Lawmakers expected to consider doing away with DABC Commission, but still control liquor

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 5:45 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders said Wednesday that lawmakers will consider doing away with the state liquor commission next session as they try to fix the troubled Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

"We've got to have everything out on the table. We've got to have all the options out there," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said on SLCCTV's new "Capitol Voices" program.

That includes eliminating the five-member, part-time commission that oversees the department. Earlier this week, commissioners pulled a presentation of a critical legislative audit from their meeting agenda.

Their decision to delay reviewing the audit results troubled Lockhart.

"This is a very serious issue and that is a concern," she said. "And that's probably one of the many reasons why we're going to look at restructuring the oversight at DABC."

But DABC Commission Chairman Richard Sperry told the Deseret News members wanted to wait because they hadn't been given copies of the final audit, released last week.

"I think the audit makes it clear we've been out of the loop on a lot of information," he said. "The commission is just an afterthought."

Sperry said a special meeting of the commission will be called in the next week on the audit, which he described as not "robust" because it doesn't lay out a list of solutions.

"It's a bit frustrating from that perspective," Sperry said. "But we take this seriously."

The audit stated the state agency responsible for the sale of alcohol in Utah "has been incompetently managed," and that a former executive director may have committed a felony.

"Inappropriate and potentially illegal" business dealings were cited in the audit, along with "years of bid-rigging, falsifying financial documentation, and artificially splitting invoices in violation of state statue."

The Utah Attorney General's Office is reviewing the audit, which suggested former executive director Dennis Kellen should be investigated for potentially violating the Employee Ethics Act by steering department contracts to a business owned by his son.

Kellen was pressured to resign in August by Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he had "lost confidence in DABC leadership" over allegations of  "serious violations" of state procurement law.

The audit said the department's issues "are exacerbated by the DABC Commission's tenuous oversight of the department" and recommended lawmakers consider whether the current oversight structure is sufficient.

Sperry said the state needs some public body to interact with Utahns on liquor issues, such as licensing, even if it's not the commission in its present form.

"The problem is we're controlling something people want and people don’t want to be controlled," Sperry said. A public body, he said, can prevent liquor decisions from being "made under the influence of politics."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said on the Salt Lake Community College program that having a commission "has served us well in a lot of areas" and is a way for citizens to participate.

Lockhart also said privatizing the state's liquor operations will be an issue during the 2012 Legislature, which begins meeting in January.

"We do actually have some members who are very seriously looking at that," she said. "I think it would be a disservice if we didn't take a look at that and at least consider that as part of the solution."

But the speaker said even if some of the department's operations end up being turned over to the private sector, "I don't think you'd see us move away from being a control state" when it comes to liquor.

Waddoups said that "it's the proper role of government in this instance to be involved in the control and distribution of alcohol. It's been proven to be addictive." He said lawmakers "do not want the exposure of children to alcohol. And we do not want drunk drivers on our streets."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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