The employee union that represents more than 350 Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) employees is asking a state government committee to investigate Del. Bill Frick (D-District 16) for possible ethics law violations.
Frick is the primary sponsor of a bill that would set a referendum to allow voters to decide if private alcohol distributors should be able to compete directly with the DLC. Currently, the DLC holds a monopoly over the distribution of all alcohol in the county as well as the retail sale of all liquor.
Gino Renne, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents more than 8,000 government employees including the DLC workers, sent a letter Tuesday to state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-District 20) and Del. Marvin Holmes, Jr. (D-District 23B) calling for the ethics investigation. Holmes and Raskin serve as the chairs of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
Renne writes that Frick and his family stand to profit from the legislation if it passes because Frick’s wife, Bethany Frick, works for Diageo North America—an arm of the international alcohol producer Diageo. Bethany Frick serves as a vice president of national accounts for Diageo, which produces well-known brands like Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky and Guinness beer. Renne adds that the Fricks’ ownership of stock in Diageo also raises ethical questions.
“I believe that Delegate Frick has violated the Public Ethics Law by proposing, sponsoring and championing legislation that would directly benefit himself and a close family member,” Renne wrote in the letter. “The Ethics Law prohibits the use of prestige for private gain.”
The letter appears to be an opening salvo from the union in the now hotly-contested legislative battle to maintain the DLC’s monopoly. Last week, Renne said during a phone interview with Bethesda Beat that the union planned to investigate whether proponents of bills aimed at opening the county’s alcohol market stand to personally benefit.
“We’re going to overturn every rock in their lives to find out about their lifestyles and how those lifestyles are being supported,” Renne said. “If I find any hint of legal improprieties, you can bet I will blow the whistle on it. I’m not suggesting it’s there, but they better hope it’s not.”
Frick dismissed the allegations Wednesday in an email to Bethesda Beat.
“I’m disappointed but not surprised at the accusations,” Frick wrote. “These officials cannot defend this system on the merits, so they are making personal attacks to try to intimidate the individual leaders who are trying to give a voice to the consumers and voters of this county. There is simply no basis for the ethics complaint—to the contrary, the complaint cites some of the very Ethics Committee disclosure forms I filed to ensure that I am in strict compliance with the ethics rules.”
Diageo itself is a massive entity. Last year, the London-based alcohol producer generated approximately $15.4 billion in net sales on five different continents.
Frick’s bill, if approved, would allow private distributors to compete directly with the DLC, which has been faulted for inaccurate orders, a lack of selection, poorly-appointed retail stores and high prices—particularly surrounding “special order” products like craft beer and fine wines.
While the bill wouldn’t eliminate the DLC or force to it shut down, many county officials see Frick’s legislation as a death knell for the department. Last week, Council member Nancy Floreen told state legislators that Frick’s legislation or similar legislation being proposed by Comptroller Peter Franchot would put the DLC “out of business.”
County Executive Ike Leggett and eight of the county’s nine County Council members are opposing Frick and Franchot’s efforts. The elected officials have said the county can’t afford to lose the approximately $30 to $35 million in annual profit the department generates for the county without cutting services or raising taxes. They are, however, supporting a more-focused DLC reform bill that would enable private distributors to sell “special order” products in the county.
Editor's note – Due to a conversion error, Diageo's net sales last year was originally reported as approximately $11 billion, it's in fact about $15 billion. It has been corrected.