Editorial: Investigate liquor sales, not Volinsky

  • Andru Volinsky

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

‘See something, say something,” the Department of Homeland Security advises. Concord Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky did just that, much to the annoyance of the state’s liquor commissioners. What Volinsky saw has been viewed to one extent or another by countless patrons of New Hampshire’s state-run liquor stores: shopping cart loads of wine or spirits being loaded into a vehicle with out-of-state license plates.

Earlier this month, Volinsky, acting on a tip from a state employee, hung around a liquor store in Keene long enough to see two people buy $24,000 worth of Hennessy cognac and load it into a vehicle registered in another state. The purchases were broken up into sales of less than $10,000, the level at which such sales must be reported to the IRS. Breaking up a large sale into smaller components to avoid reporting requirements is illegal.

At a minimum, the buyers were about to break the law in their home state, which, to protect their own revenue sources, limits the amount of booze that can be hauled over the border. At worst, they were laundering money, perhaps earned illegally, say from the sale of illicit drugs, converting ill-gotten cash into an alcoholic beverage in high demand that can be sold elsewhere at a profit.

Such high-volume sales are great for the state’s bottom line. The liquor commission’s 2017 annual report said sales hit an all-time high last year at $684.8 million, netting more than $150 million for the state’s general fund. Sales records should show how common large cash purchases are and potentially raise questions about whether the commission’s policy is to pursue profit by turning a blind eye to illegal activity.

The state’s two liquor commissioners have some explaining to do. Instead, they clumsily tried to turn the tables by accusing Volinsky of violating customer privacy and calling for his actions to be investigated. What Volinsky did, however, anyone could do. Liquor stores are public and photographing people in public or their vehicle’s license plate, while perhaps offensive, is legal.

We would encourage the attorney general’s office not to waste taxpayer money by investigating a public official performing a public service. The Executive Council’s website says that body “has the authority and responsibility, together with the Governor, over the administration of the affairs of State.” Volinsky was just doing his job.

Volinsky has alleged that liquor store employees were told not to take note of the license plates of high-volume buyers or note when large sales are broken up into amounts below the reporting limit. He’s heard that large cash sales, in an age when cash is used less and less often, are so common that some state stores have installed cash counting machines to speed up transactions.

True or false, commissioners?

We’d like to know how a given store would know to have tens of thousands of dollars worth of a given product on hand. Is the stocking decision based on average or predicted sales, or do big buyers order in advance by phone or online?

It’s illegal for a Massachusetts resident to buy any quantity of an alcoholic beverage in New Hampshire and transport it over the border, but it happens countless times per day. Five-figure purchases using cash that may have been earned through drug sales, human trafficking or other crimes are another matter. They must not be ignored. An Attorney General’s Office investigation is in order.