Did the New Hampshire Liquor Commission break any laws when it hired a local beer industry lobbyist last year, officially to study whether the state should sell beer in liquor stores? Maybe.
Did it breach obvious ethical standards? Absolutely.
As lawmakers were preparing to consider legislation that would let liquor be sold outside of state liquor stores, the Liquor Commission put New Hampshire Beer Wholesalers lobbyist Clark Corson on its payroll. Unoffically, of course. The commission had one of its contracted advertising agencies pay Corson to conduct a feasibility study of beer sales in state liquor stores.
Officially, Corson was working for the advertising agency, Rumbletree, and not the commission. For the study, the commission paid him $30,000, through Rumbletree. Not long afterwards, Corson started showing up with Liquor Commissioners to oppose the legislation that would allow liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores.
Liquor Enforcement Chief Eddie Edwards saw what was going on and called the Attorney General’s Office. He alleged that Corson was being paid to lobby for the Liquor Commission, which is against the law. State money may not be used to pay someone to lobby legislators.
The attorney general’s investigation concluded that no law was broken. Corson’s work opposing the outside liquor sales bill was all done in his capacity as the beer wholesalers lobbyist, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice decided.
So Corson was hired purely to do that feasibility study? See if that makes sense to you. Here is how Rice summarized Corson’s hiring:
“Although Corson contracted with Rumbletree, Commissioner (Mark) Bodi essentially selected him by default — once Corson submitted his resume at Bodi’s urging, and the resume was delivered to Rumbletree, it appears that Rumbletree just accepted that he was the person to do the job. There was no RFP, no vetting of his qualifications, or any process to determine whether he was qualified and/or whether his lobbying position created an actual or an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
The commission stated that it wanted an “independent” study of beer sales in liquor stores, then hired through a conduit a New Hampshire beer wholesaler lobbyist who was personal friends with a commissioner. No wonder Eddie Edwards called the attorney general.
Rice opted not to pursue an ethics investigation because Bodi resigned in June. That strikes us as shortsighted. Were the other commissioners completely out of the loop? Was Rumbletree?
Edwards did the right thing by alerting the attorney general. This whole deal stinks. And to boot, the state is out $30,000 for a study that is automatically worthless because of the ethical taint. Legislators need to review the relevant rules and laws to see if tighter restrictions are needed to ensure that liquor commissioners never again arrange behind the scenes to direct money to a buddy.