Claiming departmental conflicts of interest, a Utah legislator has introduced a bill that would shift all of the liquor control enforcement powers from the state liquor commission and place them in the Utah Attorney General's Office.
If adopted, it would be a major change in how Utah liquor law is enforced. A liquor commission spokeswoman said the department would have no immediate comment.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said he didn't want to publicly discuss his HB344 until he had spoken to several key state officials.
However, Oda did confirm that he wants to move the enforcement powers out of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff "because of conflicts of interest" within the department.
Specifically, Oda said he no longer wants the five-person liquor commission, made up of part-time gubernatorial appointees, to decide alleged liquor license violations.
All alcohol products are controlled by state government. The liquor commission gives out various kinds of liquor licenses, from private clubs to restaurants to special permits for events, like a convention.
The commissioners can suspend licenses, forcing a private club or restaurant to stop selling liquor for a time, or even revoke a license, which would basically put such an establishment out of business.
It is that power, and how it may be used or misused, that apparently concerns some legislators.
Oda's HB344 has 18 other House co-sponsors, representatives of both the majority Republican and minority Democratic parties.
While Oda declined to discuss it, other Capitol Hill sources said there is also a continuing concern that some liquor licensees are not getting a fair shake before the commissioners because the commission has been made up of non-drinkers.
Of the five current commissioners, only one drinks alcohol. But in years past, all of the liquor commissioners have been teetotalers.
"We believe all the (liquor) commissioners are doing a good job," said Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who "has appointed several of them and we put them there because we believe they make good public policy."
So a liquor commissioner doesn't have to be an alcohol drinker to do a good job?
"No, I don't believe they have to" be a drinker, Roskelley said. She added that Huntsman has no position on HB344 now and probably won't make a decision on it unless it passes and comes to his office for signature or veto.
Ray Hintze, chief deputy attorney general, said Shurtleff's office itself does not oppose HB344. "But our client" the liquor commission "strongly opposes it."
Hintze said that a private club in Oda's area Bogey's has, or soon will, be in court over various issues.
Commission spokeswoman Sharon Mackay said top department officials were in training seminars Tuesday and would have no immediate comment on HB344. She said that while there had been complaints against Bogey's in the past, all those issues had been settled "through adjudication" and that the commission was not directly involved in the current lawsuit.
But the issue goes beyond how one private club has been treated, sources said.
Like several other state government regulatory agencies, the liquor commission and its investigatory employees often act like prosecutor, judge and jury. There are seven liquor compliance officers that work for ABC (along with dozens of liquor agents who are housed in the separate Department of Public Safety) who investigate liquor violations, from serving alcohol to minors to dozens of other possible violations of liquor law and rule.
Those disciplinary issues are brought before the liquor commission, who can hand out any number of sanctions.
But if that system is inherently unfair, then similar systems in the Tax Commission, Department of Commerce and other state agencies also have both investigatory and compliance processes."We are concerned about any unintended consequences" to other state departments' regulatory processes, Roskelley said.
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