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Former LCB chairman who took gifts drops out of ethics panel

| Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

A former state Liquor Control Board chairman caught in an ethics probe for accepting gifts from vendors popped up on the agenda of a national convention as a panelist instructing alcohol regulators about ethical behavior.

But on the same day a reporter inquired about his appearance at the event, Patrick “PJ” Stapleton, 59, of Malvern, Chester County, backed out of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association meeting set for May in Orlando, conference organizers confirmed. The group comprises officials from 17 states and jurisdictions that have some level of public control over alcohol sales.

Stapleton said he was “asked to participate in the panel, but due to a business conflict, I am unable to do so.”

He said he was “unsure what the substance of the discussion was to be,” although a widely distributed conference pamphlet lists his name as a panelist and lays out a specific, paragraph-long description of the seminar.

“The alcohol beverage industry is already scrutinized, without the taint of scandal and bribery that comes with unethical behavior,” the description notes. “This session uses examples to remind all of us that we live under a microscope.”

Stapleton, an attorney who served on the liquor board for 14 years and chaired the panel from 2007 to 2011, was fined more than $7,250 in March 2014 for accepting gifts ranging from golf outings and meals to Philadelphia Phillies tickets and wine and spirits donations for an annual event he and his then-wife, Kelly Beaudin Stapleton, operated.

He resigned in October 2012, before he and four other top LCB officials, including CEO Joseph Conti and Marketing Director James Short, were fined in 2014, the result of the Ethics Commission probe.

An ethics report painted a picture of officials regularly taking advantage of liquor vendors looking for their piece of the agency's $2.1 billion in annual sales.

As an offshoot of the probe, a federal investigation led to mail fraud charges against Short, who prosecutors said engaged in a decade-long scheme to defraud the state through soliciting kickbacks from alcohol vendors doing business with the agency. He pleaded guilty in September and is awaiting sentencing.

The federal investigation is ongoing.

“There's a bit of irony, of course, given the difficulties he's encountered,” said Chris Borick, pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

John Schaaf, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, said he has invited officials with past ethics problems to speak about their experiences.

“I think they provide a pretty good example to motivate people to comply with the law and to avoid the kind of abyss into which these people have sunk,” he said.

When asked whether he planned to use his experience with the ethics probe as part of his presentation, Stapleton said he never got that far in planning.

Association spokeswoman Margaret Barchine said Stapleton informed the organization Feb. 24 — the same day he was contacted by the Tribune-Review — he could not attend the conference due to a “scheduling conflict.”

When asked why Stapleton was selected as a panelist, Barchine said: “NABCA includes experts in our ethics standards/laws sessions.”

Long before Stapleton found himself in trouble with the Ethics Commission, he was involved in speaking about the importance of ethical behavior.

In 2008, four years before the Ethics Commission's probe, Stapleton was the moderator of a panel on “The Ethics of Dealing with Alcohol Regulators,” which focused on knowing where the “ethical line is located” between vendors and regulators.

It's unclear who would have paid for Stapleton's trip to Florida.

Barchine said the association waives registration fees for presenters and covers expenses on a case-by-case basis depending on the event's budget. She said the group did not get that far in discussions with Stapleton.

The association had covered more than $4,200 in travel, lodging and meal expenses for annual conferences Stapleton attended in May 2010, 2011 and 2012, his last three years on the Liquor Control Board, according to state expense records. He served as chairman of the national association from June 2011 to May 2012, during which time the group paid for his attendance at several other meetings and symposiums, records show.

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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