Government, News, Oregon

Oregon prison watchdog is new head of scandal-ridden state liquor agency

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

The chairman of Oregon’s state liquor board has known for months that top managers at the agency abused their power to obtain special access to rare liquor, he revealed during a fiery speech at a meeting Wednesday. 

The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which distributes all liquor sold in the state, has been rocked by revelations that six top employees, including Executive Director Steve Marks, routinely had rare, expensive liquor set aside to buy themselves instead of making it available for public purchase. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum opened a criminal investigation last week. 

Marks is resigning at the end of the day Wednesday, and the commission’s seven-member board voted unanimously to appoint Craig Prins, inspector general at the Oregon Department of Corrections, as its interim director. Gov. Tina Kotek recommended him for the job.

The board meeting began with a 15-minute diatribe from chairman Paul Rosenbaum, who complained about criticism and questions the commission has received since The Oregonian/OregonLive first published an internal investigation into Marks and other top employees last week. Rosenbaum said he learned about the investigation on Sept. 8, 2022. 

The investigator, former Oregon State Police Superintendent Rich Evans, told him it was confidential and that Marks and the others had been reprimanded, Rosenbaum said. He said he didn’t share the investigation with other members of the board or anyone else because he respected confidentiality, and other commissioners reiterated later in the meeting that they didn’t know about the investigation.

“Now eight months later, when this blows up in The Oregonian, The New York Times, The New York Post and everything else, you want to look at me and ask me, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ Yes, I did,” Rosenbaum said. “Yes, I did. I look at you and tell you without a doubt, this was the right thing to do. Confidentiality is confidentiality.”

People need to understand that commissioners are unpaid, read hundreds of pages before each meeting and make life-altering decisions about granting or revoking liquor licenses, he said.

“We have not dodged the press,” Rosenbaum said. “We follow the rules. We follow our attorneys. We follow what we’re supposed to do. So please, dear God, stop asking us to make comments on this. It’s inappropriate, other than now.” 

The liquor commissioners, like other members of state boards, city councilors and school board members, are required to follow state open meetings laws. A quorum, or majority, of commissioners can’t discuss issues outside of noticed public meetings, and commissioners also can’t have serial meetings, or a series of one-on-one conversations or emails that result in a group decision.

That law doesn’t bar commissioners from talking to reporters or anyone else about their thoughts, and members of government boards regularly speak to the press outside of meetings. 

The commission’s attorney urged Rosenbaum to stop before he started talking about a letter Kotek sent the board on Feb. 8 requesting that it remove the other managers implicated in the internal investigation, because the meeting’s agenda didn’t include the letter or anything about terminations or resignations. 

Deputy Director Will Higlin, Chris Mayton, director of the distilled spirits program; Kai Nakashima, director of the office of information services, budget manager Bill Schuette and chief information officer Boba Subasic all were involved in setting aside liquor for personal use, according to the internal investigation. 

Lawmakers implicated

The internal report also referred to unnamed legislators receiving special access to rare liquor. Past and present legislators, including current Speaker of the House Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Kotek, who served in the House’s top role for nine years before resigning to run for governor, have denied knowing anything about lawmakers obtaining alcohol. 

Rayfield told reporters Tuesday that he’s looking forward to the results of the attorney general’s investigation, and that the Justice Department is better equipped to investigate than the House or Senate. 

“What I will say is what I have read seems extremely unethical and absolutely inappropriate for anyone serving in elected office,” Rayfield said. 

Prins said he intends to help the agency correct its course and strengthen protocols. He’ll ensure the agency cooperates fully with an ongoing criminal investigation, he said. 

“We need to identify the internal and external issues that led us to this point,” he said. “I understand that that’s been difficult for you, and it’s certainly, I’m sure, been difficult for the staff, and we need to make sure an incident like this doesn’t happen again.”

Commissioner Marvin Révoal, an insurance company executive who joined the board in 2013, compared the commission’s current issues to tripping during a race. 

“You can either pull up and fake a cramp in your thigh, or you can keep going,” Révoal told Prins. “With your help, we’re going to keep going, because I have no intention to stop bragging about OLCC.” 

Sign up for Banks area news in your inbox ↓

The groceries your family needs!