Commentary: Reporter's dogged efforts lead to unveiling of 'insider scheme' (March 1, 2023)
March 1, 2023
By Therese Bottomly
Ever heard of Pappy Van Winkle before this past month? Me, neither.
But lots of people apparently covet the high-end bourbon, including some managers of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. Their insider scheme came to light after one person spoke up.
The initial whistleblower was a departing employee. “On April 29, 2022, (former) Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission employee Richard McDonald reports various instances of inappropriate workplace conduct, allegedly involving manager Chris Mayton and other management service personnel,” the OLCC investigative report says.
We don’t know McDonald’s motivation. But scuttlebutt about the scandal eventually made its way to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s reporter Noelle Crombie.
The OLCC scheme involved numerous top managers, including Steve Marks, the executive director, who resigned last week. Rather than putting the public first, the investigation found, they used their positions to reserve bottles of the top-shelf liquor for themselves.
The 2019 book, “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud,” traces the American roots of whistleblower protections back to the Continental Congress. Author Tom Mueller was primarily focused on major frauds and explored the legal protections against retaliation and – importantly – financial rewards for people who blew the whistle.
“Whistleblowing is a great act of courage and patriotism, yet all too often, whistleblowers are treated like a skunk at a picnic,” he quoted proponent Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as saying. “The Founding Fathers recognized whistleblowing as one of the central rights, and duties, of the citizen to his society. This is about individuals healing the disease of bureaucracy and public thievery.”
Our all-too-human emotions are also strong, about right and wrong, good and bad. Think about the start of the pandemic when people felt compelled to drop a dime on shops that weren’t enforcing mask mandates or neighbors who were defiantly having large gatherings.
But it’s not really the money that motivates whistleblowers. Those who study such things discovered, not surprisingly, the people who speak up tend to place a high value on truth and have a low regard for deception.
That largely sums up reader response to the OLCC revelations as well.
In the saga of Pappy Van Winkle, Crombie first asked for records related to the investigation by email on Jan. 18. She first put in her request to the Department of Administrative Services, an agency that serves as a bit of a clearinghouse for state government.
As happens far too often in Oregon, she initially was given bad information in response to her public records request. I hope she was not actively misled. She was told the case was “currently under investigation and cannot be disclosed until the investigation is complete.”
Under the public records law, public agencies may be allowed to withhold internal investigative records until a disciplinary action is completed, unless immediate disclosure is in the public interest.
But Crombie knew the investigation had been completed last summer.
This is what we call “hide the ball.”
She pushed back. Then, on Feb. 6, she was told that the Department of Administrative Services did not actually have the records. She was instead referred to OLCC.
This is called “follow the bouncing ball.”
Luckily, Crombie already had asked OLCC for the same investigative reports. After a few days of back and forth, she received the records at 12:37 p.m. Feb. 8.
Minutes later, at 1:07 p.m., Gov. Tina Kotek’s press office emailed numerous local reporters with a letter Kotek wrote that day to the OLCC commission. In it, she said the behavior of agency leaders outlined in the investigative report was “wholly unacceptable.”
This is what’s known as “getting out in front of negative press.”
Those reporters immediately asked OLCC for the records Crombie had been asking for since Jan. 18. And, of course, now the records were neatly gathered up and ready to go. Her scoop, weeks in the making, melted like butter in a hot pan. Most outlets, including Willamette Week, The Associated Press and Oregon Public Broadcasting, nonetheless graciously credited Crombie with breaking the news of the scandal.
Crombie’s subsequent reporting revealed a few more eye-popping facts: OLCC had assigned a subordinate to investigate his superior, Marks. The investigation, once complete, was buried. It remains unclear what details the chair of the OLCC board knew about the investigation.
None of this likely would have ever come to light had it not been for people who spoke up, either because they were outraged over the conduct, feared it was being swept under the rug or myriad other possible reasons.
At the end of the day, the independent press provided the necessary check on government power. The transparency laws required release of the investigation, albeit after delays. And an excellent reporter did her job.
I would raise a toast to Crombie and her editor, Margaret Haberman, for their diligence. But I just checked a private vendor’s site, and a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle – which retails for a few hundred bucks at OLCC -- was going for $5,554.99.
A heartfelt “thank you” will have to do.
– Therese Bottomly is is editor and vice president of content for The Oregonian/OregonLive. A Portland native, she has worked at The Oregonian since 1983. This was used by permission.