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Bill would allow liquor board some secrecy

Published February 24, 2012 5:00 pm

Public vs. private • Ethics probes could be discussed secretly; critics cry foul.
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Lawmakers are proposing to allow the state's liquor-control board to discuss ethics violations in secret, despite a series of audits alleging incompetence and corruption within the state's liquor monopoly.

SB66 and a companion bill in the House would allow commissioners overseeing the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) to close meetings to discuss ethics probes. No information would be revealed to the public until a recommendation or sanction was issued.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is sponsoring the legislation, said concerns over closed meetings may prompt him to withdraw that part of the bill.

"I am open to making a change if, in fact, the language is not correct," he said. "My intent was that an investigation be done, and once the investigation was completed, that the information would be made public. I would suggest to you that if a weakness is identified which I did not see, there will be a change."

Two years ago, Valentine successfully passed legislation giving commissioners the authority to close meetings while they decide which businesses get coveted liquor licenses.

That authority would be removed under the current bill. Valentine said he is suggesting the change because commissioners, including current Chairman Richard Sperry, have said they would prefer not to close meetings.

At the time, Valentine said the closed meeting provision was prompted by a legislative audit criticizing the commission for conducting closed meetings —in violation of the Utah Open Meetings Act. Valentine said he decided to make the closures legal "because much of what is discussed is proprietary information that should not be made public."

The current suggested exemption for closed meetings is part of a liquor bill that would revise the structure of the state's liquor commission, expanding it from five to seven members.

Joel Campbell, an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University, said he is troubled by efforts that would allow commissioners to discuss ethics violations in closed meetings. He added that waiting to reveal information until a sanction was issued "is too late in the process.

"Whenever we allow government to go into a dark corner, there is a greater chance for corruption," said Campbell, who also writes on the First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. "Audits have shown there's something amiss at the DABC — so why in the world would we want to provide less openness?"

Campbell also questioned a provision that would allow commissioners to discuss audits in closed meetings.

"The DABC has a cloud over its head, and now the Legislature is looking at giving it more opportunities for secrecy,"he said.

Despite years of reports critical of the DABC, auditors have looked at only a fraction of how the state runs its liquor monopoly, Auditor General John Schaff has said.

In one recent report, legislative auditors questioned business transactions, totaling $370,000, between the DABC and a company owned by the son of former executive director Dennis Kellen. The Attorney General's Office has launched an investigation into the matter.

Auditors also have said that senior DABC managers routinely rigged bids and split millions of dollars of invoices to avoid state procurement laws. For years, however, state examiners have raised concerns about managers artificially splitting invoices. But the makeup of the liquor-control board changes periodically as members' terms expire, and no one took action.

dawn@sltrib.com

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