Getting Too Cozy

August 05, 1994

County Council chairman and state Senate hopeful Ed Middlebrooks shoveled some mud at his opponent and ended up uncovering a real issue.

The issue is whether a regulator such as a liquor board chairman should conduct business relationships with the people he regulates. Such relationships clearly constitute a conflict of interest, but oddly enough, some public officials do not see the problem. Even Mr. Middlebrooks, who has raised questions about one such arrangement involving Liquor Board chairman Thomas E. Riggin and a liquor licensee, misses the point.

His motive is fairly transparent: to cast aspersions on Sen.

Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale. Mr. Middlebrooks hints that the senator somehow helped Mr. Riggin and his partner make a bundle on the sale of a piece of land to the State Highway Administration, but there is not a shred of evidence to support that. Mr. Wagner has nothing to do with this, other than that he is Mr. Riggin's friend.

This problem involves Mr. Riggin and Michael Stavlas, owner of the Timbuktu restaurant-bar in Hanover. In 1986, Mr. Stavlas asked Mr. Riggin to join him in buying 7.4 acres on Dorsey Road for $150,000. Mr. Riggin says he didn't have to think twice. In 1992, they sold the land to the SHA for $755,000. Whether they made a profit or lost their shirts is irrelevant. Mr. Riggin should not have entered into this partnership, period.

Any reasonable person can see why liquor board members -- who wield great influence over an establishment's profitabilty and right to exist -- should refrain from getting cozy with licensees. Personal or business ties make it difficult, if not impossible, to render fair decisions. And even if the licensee never appears before the board, as was the case with the Timbuktu, the appearance of a conflict erodes the board's credibility.

Liquor boards in Maryland have special problems with conflicts of interest; many stem from the fact that liquor boards and inspectors are appointed by politicians. But reforming that patronage system will not prevent conflicts like the one between Mr. Riggin and Mr. Stavlas. That had nothing to do with political patronage. It was a simple matter of a regulator not seeing the line that should separate him from people whose fate he holds in his hand.

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