(It has been suggested that while we all stay home, we need things to read. In that spirit, I submit a behind-the-curtain look at liquor politics in the State of Washington from a book of mine. This was back before a multi-millionaire hired a bunch of petition-takers and essentially bought an initiative to remove the state from the liquor business. First “control state” since Repeal to fall by the wayside. How long ago? Dixy Lee Ray was governor. The King Tut falloon came to mind reading “news” that posited various spirits as killers of the virus of the day. Behind almost every “fake news” story is a spin doctor with an ulterior motive.)
Life at the Liquor Control Board
When Buck went to work as public information officer for the Washington State Liquor Control Board in 1978, the Board was a monolithic, slightly mysterious power structure with almost a half-century of rule over the sale and handling of liquor. Buck was pretty amazed when the Board’s personnel officer tracked him down to a publishing company in suburban Phoenix, where he was supervising production of that year’s Arizona game-law publications. He had forgotten that he was on a Washington State civil-service register; the personnel officer told him his score was far and away the highest, and the Board really wanted to talk to him. So he flew home for the conversation.
Before his interview, he dropped in on an old acquaintance, the editor of the Daily Olympian, and asked for a look at its newspaper morgue concerning the agency. What he didn’t know about a liquor-control board could fill a book; he still resented the Sunday anti-drinking laws that cramped his intake when he was in the Army at Fort Lewis. He considered all state liquor stores he had seen in his travels surpassingly ugly, tombstones to failed Prohibition. As far as liquor sales went, he had been raised with Florida’s free-wheeling drive-in liquor stores with attached go-go dancer lounges, boardwalk dives, and after-hours joints where anything went. So that was his personal benchmark for how liquor should be handled.
“The Liquor Control Board is not a lot more corrupt or secretive than the CIA,” the Olympian editor, who labored under the newsroom nickname of Shack, told him. “But not for lack of trying.” He gave Buck a desk and coffee and left him to his studies.
Two of the three sitting Board members were under indictment for misuse of state property; the case was winding its way to the state Supreme Court. The former Board chairman had finished his term and retired, still under indictment. A new governor had replaced him with a new chairman, different party. Board members were appointed to nine-year terms at three-year intervals, Buck read. The hiring sequence was designed to keep any one governor from having too much say in the composition of the Board. Once confirmed by the Senate, they were essentially bullet-proof. They couldn’t be fired or recalled; the Steele Act which created the agency at Repeal had designed the system to be immune from politics. Clearly, these were plum jobs.
Buck read editorial diatribes against their power and secretiveness, and followed the clips as far as they led concerning the indictments. The state auditor had preferred the charges, which revolved around allegations of the Board’s fast and loose distribution of cases and cases of free liquor to favored personages, usually to lubricate political gatherings. There seemed some dispute whether state funds paid for the largess, or the liquor was case-lot “samples” provided free by liquor producers currying Board favor. Politicians from both parties allegedly lined up with their hands out for as many cases as they could grab.
The State of Washington was the eighth largest purchaser of liquor in the world, and produced millions in state revenues through its state stores. Buck’s old stomping grounds in Pennsylvania was the largest, and made even more money for the state. Buck had never covered a single story about the Pennsylvania Liquor Board back in Harrisburg; they had somehow flown below his radar. Now he wondered what he might have missed.
Biographies of the three men waiting to interview him were interesting. The new chair was a Democrat, a former Central Labor Council kingmaker who helped Gov. Ray win her seat. But he was outvoted on every issue by the two remaining Republicans. One of those was a retired Associated Press Olympia Bureau Chief. Buck made a note to ask the Olympian editor about that one. The third man was a former two-term Speaker of the Legislature, which seemed a resume more in keeping with the plum nature of the job.
Shack stopped by Buck’s desk. “Whattaya think, Buck?”
