The head of a key House oversight committee is calling on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to hand over records detailing potential spending abuses and other “misconduct” that may have occurred.
GOP Rep. Sarah Davis, chair of the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee, also wants records documenting the “full background” of the official who led a controversial enforcement action against Spec’s Wine, Spirits & Finer Foods, the state’s largest liquor retailer.
In a letter dated Tuesday, the first day of the special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, Davis asked for a list of all “outside organizations” TABC is involved in, a full accounting of travel reimbursements made by such groups, information on employees who have been certified as peace officers and the cost and scope of lawsuits in which the agency is involved.
Kevin Lilly, the commissioner that Abbott tapped to clean up TABC, said Wednesday that Davis had made a "reasonable request for the agency to account for the issues raised by" her committee.
"We have made significant changes in leadership and are now responding to the final questions raised in the hearing. We are in communication with Chair Davis and are complying. We are anxious to begin a new chapter for the TABC and thank Chair Davis for her oversight and leadership,” Lilly said.
The Texas Tribune published a series of stories about TABC mismanagement, taxpayer-funded junkets to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status, wildly inaccurate record-keeping of state-owned cars, and heavy-handed regulatory actions.
Davis said her request for information was a follow-up to her committee’s hearing in April, which put the top brass on the hot seat for several hours. A few days later the executive director resigned. By July, a total of seven top agency honchos had left the agency — including the executive director, the deputy executive director, general counsel, licensing director, chief of enforcement and head of internal affairs.
“This hearing was initiated by investigative reporting that revealed a pattern of inappropriate and unethical conduct within the TABC,” Davis wrote. “The response from this hearing was decisive, with multiple top TABC officials tendering their resignations.”
Davis is now pressing the agency to provide records about one of the top honchos still on the executive staff: Dexter Jones, the chief of auditing, who has led a multi-year enforcement action against Spec’s that prompted a rebuke from two administrative law judges.
The judges found the government had failed to prove a single serious allegation of wrongdoing. In a new court filing this week, the TABC is asking them to give what’s left of the case another look and arguing the judges misinterpreted the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.
TABC spokesman Chris Porter described the latest filing a routine procedural matter.
“We’d do this for any case that would come out,” he said.
Al Van Huff, the Houston lawyer representing Spec’s, says the ongoing regulatory action has become abusive and will cause the company to pay tens of thousands of dollars more to keep fighting the 13 allegations the TABC wants the judges to reconsider. Spec's has already spent more than $1 million to fight the case, he said.
“It’s akin to beating a dead horse, and beating the dead horse in such a way that Spec’s has to do a detailed analysis and respond to it all, which just costs Spec’s more time and money,” Van Huff said. “I would characterize it as a regulatory abuse.”