Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission Under Intense Scrutiny After Internal Investigation

The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (OLCC) is facing intense scrutiny after an internal investigation revealed that Executive Director Steve Marks and five other agency officials had diverted sought-after bourbons, including Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-year-old whiskey, for their own personal use.[0]

The investigation was first uncovered by The Oregonian, who obtained details via a public records request.[1] It has since been reported on by outlets such as The New York Times, and it has been revealed that for years, the commission employees have been reserving rare bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s, a famously expensive whiskey that can be sold for a few hundred dollars legally or thousands on the black market, for themselves.[2]

One of the implicated officials, Chris Mayton, told an internal investigator that it was agency practice to divert some rare bottles to legislators. Willamette Week also reported that Mayton, who directs the distilled spirits program, had said he procured liquor for others, including unnamed legislators.

Oregon Governor Tina Kotek had called for a civil investigation into the matter earlier this week, but Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced Friday that the state Department of Justice will instead open a criminal investigation into the ethical violations related to the purchase of the liquor by some staff members, “and possibly others.”[3] Kotek had also called for the installation of new leadership and the removal of managers and executive leadership who had taken advantage of their access and authority to benefit themselves.

Oregon’s government ethics laws prohibit public officials, such as lawmakers and state agency officials, from using their positions for private gain, such as the opportunity to buy rare liquors that wouldn't be available to the public otherwise.[4]

The civil investigation requested by Kotek has been delayed until the completion of the criminal investigation.[5] The Oregon Department of Justice has yet to respond to questions about the scope of the investigation.[6]

It is clear that this scandal has struck a chord with Oregonians, and it will be interesting to see where the criminal investigation leads. At the very least, it is a reminder that government officials must adhere to the ethics laws and take responsibility for their actions.

0. “Oregon's Whiskey Ring Shows Perils of State Liquor Control” Reason, 10 Feb. 2023, https://reason.com/2023/02/10/oregons-whiskey-ring-shows-perils-of-state-liquor-control

1. “Oregon Liquor Control Officials Kept Rare Whiskeys for Themselves, According to an Internal Investigation” Eater Portland, 9 Feb. 2023, https://pdx.eater.com/2023/2/9/23592867/olcc-whiskey-corruption-investigation-pappy-van-winkle

2. “Oregon Officials Abused Their Power to Hoard Pappy Van Winkle, an Internal Investigation Alleges” Robb Report, 10 Feb. 2023, https://robbreport.com/food-drink/spirits/oregon-liquor-pappy-van-winkle-1234806785/

3. “Oregon lawmakers received exclusive access to rare bourbon” Statesman Journal, 10 Feb. 2023, https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/politics/2023/02/10/oregon-liquor-officials-exclusive-access-rare-bourbon-whiskey-scandal-investigation/69890552007/

4. “Lawmakers and Top OLCC Officials Benefited From Diversion of Rare Whiskey, Investigation Finds” Willamette Week, 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.wweek.com/news/2023/02/08/lawmakers-and-top-olcc-officials-benefited-from-diversion-of-rare-whiskey-investigation-says/

5. “Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum announces criminal investigation into OLCC” KOIN.com, 10 Feb. 2023, https://www.koin.com/news/oregon/oregon-ag-ellen-rosenblum-announces-criminal-investigation-into-olcc/

6. “Oregon Attorney General launches criminal probe into state liquor regulators – Oregon Capital Chronicle” Oregon Capital Chronicle, 10 Feb. 2023, https://oregoncapitalchronicle.com/briefs/oregon-attorney-general-launches-criminal-probe-into-state-liquor-regulators/