DABC could be absorbed into commerce department

Published: Thursday, Oct. 27 2011 5:31 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday the state's troubled liquor control agency could be absorbed into the Department of Commerce.

"I certainly think that's on the table," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7.

Herbert had already appointed the head of the commerce department, Francine Giani, to also serve as the temporary executive director of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Giani took over the DABC after the former executive director, Dennis Kellen, was forced to resign in August amid allegations of "serious violations" of state procurement laws.

A week ago, legislative auditors released a report that stated the DABC had been "incompetently managed" and that Kellen may have committed a felony because of the department's business dealings with a company owned by his son.

The State Attorney General's Office is currently investigating the allegations.

The governor said his office is working with lawmakers to come up with a way to better oversee the DABC.

Legislative leaders said Wednesday that could include doing away with the five-member, part-time DABC Commission. There has already been friction between Giani and the commission.

"We pushed the envelope just a little bit when we put Francine Giani over that organization," Herbert said, suggesting it was not clear a department head could report directly to him rather than the commission.

"That's part of the problem we're observing here is the lack of oversight and accountability," he said. "We're going to change that with legislative action."

Yet to be decided, he said, is "whether it becomes a direct respondent to the governor's office as a cabinet member or whether it should be going the Department of Commerce."

The governor said a tape of a recent closed-door meeting between Giani and the commission should be made public. The commission reportedly raised concerns about her dealing directly with the governor's office.

Herbert said he didn’t know what was on the tape, but the meeting should not have been closed despite the advice of the commission's legal counsel.

"It's up to them to decide," he said, acknowledging he does not have the authority to order the tape's release.

But he urged the commission to make the tape public.

"It's very appropriate for them to release the video," the governor said.

DABC Commission Chairman Richard Sperry said in an email he did not believe he had the authority to release the tape since the attorney general's office reviewed the decision to close the meeting and determined it was proper.

"We are clearly authorized to close a meeting to discuss the character and competence of individuals, and that is what we did," Sperry said. "At this point I also believe that it would be an unethical act to release a tape that contains a discussion of the character and competence of specific individuals (plural)."

He said it was "disappointing to me that someone would suggest I should cave in to pressure and violate my ethical principles."

But Sperry said because the issue has been raised, the commission's legal counsel is researching whether the tape could be made public and the findings will be discussed at the next commission meeting.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com Twitter: dnewspolitics

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