Keeping Liquor Inspections Clean

June 28, 1994

Anne Arundel County's liquor inspection system, as it is currently set up, has the appearance of being shady and the potential for being corrupt. A senator appoints the inspectors; the inspectors, naturally, are people the senator likes and who are loyal in return. They don't need any qualification other than that. Such a system requires both senators and the part-time inspectors to avoid even the faintest hint of improper influence.

In Anne Arundel, however, it appears that the liquor board, chaired by Tom Riggin, is too lax in preventing either the appearance or the reality of politicians using inspectors to pressure license holders into supporting them and their causes.

In a recent Sun story, state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale, said a rule laid down by Mr. Riggin years ago prohibits political appointees from selling fund-raising tickets to the establishments they inspect. However, he said, inspectors do sell tickets to other license holders. And they sell tickets to licensees that request them -- even those for which they are responsible.

Mr. Riggin said he would fire any inspector who "coerced" a license holder to purchase tickets, but inspectors should not be handling tickets at all. Their job is enforcing liquor laws, not performing campaign work.

And even if they do not pressure tavern and package store owners into supporting their senator in exchange for lenient treatment of infractions, inspectors who offer their licensees tickets may create the impression of coercion. Inspectors can greatly influence an establishment's profitability depending on how strictly they enforce the liquor laws. It is not hard to see how a tavern owner presented with tickets by an inspector -- even under innocent circumstances -- might feel he had to buy them.

Reforms of the entire liquor inspection system are overdue, not just in Anne Arundel but throughout Maryland. The whole practice of having politicians appoint inspectors ought to be eliminated. Other cities in other parts of the country have made liquor inspectors a trained part of the civil service; Maryland needs to consider similar changes. In the meantime, liquor boards must make sure the patronage system we have remains free of corruption and the perception of it. That means inspectors inspect. Period.

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