Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission director resigns amid bourbon hoarding scandal
Steve Marks will step down Wednesday
Oregon liquor regulators had rare Kentucky bourbons set aside so that they could buy them. This whiskey was distilled in Kentucky in August 2016 to mark the total lunar eclipse from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
UPDATED at 3:12 p.m. Feb. 13 with a comment from Gov. Tina Kotek
The executive director of Oregon’s liquor control agency will step down Wednesday as the state attorney general begins a criminal investigation into corruption.
Steve Marks, who has led the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Control Commission since 2013, is one of six high-level employees who admitted in an internal investigation to setting aside rare, expensive bourbon for their own use or for gifts.
“Governor Kotek has requested that I resign from my position as executive director of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. Because I believe that the governor is entitled to have her own management team, I will honor that request.” Marks wrote.
Gov. Tina Kotek first requested his resignation last month, Willamette Week reported at the time. Marks has remained on the job for at least two weeks since Kotek asked him to resign.
Mark Pettinger, the commission’s communications director, shared the resignation letter in response to an emailed request but didn’t respond to a question in that same email about whether the other five people implicated in an internal investigation are still employed.
The internal investigation found that 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.
All six men said they paid for the liquor and kept it for their own use or for personal gifts instead of reselling it on the secondary market where the bottles cost many times their retail price. Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the rare bourbons acquired by state employees, are listed for thousands of dollars on online resale stores.
Mayton also told the internal investigator that he had procured liquor for unnamed legislators. Kotek, who previously served as speaker of the House, never asked for liquor to be set aside for her use and wasn’t aware of other legislators doing so, her press secretary told the Capital Chronicle. Other past and present legislators also told the Capital Chronicle they weren’t aware of the practice.
Kotek last week called on Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to investigate the liquor commission. Rosenblum announced a criminal investigation on Friday.
“The governor immediately requested the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation and recommend stronger protocols for ensuring ethics laws are followed by OLCC,” Kotek’s press secretary, Elisabeth Shepard, said by email. “She would support additional efforts to determine the extent of any wrongdoing and restore the public trust if necessary.”
While the state employees didn’t steal liquor, the internal investigation indicates that they abused their positions by ordering that rare bottles be sent to specific stores where they or their representatives could purchase them, preventing members of the public from having the same access as state regulators. The liquor is so rare that most members of the public can only buy it by winning a lottery.
Oregon is one of 17 states known as “control states,” where state agencies regulate where and how liquor can be sold. Wine and beer are available in grocery stores, but hard liquor is kept in state warehouses and distributed to local liquor stores. The state also sets liquor prices.
Marks reported to the seven-member Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which is appointed by the governor. The commission’s next meeting is Wednesday morning.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.