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Embattled Texas liquor agency announces third high-level departure

A shake-up continues at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission with the resignation of TABC General Counsel Emily Helm, the third top official to leave the agency in recent months.

Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission General Counsel Emily Helm at the TABC's quarterly meeting in Austin on May 23, 2017.

Another high-ranking official is leaving the embattled Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which has been rocked by a series of controversies over extravagant spending and regulatory overreach in recent months. 

General Counsel Emily Helm, the agency’s top lawyer, resigned effective Monday, according to the head of the commission that oversees the TABC.

“I have accepted the resignation of General Counsel Emily Helm,” said commission Chairman Kevin Lilly, the Houston businessman tapped by Gov. Greg Abbott to reform the agency. “I thank her for her many years of service to this agency and the people of Texas, and wish her well on her future endeavors.”

Helm is the third high-ranking official to leave the TABC since The Texas Tribune began investigating the agency over lavish trips to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by top agency honchos, failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles and heavy-handed regulatory tactics against alcohol permit holders.

Executive Director Sherry Cook announced her retirement in April, a few days after she and other top officials were grilled by the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. Abbott welcomed it as a “good start” toward an agency house-cleaning.

Then in May, a member of the three-person commission overseeing the regulatory agency, Steven Weinberg, a hold-over appointee from the administration of former Gov. Rick Perry, abruptly resigned after a commission meeting.

Sources with knowledge of Helm’s resignation Monday say it is part of an ongoing effort by Abbott and Lilly to shake up the agency and install new people in top leadership posts. Last week Lilly visited the TABC’s Austin headquarters, where he reviewed the personnel files of senior staff and conducted a series of closed-door meetings with them. 

The Helm departure was announced just a few days after the Tribune published a story about the TABC’s botched enforcement action against Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods, the state’s largest liquor store chain, in which Helm played a key role. 

After a three-year investigation that cost Spec’s more than $1 million to fight, the agency had sought to yank all of the retailer’s liquor permits or fine it up to $713 million. In a stinging rebuke of the state’s actions, two administrative law judges found the TABC failed to prove any of its dozens of allegations of serious liquor law violations.  

Instead, the judges recommended Spec’s be given a warning for a minor "credit law" infraction — a single late payment totaling $778 — under an arcane Texas law spelling out when liquor stores must pay their suppliers. 

Spec's says the payment fell within a grace period and it may fight even the warning.

The Houston lawyer representing Spec's, Al Van Huff, said Helm abused her power during settlement negotiations with the family-owned company. Helm, through a spokesman, denied the accusation.

It is not Helm’s first brush with controversy at a state agency. She was fired from the Texas Youth Commission (since merged into the Texas Juvenile Justice Department) in 2007 in the wake of a wide-ranging scandal in which agency managers were criticized for failing to act on reports of widespread abuse, records show.

According to state personnel records, Helm was terminated and made ineligible for rehire at the agency after providing “untruthful and inaccurate statements” to investigators. Her employment status was listed as “TERM-Retirement.”

When she applied for a job at the TABC, Helm was asked to describe why she had left her TYC job. She wrote: “Will discuss at interview/retired,” records show.

Agency spokesman Chris Porter said Helm informed TABC officials of her termination before they gave her a job.

“Ms. Helm fully disclosed the circumstances surrounding her termination from TYC at the time of her employment interview with the Commission,” Porter said. “The Commission had full knowledge of those details when she was offered the job.”

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