Union Targets Liquor Store Policies

  • In a minute-long video, the New Hampshire State Employees Association used past news coverage to raise concerns about cash handling policies at the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission, calling on the IRS and the Attorney General's office to investigate further.

Concord Monitor
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A fired New Hampshire Liquor Store manager is challenging his termination before a state appeals board, months after he facilitated a “sting operation” against the state’s booze monopoly.

Garrett Boes, a manager at a Keene liquor store, was terminated Feb 28 — two weeks after he helped an executive councilor and the president of the State’s Employee Association (SEA) observe an allegedly improper transaction on the premises.

That undercover visit prompted the councilor, Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, to pen a lengthy letter accusing the Liquor Commission of turning a blind eye to out-of-state bulk cash alcohol purchases, spurring a political firestorm and an investigation by the attorney general.

In a May 24 complaint filed with the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board, the SEA says Boes was fired in retaliation for assisting Volinsky, a decision it describes as “protected, concerted union activity.” Boes was a top official within the union, serving as secretary of the SEA chapter for liquor store employees, according to the organization’s website.

The commission has never officially commented on or confirmed Boes’s termination, citing personnel privacy. The controversy kicked off Feb. 13, when Volinsky detailed in a letter to the Attorney General a weekend visit in which he and SEA President Rich Gulla observed a cash transaction between two purchasers that he says appears to have violated IRS rules.

Under those rules, cash purchases over $10,000 must be reported to the federal agency, via a “Form 8300.” Volinsky alleges that the customers he watched were working together to make three purchases just under the $10,000 that ultimately totaled $24,000.

In his termination letter, Boes was told he was fired due to his oversight of those sales, as well as his decision to let Volinsky and Gulla tour the outlet’s storeroom.

But the SEA and Volinsky say Boes was a whistleblower, and that he was fired in retaliation for his union activities and his decision to raise the allegations of bulk purchases to Volinsky in the first place. His termination, the complaint argues, is in violation of state labor law and is intended to intimidate other union members.

“Such actions by an employer have a chilling effect on labor organizations and their members when those members have reason to believe that union participation will result in restriction, coercion, or termination as it has here,” the complaint said, adding that the Commission “has a history of union animus” and retaliation.

Boes could not be reached for comment; Gulla declined to speak about the case, calling it a pending legal matter.

A spokesman for the Liquor Commission, E.J. Powers, denied the allegations.

The commission’s in-house counsel is working with the attorney general to respond to the charge, Powers said.

“We do not agree with characterization of the complaint but the attorney general is handling the matter,” he said.

The commission has until June 8 to file a response, according to the board.

The complaint comes to light as the SEA ramped up its attacks on the commission’s practices.

In a video released Sunday, the State Employees Association unloaded a series of critiques, focusing on the state-run body’s handling of the large-cash transactions.

The minutelong video, styled as a political attack ad, questioned the legality of those transactions and raised concerns that they invite organized crime and put employee safety at risk. The union called on the IRS and the attorney general’s office to further investigate the transactions and broader practices.

Concerns over the allowance of multi-thousand-dollar purchases from out-of-state buyers have dogged the commission for years, but they received new life after Volinsky’s February letter. Volinsky says the behavior he observed fits into pattern of tactics used by purchasers to buy cheaper alcohol from New Hampshire in bulk and transport it across state lines. The customers will often visit multiple stores within the state, stacking up purchases to avoid evade reporting, critics have said.

In a May 31 letter to its members that was made public Sunday, representatives for the SEA argued that policies need to be strengthened to better monitor those transactions and report abuses. Among the concerns is that the large-cash transactions are often made in full view of other customers and with limited security protocol, putting them at risk of robbery or intimidation.

And the letter raised other alleged problems. The employees are made to count the cash at the register four times, putting them in full view of customers and making them a target, the letter claimed. And while the commission tried out a pilot program of armored vehicles to protect employees making bank transfers, it has yet to follow through on rolling the vehicles out to the state’s 79 liquor stores, the SEA says.

“We want the liquor commission to succeed,” the letter reads. “Yet their large-volume sales and cash handling policies puts public and employee safety at risk and could have significant negative impact on the reputation of our state.”

In a statement Monday, the Liquor Commission pushed back on the charges with equal force, calling the letter’s release the “latest in a well-orchestrated charade.”

New Hampshire liquor stores comply with all IRS regulations, the statement said. The organization is taking on security enhancements for its storefront and is continuing its plan to implement armored vehicles.

Moreover, the commission rejected the suggestion that purchasers should make judgments on bulk purchasers that stay within those regulations.

“Our employees will not be put in the position of questioning each out of state customer to determine what they will do with their purchased product,” the statement read. “It is the individual customers’ responsibility to comply with their local laws if they bring that alcohol home with them.”

In its response, the commission took more than a few chances to swipe at the union after its criticism.

The SEA’s critiques were “designed to distort the facts, question the integrity of the Attorney General’s office and distract from the growing employee unrest with SEA leadership,” the statement said.

“The Attorney General is actively reviewing this matter and we look forward to that report,” the statement concluded.

A representative for the attorney general was not available Monday afternoon.