Buck was reading news accounts about the attempted murder of a Liquor Enforcement Officer in Tacoma. He had backed out of his garage at home into an apparent gangland hit that was tied to mob warfare over control of topless taverns frequented by GIs. Buck remembered those taverns with some pleasure from his Army days, and was surprised to see the establishments he had patronized pop up in the news stories, linked to underworld figures. He put his finger on his place in the clippings and asked about the retired AP guy.
“If you never met Roy, you’re in for a treat,” Shack said. “He was a big breeze in this town for years. He broke a lot of stories. Also he was considered the most eligible bachelor by ladies of a certain age until he married a rich one.”
“Huh. This says the retired chairman married rich, too. A tequila heiress, and from her picture here, a hottie.” Buck said.
“Rich women like powerful men,” Shack said cynically. “That’s no news flash.”
“I don’t tend to think of an AP man as powerful,” Buck said.
“Then you never saw Roy operate. The story going around is that the former governor appointed him to the Liquor Board to keep him from digging into that year’s budget request. Could even be true. He was a bulldog, broke a lot of stories you don’t normally see a wire-guy do.”
“I guess this is going to be an interesting interview,” Buck said.
And it was. The Board received him in their meeting room, gathered like Shakespeare’s three witches around the end of a long mahogany table polished deeply enough to shave in, surrounded by big heavy chairs upholstered in ancient red leather and dark walls mounting a rogue’s gallery of board-member portraits dating back to Repeal. Deflecting by instinct, Buck chose a side chair rather than the one at the opposite end from the power seat occupied by the 350-pound union man dressed like an undertaker. The retiring PIO, of all things a former Canadian Sergeant-Major, gave a wry smile and sat next to him. The personnel officer took the end chair and lit a Marlboro.
The union guy might have occupied the power seat, but it was immediately clear who thought he was running the show: the bald, pink-crowned ex-AP guy in a tailored suit of worsted wool Buck was pretty sure he could never have afforded on a wire-service salary. Marrying rich had its perks. But his questions came thick and fast as he browsed Buck’s checkered resume. He sounded like a reporter digging for dirt; it felt almost like interviewing for a newspaper job.
“So you’ve worked as a copy editor from time to time,” the AP man said with a trace of a sneer. “Not always as a reporter. How did you find working on the desk, compared to chasing stories?”
“It could have been worse,” Buck said. “It could have been a wire-service bureau.”
The AP man blinked. The former Speaker of the House snickered. “I believe that’s a touché, Roy,” he said.
The AP guy essayed a small smile. “So you’ve checked us out?”
“Sure,” Buck said. “The indictments, your guy getting shot in Tacoma, the mob wars, the whole bit.”
“And where did you go for your information?”
Buck shrugged. “This agency has a fat file at the local paper.”
“That fuckin’ Shack,” Roy said. “He let you into their morgue? So you’re already connected in this town. But I’m surprised you even came for the interview after reading that crap.”
The chairman had endured the byplay silently until now. “Buck, it says here you did PR for for Jerry Wurf back in the day. That right?”
“You know Jerry?”
“I’ve met him a couple times. His union represents a lot of Liquor Board employees. Since I been here, they have a lot fewer grievances, ’cause I know how to work with union contracts.” The big man gave a Barracuda smile. “This is my first time from the management side of the table. It’d be good to have another real union man around here, especially one who knows Jerry’s tricks.”
Buck smiled back at him. “First time that entry on my resume did me any good. Usually scares people off because they think I’ve come to organize their people.”
“Ours are already organized.” The big man was grinning. “God, I loved those old organizing drives back in the day,” he said reminiscently. ”You ever on a big one?”
“Oh, yeah. SEIU handed us our heads in California.”
“Hardy’s boys out of San Francisco.” The chairman nodded. “They could be tough. Had to be, to drive the mob out of their headquarters like they did. No more gunsels on the payroll as organizers. Just real solid union men. A scrap between Wurf’s people and Hardy’s must have been something to see. We’ll have to swap some war stories.”
“I’ve got a question now,” the former Speaker said. “Buck, you’ve read up on those indictments. Hell, that was probably a whole file all by itself.”
“Pretty close to it,” Buck agreed.
