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Oregon officials lose their job after keeping rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for themselves

Oregon’s liquor and marijuana officials paid for the whiskey, which can cost thousands of dollars a bottle, but used their knowledge and connections to obtain them.
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek in Salem on Jan. 31.
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek in Salem on Jan. 31. Claire Rush / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — A thirst for rare bottles of bourbon appears set to have cost the executive director and other top officials of Oregon’s liquor and marijuana regulating agency their jobs.

An internal investigation by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, obtained by The Associated Press via public records request Wednesday, concluded that Executive Director Steve Marks and five other agency officials had diverted sought-after bourbons, including Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-year-old whiskey, for their personal use.

The officials were paying for the whiskey, which can cost thousands of dollars a bottle, but they had used their knowledge and connections at the commission to obtain them, and consequently deprived members of the public of the spendy booze, the investigation said. And that violated Oregon statutes, including one that prohibits public officials from using confidential information for personal gain, the commission’s investigation said.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek on Wednesday asked the agency’s board of commissioners to remove Marks and the other implicated officials, alleging they “abused their position for personal gain.”

“This behavior is wholly unacceptable. I will not tolerate wrongful violations of our government ethics laws,” Kotek said in her letter to the board of commissioners.

In his responses to questions from the investigator, Marks denied that he had violated Oregon ethics laws and state policy. However, he acknowledged that he had received preferential treatment “to some extent” in obtaining the whiskey as a commission employee. Marks and the other officials said they never resold the whiskeys they obtained.

“This incident underlines the importance of having public accountability,” said agency spokesperson Mark Pettinger. “The OLCC will need to work on rebuilding and restoring our public trust ... and adhere to Oregon’s ethics laws.”

After taking office last month, Kotek, a Democrat who was a long-serving Oregon House speaker, asked for Marks’ resignation, but no reason was announced. Kotek said she learned of this business about the bourbon afterward.

The board of commissioners is appointed by the governor and in turn selects the executive director, according to a commission spokesman. The commissioners’ next regular meeting is next Wednesday. The agency is the state’s third-largest revenue generator.

Kotek has asked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to conduct an independent civil investigation into the extent of any wrongdoing and recommend stronger protocols for ensuring ethics laws are followed.