NH liquor panel under fire again

More trouble for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission last week underscores the pressing need for fundamental reform to establish broader oversight and accountability to an agency responsible for generating more than $150 million a year in revenue.

Owners of the Nashua-based warehouse that has stored state-owned liquor for decades said Monday that they have filed a Right to Know lawsuit to get the details of the bidding process that concluded in the awarding of a 20-year contract to a competitor.

Law Warehouses President Brian Law and his lawyers want to know if the commission engaged in “unlawful conduct” when it picked Deutsche Post Exel of Westerville, Ohio, to store liquor for the next 20 years.

Law alleges terms of the state’s contract request were changed several times to suit Exel’s liking and that the company was allowed to “materially revise” its proposal.

“Based on the limited information released by the Liquor Commission to date, it would appear these deficiencies have the potential to cost the state of New Hampshire millions of dollars over the terms of the contract in contrast to the commission’s claim of millions of dollars of saving,” Law’s lawyers wrote in the Merrimack County Superior Court lawsuit.

The Liquor Commission maintains the bidding process was fair and that the Excel contract will save the state millions of dollars.

Sounds great. Unfortunately, the public has no proof that these lofty claims have even a toe dipped in reality.

Why? Because the Liquor Commission is exempt from having its contracts reviewed by the governor and Executive Council – and therefore the public.

That not-so-brilliant idea to shroud the commission was hatched by the Legislature in 2009 as part a naive notion that giving the commission near carte-blanche freedom to do whatever it pleases would create a flood of unbridled commercial creativity that would translate into untold riches.

Three years later, about all the commission has to show for its unabridged liberty is controversy.

Such turmoil is a natural consequence of an agency emboldened to operate behind a cloak of secrecy. That’s certainly the case with the warehouse contract.

The commission decided to stay closed-lipped because its hired legal counsel, former Deputy Attorney General Stephen Judge, advised that warehouse contract documentation was private and did not have to be publicly disclosed.

In the interest of transparency, the commission could have released the information but chose not to. Now the courts will decide whether the people’s right to know was trampled.

The Liquor Commission might have signed the best warehouse deal in history. Perhaps taxpayers should be jumping for joy.

Unfortunately, the only people with enough information to offer that assessment are the people who crafted and signed the contract. That’s not exactly an unbiased perspective. And right now, there aren’t many people willing to trust the commission’s opinion.

As the fifth-highest source of unrestricted state revenues, the commission owes it to the public to be as open as possible when conducting the state’s business.

Sadly, that isn’t the case.