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State Ethics Commission: "Culture of excess" led to gifts - abc27 WHTM

State Ethics Commission: "Culture of excess" led to gifts

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    Ex-PLCB officials cited in ethics probe

    Monday, March 17 2014 12:52 PM EDT2014-03-17 16:52:26 GMT
    Three former officials at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board must pay the state more than $23,000 for various gifts they received from vendors and failed to report on disclosure forms.More >>
    Three former officials at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board must pay the state more than $23,000 for various gifts they received from vendors and failed to report on disclosure forms.More >>
HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

Three former top Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officials are accused of accepting gifts, according to reports filed by the State Ethics Commission on Monday.

On St. Patrick's Day, booze was the topic of conversation around the capital. Lawmakers and power players were drinking in the reports filed by the State Ethics Commission, which alleges PLCB's most powerful public officials conducted business in a "culture of excess."

State Ethics Commission Executive Director Rob Caruso said former LCB Chairman Patrick "PJ" Stapleton, former CEO Joe Conti and former Marketing Director James Short, Jr. did off-the-books business and accepted gifts, a conflict of interest for public officials. Actions by these men violated both the Pennsylvania Ethics Act and the PLCB's own liquor code.

"Within the LCB, there's a line you don't cross," said Caruso. "And, by these orders, that line was crossed."

Caruso said Short's investigation revealed he was the most egregious offender, receiving $13,586.92 worth of gifts between 2008 and 2011. Investigators found Short and his wife were fed luxury dinners, upwards of $1,800 on some occasions. Short also received tickets to the Phillies and 76ers and $1000 theater tickets in New York City, paid for by liquor vendors. Investigators discovered Short also accepted designer gifts from Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and David Yurman.

What shocked the investigators most was how Short took all-expense-paid trips around the country, which included golf outings to PGA Golf Tournaments to see Tiger Woods. In some instances, Short would accept the gifts in exchange for vendor contracts. Caruso said most this behavior was conducted around the time the LCB would discuss which booze vendor to highlight or include in state stores.

"We were surprised that the trips, particularly the locations where Mr. Short was taking."

In a similar fashion, investigators found Stapleton received $7,258.54 worth of gifts. Mainly, investigators said Stapleton would receive free alcohol from vendors to supply parties thrown by his nonprofit, Keystone Weekend, Inc.

Vendors also paid for golf outings, hotel rooms and celebrity chefs at these parties, according to Ethics Commission reports.

Investigators discovered Conti received $2,388.51 worth of gifts that mainly included vendor-paid meals and golf outings.

Caruso said the toughest part of the investigation was the lack of full cooperation by the men involved. According to him, the investigators only uncovered what they could with the information that was handed over.

If these actions were made by someone in the private sector, this could be seen as business as usual, according to Caruso. However public officials are barred from accepting gifts due to public money being tied to salaries and pensions.

"The LCB officials likened the LCB to a private industry," said Caruso. "In a sense, [officials said] this was the cost of doing business. They were trying to treat the LCB like a private business to turn a profit."

Current Chairmen Joseph E. Brion responded to the allegations with this statement:

"We received the Ethics Commission reports this morning. While the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board itself was not under investigation, three individuals who are no longer with the agency were found to have violated the Ethics Code. We obviously take the reports seriously. We are currently reviewing the documents closely and will look to see if there are any steps we can take as a Board to make sure this situation does not occur again. As an agency, we work closely with many vendors to ensure that consumers have access to a wide variety of products. It's extremely important that the integrity of the process is not compromised."

Caruso said the State Ethics Commission ordered Short, Stapleton and Conti pay restitution in the value amount they took from the vendors. Per standard procedure, Caruso said the Attorney General's Office would review these reports to decide if any further criminal action may be taken.

Caruso said the SEC would begin to development an education program to teach state employees to the right-and-wrong of vendor relationships.

Conti left the PLCB in February 2013 and Stapleton stepped down in October 2012. After 29 years with the PLCB, Short retired on Saturday to days before the report was released.

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