Politics & Government

Liquor dealer in Kentucky House getting action on his liquor bills

State Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, testified Tuesday before a House committee for a bill that he sponsored, which he said would help liquor stores he owns.
State Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, testified Tuesday before a House committee for a bill that he sponsored, which he said would help liquor stores he owns. John Cheves

A liquor store owner in the Kentucky House of Representatives is pressing ahead with his ambitious package of seven bills aimed at helping liquor store owners, despite concerns about a conflict of interest.

State Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, won House committee approval Tuesday for his House Bill 136, which would delete statutory language that prevents all liquor wholesalers from selling to a liquor retailer that has exceeded the 30-day credit limit with any one wholesaler.

Morgan told the House Licensing and Occupations Committee, of which he is a member, that his stores have been hurt by the law after past-due payment allegations prevented them from receiving new liquor shipments. Morgan owns Liquor World, with stores in Richmond, Manchester, Irvine and Barbourville.

“The only thing we want is to be treated fairly,” Morgan said. “We’re just asking for relief so we can operate our business in a timely fashion. We ask that you repeal this part of (the law).”

Opposing the bill was Daniel Meyer, executive director of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Kentucky, who said most states have a law similar to Kentucky’s in order to keep “an orderly marketplace” between the wholesalers that sell liquor and their customers — retail stores, bars and restaurants.

“The granting of an extension of credit is a privilege; it’s not a right,” Meyer said. “The wholesalers, as far as I know, we thought the law was running pretty smoothly until this bill was filed.”

From the witness table, Morgan challenged Meyer’s testimony.

“He knows for a fact that I called him several years ago planning, in fact, even threatening to get an attorney and file a lawsuit against him. So this isn’t something that just fell out of the woodwork. This has been going on for years. We’ve asked them to treat us fairly, and they haven’t,” Morgan said.

The committee voted 10 to 1 to approve Morgan’s bill and send it to the House floor. Chairman Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, said he sees no conflict of interest in letting a committee member sponsor bills that help his own business.

“He brought us firsthand knowledge on the topic,” Koenig said.

Koenig said he expects another committee vote Wednesday on a second of Morgan’s bills, House Bill 155, to make it easier for certain liquor dealers to transport their products between commonly owned stores. It’s possible that more hearings might be scheduled for additional Morgan bills about liquor stores, he said.

Morgan declined to answer questions about bills after the hearing.

A government ethics watchdog said Tuesday that he is “shocked” that the House is acting on legislation filed by one of its members to advance his private interests.

“This is just blatantly coming out for things that help themselves,” said Richard Beliles, state chairman of Common Cause. “I’m shocked, and I’m shocked that more people aren’t shocked. You’re supposed to be in Frankfort to serve your constituents, not for your own profit.”

No members of the House committee raised any ethics concerns at Tuesday’s hearing. The only vote against Morgan’s bill came from state Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder, who said he didn’t want the legislature to get caught in a running dispute between the liquor retail and wholesale industries.

Kentucky lawmakers are allowed to act on legislation that benefits them in their private lives provided that it’s not tailored so narrowly as to be “particularly personal,” said John Schaaf, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

“Speaking generally, they can vote on bills that affect their business as long as it’s not specific to their business only,” Schaaf told the Herald-Leader in when it first reported on Morgan’s booze legislation in January. “It becomes more of an area for his constituents to decide if there is a problem, rather than for the law. We assume that his constituents knew what he did for a living when they elected him.”

Madison County voters elected Morgan to the House in November, ousting incumbent Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond. His daughter Jordan is Gov. Matt Bevin’s deputy press secretary, earning $45,990.

Apart from his seven bills concerning liquor stores, Morgan is sponsoring House Bill 132, which would ban marinas from interfering with a boat owner’s right to take possession of his boat and repeal a state law that lets marinas enforce a lien on a boat. The Courier-Journal reported in January that Morgan is involved in a lawsuit with a private dock on Lake Cumberland that took possession of his houseboat, alleging unpaid fees.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics