State ethics watchdogs plan to pause their investigation into six former high-ranking Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission employees implicated in a bourbon-hoarding scandal while a criminal investigation proceeds. 

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission started looking into ethical breaches by the six men in March and ordered a full investigation during its June 2 meeting. The panel will vote to suspend those investigations during its Friday meeting, according to memos drafted by Susan Myers, the commission’s compliance and education coordinator.

“It appears that there is a pending criminal investigation being conducted by the Oregon Department of Justice,” Myers wrote. “The conduct at issue in the commission’s case may be the same conduct that forms part of the basis for the pending criminal investigation.” 

The commission was investigating ethical lapses by six former Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission managers: director Steve Marks; deputy director Will Higlin; Chris Mayton, director of the distilled spirits program; Kai Nakashima, director of the office of information services; budget manager Bill Schuette; and chief information officer Boba Subasic. 

A 2022 internal investigation first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive in February found that all six used their positions to divert rare, expensive bourbons for their own use. The state commission regulates where and how liquor is sold.

Some brands obtained by the men, including Pappy Van Winkle, are so rare and sought-after that members of the public can only buy them by winning a lottery. The former executives had bottles sent to specific liquor stores and set aside for them to purchase. 

State law bars government employees and elected officials from using their positions for financial gain or using confidential information they only know because of their job for their own benefit. 

Along with the ethics commission investigation, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum launched a criminal investigation into the liquor diversion in February. The ethics commission can levy civil fines, while Rosenblum’s office can bring criminal charges. 

Separately, the ethics commission on Friday is expected to decide whether to investigate former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who resigned following revelations that she took a side gig consulting for a troubled cannabis company while her office audited the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. Fagan is also under scrutiny from federal prosecutors

Ethics commission staff will present the results of a preliminary review of Fagan’s case to commissioners in an executive session, which is closed to the public. Under Oregon law, journalists can attend executive sessions but cannot report what is said. 

The commission would have to come back into an open public meeting to vote on whether to proceed with a full investigation into Fagan. Regardless of whether commissioners vote for a full investigation, all information from the preliminary review must be made available to the public.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.