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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Volinsky goes undercover in N.H. Liquor Commission bootlegger bust

February 18. 2018 2:07AM
Executive Counselor Andru Volinsky (with hat) and Richard Gulla, president of the N.H. State Employees Association, are seen on Feb. 3, 2018, in surveillance footage strolling the stockroom of a Keene liquor store. 

If Democratic Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord wanted to learn about out-of-state bootleggers buying massive quantities of booze at New Hampshire liquor stores with wads of cash, he didn't have to conduct a sting operation.

The New Hampshire Sunday News described the flow of bootleg booze from New Hampshire to New York and beyond as a well-known pipeline in a Jan. 14 article by staff writer Kevin Landrigan.

After seeing that report and hearing liquor store workers' concerns, Volinsky decided to do some investigating, resulting in a letter he sent to Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.

"I write to call your attention to certain business practices of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission that may be illegal and unquestionably facilitates money laundering related to criminal activities," he writes in a Feb. 13 letter. "I believe these troubling practices have been ongoing for some time ... . This information has come to my attention and I cannot ignore it."

Volinsky's stakeout and his conversations with liquor store employees led to the conclusion that "the state liquor commission facilitates the practice of selling large quantities of liquor typically to out-of-state customers who drive to New Hampshire to make their purchases with significant quantities of cash in ways designed to avoid providing indentifying information to federal authorities."

That's all true, and it's hard to argue that the reputation of the state is well-served by a liquor commission that looks the other way as bootleggers stock up.

But New Hampshire has a long tradition of financing state government on the lifestyle choices of its own citizens and those from out of state, whether it be cheap alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks. It's hard to imagine that Volinsky's initiative is going to change that.

His reputation as a good attorney is well established, but in this case he seems to be taking his conclusions beyond the evidence when he writes, "It is clear that our state is profiting from cash bulk transactions where at least some of the cash is likely coming from illegal trafficking in drugs, guns or humans."

To the charge of selling truckloads of high-end booze that is likely ending up on the black market in other states, the liquor commission may plead guilty. But money laundering for drug traffickers, gun runners and pimps? That's a leap, and even Volinsky acknowledges as much. "Good, law-abiding citizens don't structure their cash transactions to avoid giving their identification," he says. "Can I say that (the money) comes from one illegal kind of trafficking versus another? No."

Volinsky does raise legitimate concerns. The state has grown accustomed to the millions in revenue generated by these large purchases, and all it would take is a lawsuit by a neighboring state or intervention of the IRS to put that money at risk.

Sununu, a Republican, said Friday he wants to examine both the methods Volinsky used to lodge his complaint and the charges themselves.

"I'll say that obviously there are a lot of questions to be answered on both sides," the governor said.

Then there's the issue of employee safety. The councilor observed that on Jan. 31, Keene store employees made deposits of more than $100,000 in cash with no security or armored car service on the way to the bank.

Asked if bringing so much attention only puts employees at greater risk, Volinsky took umbrage. "Disclosing a security failure should be remedied by addressing the security failure," he said. "To suggest that by disclosing this I'm a creating a danger to the employees I am trying to protect is a false and offensive position."

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