Liquor Commission defends firing of ‘whistleblower,’ rejects unfair labor practice complaint

  • Footage from a security camera on Feb. 3 shows Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky entering the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet in Keene. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Thursday, June 14, 2018

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission is standing by its decision to fire a manager involved in a “sting operation” earlier this year, rejecting a complaint before the Public Employees Labor Relations Board that the termination was retaliatory.

Responding to accusations by the State Employees Association, the commission told the board last week that the firing of Garrett Boes in February was connected to his direct involvement in an undercover investigation and a potentially illegal sale, not for his union activities.

Boes, a former manager of the state liquor store in Keene, was fired Feb. 28, about four weeks after he assisted Association President Rich Gulla and Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky with a visit to the store to observe its handling of bulk cash alcohol purchases.

That visit, in which Volinsky and Gulla toured the store’s stockroom and witnessed an allegedly illegal structured sale, set off a wave of reactions. It prompted an attorney general review of the commission’s policies for large cash transactions, which Volinsky and others say allow the state-run agency to turn a blind eye to rum-running operations from out of state.

But it also put Boes at the center of a bitter divide between the agency and the employee union. Since his termination, Boes, a former union official himself, has joined the SEA and appealed to both the Personnel Appeals Board and the PELRB, alleging a violation of the state’s unfair labor practice law.

At issue is the Feb. 3 visit with Gulla and Volinsky. As part of Volinsky’s investigation into Liquor Commission compliance with IRS reporting requirements, Boes arranged a three-hour visit that included the secret observation of a series of cash transactions that appeared to violate those requirements.

During the visit, Volinsky said he witnessed two customers split a $24,000 sale into separate transactions, each coming under the $10,000 reporting requirement for cash purchases. The observations formed a key piece of a subsequent 13-page letter from Volinsky to the governor and attorney general in which he outlined the practices.

Left out of that report, however, was Boes’s direct involvement in the sale. According to the commission’s submission, authored by Senior Assistant Attorney General Nancy Smith, Boes carried out the sale himself and pulled in a junior employee. That employee felt uncomfortable with splitting the liquor sales “as well as the behavior of Mr. Gulla and his “guest,” the commission wrote to the board. She later reported the activity to upper management, which opened an investigation, the commission said.

Volinsky and the SEA have identified Boes as a whistleblower. But the commission hit back at the label.

“Mr. Boes cannot be a whistleblower regarding his own improper conduct,” the commission wrote. “Instead, the only whistleblower was (the junior employee), who reported Mr. Boes’ actions.”

Additionally, by showing up unannounced, Gulla was in violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, the commission charged.

In its May 24 filing to the board, the SEA did not dispute Boes’s involvement in the sale but did allege that his firing came a result of his earlier union activities and not his participation in Volinsky’s “sting operation.” Shortly before carrying out the February transaction, Boes had returned to work after a six-month leave, which had been approved by the commission.

“The State has shown a pattern of interference with Mr. Boes’ rights as a union member by terminating him for his work and participation in union activities with and on behalf of the State Employees Association,” the association wrote in its complaint.

In its response, the commission is looking to have the SEA’s complaint to the PELRB thrown out, pointing to a conflict with the prior appeal through the personnel board. It was not immediately clear when the PELRB would take up the complaint.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)