CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) - State Alcohol Beverage Control employees received more than $50,000 in gifts and entertainment from the alcohol industry from 2008 to 2011, including tickets to NASCAR races and Washington Redskins football games, a newspaper review found.
While the majority of the gifts were for travel to national conferences, at least one lawmaker is questioning whether agency officials should take gifts from the industry. The debate comes as lawmakers look at reforming Virginia's anemic financial disclosure laws as a result of a scandal that has federal and state investigators looking into gifts given to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family by a Virginia businessman.
ABC employees accepted nearly $7,000 in NASCAR tickets from whiskey giant Crown Royal over a two-year period, according to state records reviewed by The Daily Progress. Tickets to races, industry events, comedy shows and dinners were listed on statements of economic interest filed annually by about 525 ABC employees, the newspaper review found. Certain state employees are required to file disclosure forms listing any gifts or reimbursements they received valued at higher than $50, among other things.
The freebies are small compared to the $5 million the alcohol industry has poured into Virginia politics since 2010, according to Virginia Public Access Project data. But analysts and state legislators call the gifts a "gray area" in a political climate that is increasingly distrustful of outside influence.
"They are well within the law," said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. "Whether they should take those gifts is another thing altogether. How does it serve the agency's, and . the public's interest, to be out at NASCAR events wined and dined by an industry group?"
VPAP shows Toscano has received about $800 from the University of Virginia for football and concert tickets since 2008, among other gifts.
ABC spokeswoman Rebecca Gettings said in a statement that officials benefit from the gifts, either through access to sales presentations or through networking opportunities.
"To best serve Virginia consumers and maintain the product mix that they desire, Virginia ABC must maintain close relationships with its suppliers, who have the market research assets, the national sales data, and a wealth of other information essential to successful retail sales," she said.
Sandra Canada, a commissioner on ABC's governing board, said the gifts come with no strings attached. Agency policy prohibits employees or board members from accepting gifts or favors in exchange for services related to their job.
"(Crown Royal) has never asked for anything from us and we've never given them any special treatment," she said.
Canada said the conferences are informative: "It's not like it's some big party. We're going to symposiums and break-out sessions on regulatory matters."
The question of whether state employees should accept gifts has received little attention, said Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"There's this kind of gray area where just because it's legal doesn't mean it's OK," Kondik said. "I think it's reasonable for the public to read about the tickets and say, 'That seems fishy.'"