.

Conti retired from his $156,000 position in late January 2013. He was temporarily rehired at $80 an hour, but left permanently in August. In an interview, he said he planned to repay the board.

Stapleton resigned in October. He did not say if he would pay or challenge the findings.

Joseph E. Brion, the current LCB chairman, said the agency was reviewing the documents to "see if there are any steps we can take as a board to make sure this situation does not occur again."

cpalmer@phillynews.com609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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