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NH pol suggests Russian booze ban in response to Putin

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 09. 2017 1:10PM

Russian-made vodka and other liquors would be off the shelves of New Hampshire state stores under Sen. Jeff Woodburn's proposed legislation. 

CONCORD — New Hampshire's Senate minority leader is suggesting a ban on Russian vodka at state liquor stores as one possible response to reports of Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, unveiled legislation Monday to create a bipartisan commission to evaluate and recommend potential actions in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The bill would give the commission wide range in considering possible responses. Woodburn raises two ideas in the bill: the New Hampshire Retirement System divesting from any Russian-based assets, and a suspension or ban on the New Hampshire Liquor Commission buying Russian-made liquor for sale at its 79 retails stores.

Woodburn cited U.S. intelligence officials' high confidence in their conclusion that Russia interfered with the election, including the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails.

"Do you send hard-earned dollars to someone who's trying to undermine your democracy?" he said. "Your dollars should follow your ideals."

In an interview Monday, Woodburn said he did not know how much the state's public employee pension plan has in terms of investments in Russia, nor does he know how much Russian liquor is sold at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets. He said he's trying to make a bigger point, and, as well, provide a starting point for the proposed commission to consider a measured response.

Russian vodka was in the crosshairs of political activism in 2013, when gay-rights activists around the country called for a boycott in reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin signing an anti-gay law.

Part of that protest targeted Stolichnaya, which created a mini controversy in itself because the "Russian Vodka," with grain from Russia, is distilled in Latvia.

New Hampshire state liquor stores stock plenty of Stoli and brand competitor Russian Standard Vodka, among a list of premium vodkas. It carries three limited edition liter bottles of Stolichnaya Elit Pristine Water Series, at a price of $2,799.99, according to its website. The inventory features numerous vodkas made in the U.S., including Gen. John Stark Vodka, Rye Harbor Vodka, Tito's, and White Mountain Vodka.

E.J. Powers, an NHLC spokesman, did not have an immediate estimate of how much Russian-made liquor is bought and sold.

Powers said the commission is in the process of reviewing the draft legislation and did not yet have a comment. The bill is not yet posted online.

Marty Karlon, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Retirement System, said his office is now looking into what investments, if any, are possibly related to Russia. He said he knows of no direct investment in a Russian company and that any investment may be commingled in an international or multi-national fund.

According to the Retirement System's website, its trust fund is about $7.46 billion, and non-U.S. equity — stocks of foreign companies — is roughly 18 percent of its asset allocation. The top five stocks in its holdings are familiar American brands: Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft and Oracle.

The draft of Woodburn's bill calls upon a commission to review past examples of New Hampshire divestment and review actions taken by other states and the federal government in response to the reported Russian interference.

President-elect Donald Trump has voiced his skepticism and dismissed Democrats' concerns, though a bipartisan effort is afoot for a congressional review of interference.

"Donald Trump is our legitimate President. I respect him for his position," Woodburn said. "But there's no question that there was meddling in our election. The question now is what is the appropriate response."

Woodburn has invited Republicans to co-sponsor the bill.

The proposed commission's membership would include two members of the Senate, two members of the House, the Liquor Commissioner or designee, a Retirement System trustee or designee, someone from the state Department of Resources and Economic Development and a representative from the Secretary of State's Office. The governor would also appoint an election law expert, and a person from the business community. In addition to a possible ban on Russian liquor, the commission would consider requiring New Hampshire's commemorative "Old Man of the Mountain" bottles to include only liquor made in the United States of America.

A draft of Woodburn's bill quotes from Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark's famous 1809 letter ("Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst of Evils") on the threat of enemy influence: "I am the enemy of all foreign influence, for all foreign influence is the influence of tyranny."

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