The Speaker dug a meerschaum pipe out of his vest pocket and absently stuffed it from a pouch on the table. A newsman, a union guy who liked his AFSCME experience and acted like he was already hired; and now a pipe smoker. Buck thought these guys could be fun to be around. He waited while the Speaker lighted his pipe.
“If you took this job on,” the Speaker said between puffs, “how you would advise we handle this? It’s been damn bad publicity all around.”
Buck gave it a beat. “If you’re not guilty, we can fix the publicity over time. Stop all that no-comment crap” — he saw the AP man’s eyebrows arch — “and get your side of the story out. If you’re guilty, I can’t help you. I’d refer you to a gentleman who is retired in San Clemente who thought he could stonewall the press.”
The union man cackled right out loud. “That was no gentleman, that was Nixon the rat.” The AP man rolled his eyes. But the Speaker just nodded and puffed his pipe.
“That’s all I have,” he told the personnel officer.
The AP guy — of course — had to get in the last shot. He asked point-blank if Buck was a lush, or had any deviant sexual tendencies that might embarrass the Board. “I’m a rampant heterosexual,” Buck said. That got a laugh from everybody but the AP guy, who forced a prim smile. “My drink is bourbon-rocks, when I have one.”
“Of course it is, you being Southern. I prefer a good single-malt.”
The interview ended pretty quickly after that. The Canadian was smiling when he walked Buck out to the parking lot. “They like you,” he said. “Not many handle Roy like that, and you sold the chairman right there. Somebody will be in touch.” Buck headed back for Sea-Tac and his Arizona assignment. It had been one of the most interesting interviews of his life, but unlikely to produce an offer. He didn’t really care if it did, but Chloe was tired of Arizona heat and wanted to come home, so he’d made the gesture for her sake.
He was more than a little surprised when the offer came through, and surprised himself when he accepted it. It looked like his newspaper days were finally behind him; with two kids to raise and a mortgage, the steadiness of a civil-service job was certainly appealing. He would have to figure the ins and outs of the Board bureaucracy as he went along. There followed a mad scramble to sell his Arizona house, evict the renters from their Washington home, and get moved back in time for hunting season.
To his surprise, he had made a big hit with the AP guy, who said Buck reminded him of his younger self. It wasn’t long before Roy explained in detail how he was the one who caused the indictment trouble with the state auditor. Every Christmas since Repeal, Roy found, the entire auditor’s staff lined up out the door of the Liquor Board purchasing agent to pick up their free cases of Christmas booze. He confessed to Buck that he was infuriated he never tumbled to this practice as a working AP man; it made him wonder what else he missed. Buck knew that feeling only too well.
Roy hadn’t shed his newsman’s sensibilities, something he felt Buck could relate to. He was offended by the sight of every state employee charged with policing official corruption lining up for their graft from one of the very agencies they audited. So Roy asked the deputy attorney general assigned to the Board for an opinion that the practice should halt. The next year the auditor’s were told there was no liquor at the inn for auditors.
“The auditor had his own sensitivity and ego,” Roy said. “Hence the indictments for doling out cases of liquor to everybody else.” Buck had learned the AP man liked wordplay, and Roy didn’t disappoint him. “He was like the famous dog in the manger, Buck. If the auditor couldn’t eat free hay, nobody else was going to!”
Buck thought it was a good story, particularly the part where the old AP man had eased his bruised ego about missing the graft as a newsman by humiliating the audit staff once he found he could. It took Buck less than a year of private conversations with key editors and reporters here and there to drain all belief that the indictments were justified, and turn media attention quietly onto an audit staff that misused its authority to extract revenge for losing a perk. The state Supreme Court, including a justice who had eluded a blackening by Buck’s last investigative news story, eventually sided with the board members and overturned the indictments. Due to Buck’s groundwork, there was no editorial flare-up over the decision; the state’s media powers were more interested in focusing on the auditor’s office to see if it misbehaved anywhere else. Having made his bones, Buck settled into his new role quite comfortably.
