This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is launching a criminal investigation into state liquor regulators who diverted rare whiskeys for their own use.
Rosenblum announced the criminal investigation Friday, two days after Gov. Tina Kotek asked her office for a civil investigation of ethics violations at the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which holds a monopoly on liquor distribution in the state.
An internal investigation first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that six senior agency officials, including longtime Executive Director Steve Marks, ordered that bottles of bourbon and other expensive liquors be set aside for their own use.
One of the implicated officials, Chris Mayton, directs the distilled spirits program. He told an internal investigator that he procured liquor for others, including unnamed legislators. The Justice Department’s criminal investigation may expand beyond staff of the commission, according to Rosenblum’s statement.
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State law prohibits state employees and elected officials from using their offices for financial gain and limits gifts they can receive. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission typically investigates whether elected officials violated that law, and Executive Director Ron Bersin told the Capital Chronicle by email Friday afternoon that the commission hasn’t yet received any complaints related to the liquor commission.
The ethics commission can vote to investigate suspected wrongdoing by public officials without a complaint if at least five commissioners agree. The commission’s next scheduled meeting is March 10.
News that legislators may have had special access to rare liquor has sparked speculation around the Capitol about who may have benefited. Former Republican legislator Bill Post, who now lives in Nevada, told the Capital Chronicle he called his former staff to make sure bottles of liquor he received as gifts weren’t among the bottles set aside by the commission (they weren’t).
“I don’t know if it was a well kept secret or if it was just well kept from certain people,” Post said.
The civil investigation Kotek had requested is on hold until the criminal investigation is done, according to the Justice Department. Rosenblum’s spokeswoman was out of the office Friday and has not yet responded to questions about the scope of the investigation