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Sununu: N.H. AG should probe ‘both sides’ of Volinsky, Liquor Commission claims

  • Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky speaks at a People's Climate Rally in front of the State House in Concord on Saturday morning, April 29, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

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

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

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

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



Monitor staff
Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gov. Chris Sununu strengthened calls for investigations “on both sides” into an executive councilor’s allegations against the Liquor Commission, bolstering a pair of ongoing reviews by the attorney general that have set off a partisan firefight.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Sununu said he stands behind a state Department of Justice investigation into allegations by Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, who claimed in a letter last week that New Hampshire’s Liquor Commission has been turning a blind eye to bulk out-of-state liquor purchases that could violate tax laws. But Sununu also echoed the concerns from the Liquor Commission over Volinsky’s behavior, saying it raised “unanswered questions” that the attorney general should also review.

Volinsky’s letter, sent to Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Sununu, claimed that employees have felt pressured by management in the commission to ignore signs of potentially illegal activities by customers. The letter said employees have observed bulk purchasers appearing to skirt limits on how much alcohol can be bought at once, taking advantage of New Hampshire’s relatively cheap liquor prices to resell in other states. The letter sought to back up its charges through a combination of whistleblower accounts, a leaked memo and an in-person visit to a liquor store in Keene.

The attorney general announced last week it was reviewing Volinsky’s claims, which are contested by the Commission; on Wednesday, Sununu said he supports the effort.

“Councilor Volinsky’s accusations are serious, so yeah, we have to look into them and check their validity,” he said.

But in the wake of its release, Volinsky’s investigation has also come under fire for some for the methods employed. Critics have pointed to the in-store visit as inappropriate – on Feb. 3, Volinsky, acting on a whistleblower tip, entered a Keene store to observe what he says was an $18,000 cash transaction that appeared to violate tax filing laws.

The councilor’s visit, which he described in the letter as evidence of his charges, was also captured by security footage in the store, which the commission has since made public. In a statement of its own, released last week, the commission accused Volinsky of violating policies in “what can only be described as an attempt to profile our customers, place their personal data at risk, and politicize the (Liquor Commission).”

Sununu said Wednesday that he shared the concerns, directing the attorney general to investigate the behavior.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about the legality of what was done,” he said. “Again, I’m not a lawyer – (that’s) not for this office to determine.”

For his part, Volinsky has dismissed the concerns, saying Monday that his actions and observations could have been made by any customer, and accusing the commission and governor of attempting to obfuscate his accusations. But the commission’s defense has already set off a political brawl. The state Republican Party called for an investigation into Volinsky on Monday, while their Democratic counterparts said his claims should be taken seriously and investigated by the FBI.

It remains unclear whether Volinsky’s actions could rise to the level of a criminal breach; the commission has not directly asserted that any laws were broken. But on Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said the office is still looking into both sides’ concerns, noting that the office has the authority to examine both criminal and civil allegations.

Rice declined to comment on the time frame of the review, the specific nature of its queries, and whether the office would issue a public report. But she said that allegations against the Liquor Commission were being reviewed seriously.

“We have an obligation to make sure that the state agencies are performing according to law,” she said. “We are reviewing the allegation,s and we’ll take whatever steps that we think are appropriate.”

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