ABC to lift freeze on county cases

State officials for the past two months have put a hold on all liquor-law violation cases submitted by Mecklenburg County's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board due to internal and FBI investigations into the board.

On Tuesday, though, state officials said the freeze on at least 30 cases would be lifted following conversations with the county board that were prompted by questions from the Observer.

“I expect it to be resolved very shortly here and we'll begin processing those (Mecklenburg) cases again,” said Mike Herring, administrator of the N.C. ABC Commission.

That was a turnaround from one day earlier.

The commission, which processes and judges all liquor law violations filed by local ABC boards, halted the Mecklenburg cases in May, after the Observer disclosed the suspension of the local board's law enforcement director and an internal investigation. The FBI began investigating the board's operations several weeks later.

“The commission has decided to await the outcome of both investigations before processing any new ABC violation reports (Mecklenburg) may send here,” Herring wrote in an e-mail response to questions from the paper on Monday.

Liquor law violations can range from improper advertising to serving alcohol to minors.

Herring said Tuesday that there had been a communication breakdown between the local board and the state commission, which was close to resolution.

The freeze on Mecklenburg cases surprised and displeased the local board, which was unaware of the move until questioned by the Observer on Monday.

“It's quite frankly alarming that such action was taken and our board was not informed,” said Calvin McDougal, chief executive officer of the Mecklenburg board. “My concern – and this is a personal concern, not the board's – is that type of action casts a suspect light in the eyes of the community on this law enforcement agency.”

Mecklenburg and other local ABC boards operate with considerable independence. They run the state's liquor stores and answer to their local elected leaders, such as the county commissioners. When a local board finds a violation, however, it is sent to the state commission to be judged and potentially punished.

McDougal said his understanding is that the internal and FBI investigations involve past activity, not current operations, so he questioned why state officials halted the flow of current violation reports. He said the internal probe was recently completed, but he declined to disclose results.

“That could jeopardize the underlying federal investigation,” he said, adding that “board members were interested in determining the veracity and accuracy of a law enforcement agent's statements.”

McDougal did not identify the agent.

In April, the Mecklenburg board suspended its director of law enforcement, Bill Cox, over what one board member said was the handling of violations.

Cox retired a month later, but McDougal said the retirement was not requested and praised Cox's service and performance.

In 2006, one of the agents who worked for Cox alleged that Cox reduced or quashed violation reports against two establishments, one of which was represented by his divorce lawyer. Copies of the reports and other documents, however, appeared to show that Cox did not alter the charges. McDougal said in May that he investigated the complaint at the time and found no evidence of interference by Cox.

McDougal said Tuesday that the internal investigation was not over the agent's allegations.

Cox said last week that the allegations were drummed up by vindictive subordinates.