The major drawback to his job was the boring bureaucratic task of serving as Board Secretary. This required managing appearances before the Board of its high-powered civil-service enforcement and sales cadres, keeping the minutes, following up on action directives. His stiff-necked Canadian predecessor had said the position afforded limitless opportunities to wield internal power, because every significant operation had to be approved by Board majority in its regular meetings. Almost every agency function was laden with five decades of tradition that had hardened into unwritten law, but somebody had to direct traffic and interpret those understandings. A lot of that fell on his unwilling shoulders.
Buck had no interest in the constant games of internal politics as various division heads maneuvered for preeminence. He thoroughly disliked the imposed discipline of sitting and paying attention through every single Board meeting. Out of boredom, he tended to proof-read decision documents too closely, and reduce to written minutes too many things tradition dictated should stay unrecorded. This didn’t bother the enforcement and licensing authorities, who liked bright-line guidance. But the financial people, for instance, disliked Buck spotting a $4 million accounting error in their annual report and recording the mistake. The stores division chief thought Buck was building a case against him to weaken his control over sales.
Buck was so bored by the repetitious meetings that he didn’t understand how the board members themselves, with their colorful and dynamic histories, endured the numbing procession of store audit reports, statistics on breakage and shoplifting, store inventory-to-sales ratios and square-foot rental cost of liquor stores in every nook and cranny of the state. The boring litany went on and on until he wanted to scream.
The enforcement division’s war with topless taverns and similar prostitution venues was more entertaining; organized-crime doings always were. Board members were outraged by a female enforcement agent’s report about a male stripper who parked his Speedo-wrapped package on her shoulder during an undercover assignment and asked if she would like a personal showing. The usually mild-mannered former Speaker suggested castration for the offender, and he wasn’t joking. Male enforcement officers routinely reported similar sexual overtures from coked-out female dancers, which always made interesting reading. On that front, the wise old men of the board agreed it was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it. Where, the chairman lamented aloud, were such jobs when he was young and fit and virile?
Purchasing reports were pretty mundane. Buck was compelled to learn how companies were beginning to sell “greener” liquor because they didn’t want to wait years for proper aging. They wanted to take “Aged Eight Years” (or whatever) off their labels and sell un-aged liquor at the same old price, without informing the consumer of the change. That occasioned the Board’s anger; the three old men were liquor connoisseurs and unanimously would not stand for the public being jerked around like that. At least for a time, their power prevailed in the marketplace.
In the course of those debates, Buck learned that the contents of many different liquor labels were the same “juice” repackaged with a new identity by another distributor to grab market share. Some of those new labels were created by big financial contributors to one political party or the other. A “new” vodka could find shelf space when another, identical product, whose distributor was not so politically sophisticated, was “delisted.” When a brand was delisted, the remainder went on sale statewide. An astute customer who paid attention could find excellent bargains, but a hard-and-fast law dating back to Repeal prohibited the Board from advertising its wares, on sale or not.
All of which led Buck almost inevitably to confronting the King Tut conundrum.
King Tut’s Revenge
When the famous Egyptian monarch’s traveling exhibit toured the U.S., liquor peddlers created gaudy gold-washed Egyptian-theme “collector” bottles to be sold when the exhibit came through Seattle. King Tut came and went, leaving behind a heavy unsold inventory of high-priced gold-washed bottles. The Board put King Tut’s liquor on sale not because of political maneuvering but because sales of the exorbitantly priced bottles had tanked. The purchasing agent was a big fan both of King Tut and gold; Buck recorded the minutes when he persuaded the Board to buy heavily. He was sure customers would love the bottles as much as he did. He was wrong. It was an embarrassment in his long career with the board.
This worthy wore enough personal gold in watch bands and rings and chains to resemble a cocaine don, all purchased on time at a local jewelry store. He told Buck once that buying liquor for the Board sure beat setting chokers in the timber or working the green chain in a logging mill, things he did before he came in out of the perpetual Northwest rain. There were strong in-house rumors that savvy peddlers seeking his favor would stop by his jewelry store, swipe their company credit card, and reduce the balance of payments on his personal gold. But the state auditor never knew where to look.
