LCB chairman favors dropping in-house brands
By Kari Andren
Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 8:50 p.m.
Bottles of TableLeaf wines and seven other controversial in-house brands commissioned by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board could run dry if board Chairman Joseph “Skip” Brion has his way.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune-Review, Brion said the board is discussing whether to permanently end the private-label program that has drawn heavy fire from critics and has been the subject of an internal investigation.
Some lawmakers, industry officials and even Brion have questioned why the LCB, an agency charged with regulating the sale of wine and spirits in the state, is also in the business of making its own.
Brion, a Chester County attorney who served as the county's Republican committee chairman for 15 years, said it's no secret that “I do not believe the LCB needs its own label and should compete with the industry labels. But that's my opinion.”
When questioned by the Tribune-Review last fall, former LCB Chief Executive Joe Conti and Marketing Director Jim Short offered conflicting stories about how TableLeaf was developed and who was involved in the decision-making process.
Most people cited by both Conti and Short as crucial decision-makers in the private-label process told the Tribune-Review they had no knowledge of the project and no role in it.
Short, Conti and former LCB board member Patrick J. Stapleton III are under investigation by the state Ethics Commission for allegedly accepting gifts and favors from vendors.
Conti retired this year, then returned to the LCB as an $80-an-hour consultant under a plan that lets ex-employees return to work on an emergency basis while collecting their pensions.
In October, Brion said an informal investigation into how the agency brought the controversial brands to market was under way.
In this latest interview, Brion said his probe revealed nothing “surprising or improper.”
One significant unknown is whether Brion has the backing to end the program.
With one seat on the three-member board vacant, it's unclear when Brion and Bob Marcus, a supporter of the in-house labels, could reach an agreement on the future of wine brands TableLeaf, Dialed In, LA MERIKA, Hayes Valley, Zita, Las Parcelas and Vinestone and Copper Sun vodkas.
Marcus could not be reached for comment for this story.
Last year, Gov. Tom Corbett nominated Philadelphia attorney Ken Trujillo to fill the vacancy, but the Republican-controlled state Senate failed to act on his confirmation. Corbett will have to re-nominate Trujillo or submit another name for consideration.
Brion said he has already met with the private-label suppliers and told them he wouldn't make them “eat” the cost of bottles they've already produced.
If there are cases of product still in the supplier's inventory, the LCB would continue to order the product until that stock was depleted, he said.
“What I suggested to them is I do not want to run out of those ... cases and then have them bottle more,” Brion said. “Mr. Marcus has to agree with me on that, too.”
All but one of the eight brands were approved by the LCB before Brion was nominated to the board by Corbett and took office in November 2011.
“People in the retail and marketing end of this agency thought that was a way of creating a product that would earn more revenue for the agency and the commonwealth,” Brion said. “I basically understood their philosophy. Obviously ... philosophies change in administrations and sometimes my visions may not happen overnight.”
Conti is a staunch defender of the private-label program, which he says has been popular with shoppers. He has pointed to the fact that the fifth best-selling chardonnay on state wine and spirits store shelves is the LCB's TableLeaf brand.
But Brion said he's not limiting his mission to the private-label issue.
He's already addressed criticism about a lack of transparency at the board's twice-monthly meetings by insisting on detailed agendas that are available online in advance and inviting public participation at meetings.
And, he said he plans to take a more active role in the agency, particularly in product selection, regulatory issues and a push for changes in the Legislature he said would further “modernize” the agency.
He said his decision to become involved in product selection was not as a result of the private-label program.
“If you have a Chairman's Selection (wine program), the chairman maybe should select some of that,” Brion said, referring to an LCB program under which highly rated wines are selected by a designated buyer for sale at prices many experts say cannot be matched.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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