The board chair for Oregon’s liquor control agency issued a blistering retort Wednesday, after a week of unflattering headlines and questions about the regulatory department’s transparency.
The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission board had gaveled in its monthly meeting with a special item atop the agenda: Appointing a new interim director to replace Steve Marks, the longtime agency head resigning under pressure.
But before the vote could occur, OLCC Chair Paul Rosenbaum made it clear he had some things to get off of his chest.
For more than 15 minutes, Rosenbaum railed against press coverage and questions that he suggested were unfair and off base. And he defended the integrity of the OLCC board, saying its members didn’t know of agency leaders’ longtime practice of reserving rare bottles of bourbon for their own purchase.
“What did we know? Nothing,” Rosenbaum said. “There is not one person up here who knew a thing about the process, the procedure, the thing we’re all discussing today. Not one ... So stop asking questions about that.”
But then Rosenbaum acknowledged that as chairman he had learned last September that Marks and five of his top lieutenants came under internal investigation. Former Oregon State Police Superintendent Richard Evans, who is now an OLCC employee and investigated the matter, told him a full finding of fact had been placed in the managers’ personnel files, and that under Oregon law they had been disciplined, he said.
Public records suggest all six employees were reprimanded last month.
Rosenbaum did not specify what he’d learned of the investigation, and the agency’s messaging on that question has been muddled in the last week, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. But he said he’d been told the employment files were confidential, which he suggested was the reason the matter had been handled out of the public eye.
“You want to look at me and ask me did I do the right thing?” Rosenbaum said. “Yes, I did. I look at you and tell you, ‘Without a doubt, this was the right thing to do.’”
Rosenbaum would have kept going, except that an agency attorney cautioned he was getting beyond the subject matter of the meeting. After consulting with other OLCC board members, he ended his comments.
“My opening statement is in response to what we’re doing here and the aggravation that we have taken,” he said. “It’s important we get this out.”
By contrast, the actual decision to approve Prins as agency head was sedate.
The current inspector general at the corrections department, Prins is a former prosecutor who has worked within the criminal justice sphere for decades. He was recommended by Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday as a capable administrator who could restore order to the OLCC.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Prins vowed to lead the agency with integrity, and to fully cooperate with the Oregon Department of Justice, which has launched a criminal investigation into OLCC practices.
“This moment provides us an opportunity … to set a precedent on how our state government is going to respond,” Prins said. “How we’re going to correct course and strengthen accountability, oversight and protocols to build that public trust.”
Prins also acknowledged that he’ll have to “absorb some chaos” at the outset of his tenure. The new director has indicated he will follow Kotek’s wishes and clear out OLCC managers implicated in securing themselves rare bourbons.
Beyond Marks, whose resignation takes effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday, those managers are: Deputy Director Will Higlin, Budget Manager Bill Schuette, Distilled Spirits Director Chris Mayton, Chief Information Officer Boba Subasic and Information Services Director Kai Nakashima.
“I know that we need to identify the internal and external issues that led us to this point,” Prins told the board. “I understand that that’s been difficult for you and certainly I’m sure it’s been difficult for the staff, and we need to make sure an incident like this doesn’t happen again.”
Such major change atop the agency has given pause to some observers who deal with the OLCC, and worry that the state’s third-largest source of tax revenue could languish without experienced managers.
But it did not appear to worry OLCC board members, several of whom spent a question-and-answer period rhapsodizing about how “beautiful,” impressive and vital the OLCC is.
Commissioner Marvin Revoal signaled he was prepared to fight efforts to privatize liquor distribution, a change grocers have proposed for years.
“I’m not ready to stop bragging about Oregon and OLCC,” Reveal said. “I’m not ready to see us, on my watch, go down like Washington went down.”
Rosenbaum added that he had spent hours over the past week calling OLCC employees to boost morale, and bragged over billions of dollars in economic activity he said the agency helps foster.
“What we do is incredibly important for all those good hard working people in this state of Oregon who trust us, believe us, and rely on us,” he said.
Prins faced few actual questions about how he would approach his role. The board’s unanimous approval of him as interim director was far less in doubt than what comes next for the agency.
“Do I congratulate you?” Rosenbaum wondered aloud after the vote. “Or what do I do here?”