Liquor and Politics Don't Mix

January 16, 1995

A well-meaning advisory group of Baltimore citizens has muffed a chance to clean up one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned political patronage in the city.

Asked to study reform of the Liquor Board in the face of complaints about conflicts of interest and corruption, the task force made some sound suggestions. But it stopped short of dealing with the root cause of the problems with the board's enforcement staff: It is a political grab bag for the city's state senators.

The task force's recommendations show how sloppy the board's operations have become. It proposed that the 33 full- and part-time inspectors be high school graduates, receive standardized training, work regular shifts, undergo drug testing and be required to avoid conflicts of interest. None of these elementary standards for a public servant is now imposed.

All it takes to become one of the people who is supposed to enforce state liquor laws is fealty to a state senator. Though state law provides that the (also politically appointed) members of the Liquor Board select the inspectors, in fact they are directly named by the city's state senators. No wonder serious questions have been raised for years about the probity of city liquor law enforcement.

After reviewing complaints about inspectors -- some resulting from last winter's State Police raid on The Block -- the task force sidestepped the key issue. The report says "it became clear" it was not necessary to wipe out the patronage system and place the inspectors under civil service. Just why it became clear the task force doesn't say.

The situation shouldn't be tolerated. Liquor inspectors enforce highly sensitive laws, governing the operations of bars, restaurants, night clubs and liquor stores. In some cases their job performances are evaluated solely by their skill in selling tickets to their mentors' bull roasts -- in other words, hustling campaign donations. We can't think of a more blatant invitation to corruption.

The task force was appointed by Sen. John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's delegation. He has promised to introduce legislation implementing the recommendations. He should do more. Only the elimination of political patronage from liquor law enforcement will guarantee its integrity.

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