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Top LCB officials said to take gifts, favors from vendors

HARRISBURG - A trio of top officials at the state Liquor Control Board accepted gifts and favors from vendors and other businesses with an interest in liquor, the state Inspector General's Office has concluded in a confidential report.

Patrick Stapleton from LCB web site.
Patrick Stapleton from LCB web site.Read more

HARRISBURG - A trio of top officials at the state Liquor Control Board accepted gifts and favors from vendors and other businesses with an interest in liquor, the state Inspector General's Office has concluded in a confidential report.

The report, a copy of which has been obtained by The Inquirer, was submitted to Gov. Corbett's office in late March. An inspector general's spokesman said the matter was also referred to the state Ethics Commission.

The report names LCB chief executive officer Joe Conti, board member Patrick J. "P.J." Stapleton III, and marketing director James Short as having accepted gifts and favors, including wine and tickets to sporting events and golf tournaments.

It says one LCB vendor secured a round of golf with a pro for Stapleton during a tournament at Aronimink - and sent two employees to serve as Stapleton's caddies.

As for Conti, the report suggests the $156,000-a-year LCB executive lobbied a vendor and pressed others inside and outside the agency - including Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr - for jobs for his brother and daughter.

Conti, Stapleton, and Short declined through LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec to be interviewed for this article.

Witalec said, "The board has never been presented with the report, or notified of any formal investigation. We will be prepared to discuss any details when formally notified."

John Contino, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said Monday that his agency neither confirms nor denies the existence of any investigation.

The eight-page report is the second prepared by Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner to come to light in recent days. The Inquirer reported Sunday that her office had forwarded to administration officials a report lambasting the work habits of the LCB's administrative law judges, who hear cases involving liquor code violations.

The reports have surfaced as the legislature ponders whether to privatize the LCB. Debate on a House bill to privatize the system had been scheduled to resume Monday but was postponed.

Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman, called the three LCB officials named in Faulkner's latest report "vestiges" of past administrations - Conti, for example, was installed by Gov. Ed Rendell. Harley said that since taking office in January 2011, Corbett has been "trying to clean up and fix state government . . . and will continue to do so."

At its beginning, Faulkner's report noted that the state Ethics Act bars officials from using their positions to benefit themselves or their families - and that state liquor law makes it a felony for LCB employees and their relatives to receive gifts from vendors. Penalties include firing and possible prosecution.

Faulkner wrote that her agency's watchdog role was limited because the liquor board is an independent agency and its officials could not be compelled to cooperate. As a result, she wrote, investigators did not interview LCB employees or vendors.

But they did review e-mails sent on state computers and concluded that the Ethics Act had been breached.

The report concluded that Stapleton, the onetime LCB chairman, accepted several gifts from an LCB vendor, North Wales-based Capital Wine & Spirits.

The gifts included about $1,700 worth of alcohol for an event at the Hotel Hershey last year that Stapleton and his ex-wife organized - the annual Keystone Weekend, billed as a forum for business, civic, sports, and entertainment leaders to exchange ideas on current issues.

Stapleton solicited the alcohol and the LCB vendor donated 60 bottles, the report said. It quoted an e-mail sent to him last Sept. 12 by a Capital executive: "The wine and spirits for Keystone weekend is taken care of."

The report said another LCB vendor, Majestic Wine & Spirits, lined up a celebrity chef for the same event.

Officials from Capital and Majestic did not return calls Monday seeking comment.

The report said Capital Wine also arranged golf outings for Stapleton - including a round with a pro during last summer's AT&T National Pro-Am at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square.

Two employees of Capital, the report noted, served as Stapleton's caddies for the tournament.

Stapleton has been on the LCB since 1997 and was chairman from 2007 until last fall. His term officially expired in May, but he is staying on the three-member panel until Corbett names a replacement.

Conti, according to the report, frequently attended Philadelphia-area sporting events last summer.

He and his wife, Molli, were described as guests of the Philadelphia Union during one of its soccer games last June - at a time when the team was trying to conduct business with the LCB. Weeks later, the Union invited Conti again, but Short, the LCB marketing director, ended up going in his place, the report said.

Conti, a former Republican state senator from Bucks County, was described as often attending Phillies games as a guest of LCB vendors. Investigators "found no evidence that Conti or his family members paid for the tickets."

For six months beginning last summer, the report said, a top LCB aide devoted part of her time to searching for jobs for Conti's brother and daughter. It was not clear from the report who had directed the aide to do this.

But earlier this year, the report said, Conti e-mailed Starr, recommending that the famed restaurateur hire his daughter.

In the same e-mail, Conti wrote: "On the business front, I would love to revisit the opportunity for a wine boutique in one of your future properties. Team PLCB could be [a] dependable partner. . . . And thank you for reading the info from a proud father in regards to his daughter . . . ."

Weeks later, Conti's daughter was hired as an executive assistant for Starr Restaurants Catering Group, the report says.

In an interview Monday night, Starr said he barely knew Conti and had not met his daughter. He said that if she was hired, "it's because she was good."

"In the hospitality business, people call me all the time for jobs for their daughters, sons, aunts, uncles and nieces," said Starr. "There is no pressure there."