The purchasing agent was seldom wrong in his purchase decisions, and really hated having to do a mea culpa over those hideously expensive King Tut bottles. Buck was bored as usual the day he reported glumly that state stores had marked King Tut down to half-price and still couldn’t sell the golden bottles. He sadly recommended a deeper discount, to just the price of a plain bottle of liquor, and grumbled that the gold wash on the bottles was worth more than that.
Buck perked up his ears. If this guy knew anything, he knew the value of gold. “If there was a way to free the gold wash from the bottle, would it actually be salvageable?” Buck chipped in. He had become inured to in-house sniping that he considered himself the “fourth board member” because he sat in on all decisions, and the Board indulged his occasional whimsies.
“What brings your curiosity?” the ex-AP board member said.
“Gold is several hundred dollars an ounce in these inflationary times,” Buck pointed out.
“Well?” Roy said to the purchasing agent. “You’re the gold expert,” he added wryly.
“Sure,” the purchasing agent said. “If somebody had a proper furnace. A case of those bottles would probably produce” — he closed his eyes and did the math — “close to a half-ounce of gold.”
“If you sell what’s left at the price you have it at now, how badly will we take a beating?” Buck said. The imperial “we” — maybe he was beginning to consider himself the fourth horseman.
“No beating at all,” the purchasing agent said. “Pretty much a wash on our purchase price. But if we discount it any more…”
“Say no more,” Buck interrupted. “Leave the price where it is for another couple weeks. I’ll see what I can do.”
The ex-AP guy looked at Buck suspiciously. “You know the law about advertising,” he said. “Don’t get caught.”
“Caught?” Buck was all wounded innocence. “I’m the Board spokesman. I’m only doing my job if I deny to the press the rumor that melting the bottles down will get you enough gold to make a profit.”
“Uh-huh,” Ray said. “You’re not planning to issue a news release are you? Nothing on paper!”
Buck mentioned a famous and popular daily gossip columnist, widely known for his humorous diatribes on behalf of Lesser Seattle, half-jokingly written to warn new immigrants away from the Pacific Northwest. The columnist was famous for such remarks as: riding a bike is dangerous in Seattle; if you fell off, you could drown. He also had sharp leg-men to do the hard work of sifting for titillating rumors. Buck knew a couple of them.
The Democratic kingmaker and the GOP power broker grinned at each other.
“Nothing in the minutes,” the old union man said.
“Right,” the former Speaker said. “This could be interesting.”
The Lesser Seattle columnist gave it a whole paragraph, well down in one of his columns: state official denies widespread rumor that salvaging gold wash from discounted King Tut bottles is safe, profitable. The item said the state admitted some cash value to the gold, but trying to melt it off without proper equipment was dangerous and discouraged.
In two weeks, the remaining King Tut bottles flew off state-store shelves. Buck felt pretty smug until a month or so later, when a wire-service story moved out of Texas. Roy, who spent some time each week with his former colleagues at his old capital bureau AP digs, brought Buck the story.
“Looks like Seattle AP picked up your King Tut rumor,” Roy said.
Two Texas thieves had read a wire story out of Seattle about salvaging gold from King Tut bottles. They broke into a liquor store down there, stole all the King Tut bottles they could carry and had been severely burned, and burned their house down, trying to melt gold in a basement furnace. They had evidently been partaking heavily of the bottles’ contents as they worked, to celebrate their coming windfall of gold.
“King Tut’s revenge,” the AP man said. “You’re sure there’s nothing on paper around here?”
Buck was sure. “I feel badly about their injuries though.”
Roy man shrugged it off. “Two thieves? To the devil with them. I just hope no legitimate purchasers tried it. We can’t issue another denial,” he added dryly. “You’ve already done that.”
“Strictly as a public service,” Buck said.
“At least we’re done with King Tut.”