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New executive director picked for troubled Texas liquor agency

A lawyer with a lengthy military background has been tapped to clean up the embattled Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which has been dogged by controversies and high-level departures in recent months.

Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, was appointed executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. 

*Clarification appended.

A lawyer with a lengthy military background has been tapped to clean up the embattled Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, after a series of controversies and high-level departures at the agency. 

TABC commissioners picked Adrian Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, to head the Texas liquor agency after a closed-door session on Tuesday.

Sources told The Texas Tribune that Nettles informed TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly that he will accept the offer. Nettles is set to replace Sherry Cook, who announced in April she would step down from the executive directorship amid a series of spending controversies at the TABC. 

"Brigadier General Bentley Nettles is a tested leader whose integrity, skills and experience, in both the military and the private sector, make him the ideal choice to get the TABC back on track," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As a highly decorated military officer, and Texas lawyer, General Nettles has dedicated his life to serving Texans and his country, and I am confident he will continue to be a dedicated public servant in his new role. I have no doubt that his steady hand will restore trust in the agency, and I look forward to working with him in his new role."

Nettles was released from active duty in 2015 and now has a law office in Bryan, focused on assisting veterans with issues related to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estate planning, Medicaid and small business. Over the course of his military career, he was awarded 24 awards and badges, including a Purple Heart.

TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly said six candidates were interviewed for the executive director position on Tuesday. Lilly praised Nettles' leadership, strong legal background, character and history of public service. "I think he's a great American and a great Texan and his history of public service is unblemished," he added in a brief interview Tuesday. 

Lilly was tapped by Abbott, who has expressed public concern about TABC, to reform the agency. After Cook announced she would step down, Abbott said in a tweet, "It's time to clean house from regulators not spending taxpayer money wisely." He added, "This is a good start."

Robert Saenz, executive chief of field operations, will serve as acting executive director until Nettles can take over, likely in three to four weeks. Julie Allen, an assistant general counsel at the agency, will serve as acting general counsel. 

Six high-level officials have left TABC in the past few months, including Ed Swedberg, who became acting executive director after Cook’s departure. He quit Friday after a few weeks on the job.

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

Since the Tribune began its reporting, Texas lawmakers have also voted to ban most out-of-state travel for agency personnel.

In June, the Tribune reported that the TABC tried to cancel every permit held by Spec’s liquor stores or fine the retailer up to $713 million. In a blunt ruling, a panel of judges said the TABC failed to prove any serious infractions made by Spec’s and recommended that no fines be imposed on the Houston-based liquor store chain.

Besides Swedberg and Cook, the agency’s general counsel, chief of enforcement and head of internal affairs have all left the agency since the beginning of July.

When Swedberg quit on Friday, he said he did not want to participate in the “termination” of another high-ranking official, Licensing Director Amy Harrison. Harrison, who helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency honchos partying during out-of-state junkets, still had her job Tuesday, TABC spokesman Chris Porter said. 

Additional reporting by Jay Root.

Clarification: A previous version of this story erroneously reported Nettles had already been appointed. As of Tuesday evening, he had not yet formally accepted the position.

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State government Greg Abbott State agencies Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission