June 06. 2018 8:11PM

Liquor store workers question union bringing unwelcome attention to bulk sales to out-of-state buyers

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau


CONCORD — Some state Liquor Commission employees are beginning to question their union’s calling attention to lucrative bulk sales to out-of-state buyers.

The manager of one Manchester store, who is also a member of the State Employees Association, is circulating a petition seeking a membership meeting with union leaders to discuss the situation.

“Over the past several months, New Hampshire State Liquor Commission employees have had an unjust and unprofessional position thrust upon us by actions from our union president,” states the email to all NHLC employees from store manager Ron Bilodeau.

“These actions have created an uncomfortable work environment for state liquor employees. Furthermore, the union’s actions, which are supposed to be on our behalf, publicly exposed our day-to-day operations and increased our exposure to potential harm,” writes Bilodeau.

Accompanying the email is a petition now circulating within the organization, calling upon SEA President Rich Gulla to schedule a meeting “to discuss serious concerns we have with your union-related activities.”

“We are aware that other SEA members may be contacting you with a similar request, and we recommend that we meet as a joint group to promptly and efficiently pursue resolution of our concerns,” states the petition.

Reached by phone, Bilodeau said the campaign is already attracting attention within the ranks.

“It just went out three hours ago, and I’ve had several stores calling, thanking me for stepping up and asking me what they need to do,” he said. “I tell them to sign the petition and we’ll go from there. I’m hoping for a better resolution of how the union handles these situations, preferably in ways that do not interfere with day-to-day store operations.”

Confusion and fear

Bilodeau said the union’s campaign against the liquor commission and Chairman Joe Mollica has caused “rampant, uncalled-for and unjust,” confusion and fear among liquor store employees.

The controversy stems from a Feb. 3 sting operation by Democratic Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord, who, accompanied by Gulla, witnessed the sale of $24,000 worth of Hennessy cognac to an out-of-state couple at a Keene store.

A store employee, who was later fired, arranged the large-volume sale by dividing it into three sales so that the purchasers would not have to file the required IRS forms for cash transactions above $10,000.

The SEA is appealing the firing of the employee, Garrett Boes, whom the union and Volinksy describe as a whistleblower, while the liquor commission says he was fired for violating its policies on bulk transactions.

The sting operation triggered a 13-page report by Volinsky to Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, claiming the commission is complicit in bulk sales to bootleggers and calling for an investigation into the large cash transactions, where the money comes from and how it is handled.

Battle intensifies

The battle intensified in the ensuing months, as the attorney general at Sununu’s request launched an investigation into both the bulk cash transactions and Volinsky’s conduct in the matter.

The union stepped up its attacks on the commission with a new web ad and a letter to its members on Sunday, calling for new policies and new leadership at the liquor commission. Bilodeau launched his petition drive three days later.

He writes in his email to fellow union members that the publicity campaign by the SEA is putting employees at greater risk.

“Because of those actions, the public (including those who may target our stores) can now see video footage of our stores,” writes Bilodeau. “The union has even divulged sensitive information regarding store deposits being made across the state. I feel NHLC employees have been put at greater risk now because of these actions.”

Response

Gulla and SEA spokesman Melissa Moriarty were both out of town and unavailable for comment on the petition drive. Joe Cicirelli, organizing administrator for the SEA, responded on their behalf.

“The SEA has been clear about our goals in this process: We want to ensure the safety of the public and our members at retail stores by a clear and effective policy that fully complies with federal law regarding large volume sales, including related and structured sales. It is our belief the commission is not in compliance,” he wrote.

The union also is seeking “clear and effective policies” regarding cash handling, including security measures at registers and for bank deposits and effective training for both.

As for the petition, “We have no public comment about internal discussions,” Cicirelli said.

When asked about the growing tension between the SEA leadership and the Liquor Commission, Gov. Sununu said he was troubled by the tone of the debate.

“I’m always concerned with tone,” he said. “Even though you might disagree, you want to maintain a cooperative spirit. You want folks to work together as much as possible, even in areas of real disagreement, and this is a pretty contentious area. There’ve been accusations back and forth, and that’s why the attorney general is looking into it.”

Sununu expressed confidence in current NHLC management, including Mollica, despite the SEA’s call for changes.

dsolomon@unionleader.com