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Liquor lobby gives $45,000 to treasurer

Grossman aide says gifts won’t affect actions

In his campaign for treasurer last year, Steve Grossman emphasized a platform of transparency. In his campaign for treasurer last year, Steve Grossman emphasized a platform of transparency.
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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In his biggest one-time haul of political cash since he took office, state Treasurer Steve Grossman accepted $45,000 at a fund-raiser earlier this month from package store proprietors, bar owners, and liquor distributors, industries his office heavily controls and regulates.

Grossman took donations from executives across the state, all of whom have a financial interest in the decisions and policies set by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, the agency he oversees as treasurer.

The donations represent nearly one quarter of the entire $187,000 Grossman has raised since he took office in January.

The event, held Sept. 15 at Legal Seafood in Park Square, was attended by some of the industry’s heavy hitters. It was organized by Ralph Kaplan, owner of Kappy’s Liquors, and Stephen V. Miller, a Boston lawyer who specializes in representing bars, liquor stores, and distributors before local licensing boards and the ABCC.

Miller, a partner in the Boston firm McDermott, Quilty & Miller, is also a registered State House lobbyist for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts. Neither he nor Kaplan, whom the treasurer describes as a good friend, returned calls made to their offices seeking comment.

Grossman would not respond directly to questions this week over the appropriateness of his soliciting campaign donations from the businesses he oversees through the ABCC.

The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission has broad powers to regulate and control the sale, distribution, and consumption of alcohol in Massachusetts. It is often the final appeal on license suspensions imposed by local authorities. It enforces liquor franchise agreements and promulgates rules that have far-reaching impact on all aspects of the industry.

While the practice of seeking campaign funds from state-regulated industries is routine on Beacon Hill, public interest groups have long complained that it is a conflict of interest and gives the appearance of impropriety.

In his campaign for treasurer last year, Grossman emphasized a platform of transparency and promised to bring a new standard of reform to the office. Voters, he said on the night he won the Democratic nomination, “want the next treasurer to reform the way we do business in the Commonwealth.’’

A political aide released a statement yesterday saying the treasurer is not influenced by his political donors.

“No one should have any illusion that they would get special treatment from Treasurer Grossman or his office because of any campaign contributions,’’ said Joshua L. Dawson, director of Grossman’s political committee.

Dawson said the contributions are allowable under state campaign finance and ethics laws. “His only concern is and always will be the interests of the people of Massachusetts,’’ said Dawson.

Since taking office, Grossman has made significant changes in the treasurer’s office. In his role overseeing the ABCC, however, he has yet to face some of the controversial issues that the liquor lobby frequently generates. But the industry appears to be watching closely for what may come.

“We . . . elected a new state treasurer, and since his office oversees the ABCC, we must wait to see if any changes are coming to our enforcement division,’’ the Massachusetts Package Store Association told its members in a recent statement on its website.

Grossman’s predecessor, Timothy P. Cahill, also took money from the liquor industry, but the amount that Grossman collected at the event appeared unusually large, industry observers said.

Executives at Horizon Beverage, one of the state largest liquor distributors, kicked in $3,000 at this month’s fund-raisers, having already given Grossman’s political committee $7,500 over the past two years. Cahill collected upwards of $13,000 from Horizon officials, but that was over the seven years he controlled the commission.

One of Grossman’s donors at the Legal Seafood event, Horizon president Robert Epstein, also gave $5,000 to the Democratic State Committee at Grossman’s urging during the treasurer’s election campaign. The Globe reported earlier this year that Grossman additionally solicited campaign donations from firms regulated by the treasurer and in turn received hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind support from the party. Epstein’s office said he was traveling this week and unavailable for comment.

Distributors like Horizon are particularly sensitive to the decisions of the alcoholic beverage agency. The commission controls much of the details of their businesses, including changes in their product lines, the amount of inventory they can import into the state, and where they store it.

The owners of the Martignetti Companies, which promotes itself as New England’s largest distributor of wine and liquors, gave Grossman $1,500 at the fund-raiser, in addition to the $3,000 they gave him over the last two years.

Other donations came from a wide spectrum of businesses. Stanley Chaban - owner of Mary Ann’s Bar at Cleveland Circle in Brighton, which has a long history of facing regulatory problems, both at the Boston Licensing Commission and the ABCC - gave Grossman $500.

Further donations came from a handful of distributors who control the wholesale market from Cape Cod to Springfield and the Merrimack Valley. Other gifts came from restaurant, liquor store, and bar owners. The Beer Distributors Political Action Committee kicked in $500.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.