HOLMBERG: Changes at VA ABC may not be spelled HUGE

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RICHMOND, Va. --As Harrisonburg mayor Christopher Jones said during Wednesday’s ABC review committee meeting, “there is a reason why we’re all here.”

It was the third of four meetings ordered by Governor Terry McAuliffe, who demanded answers and action after University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was bloodied in a suspected underage-drinking, fake-ID arrest on St. Patrick’s Day in Charlottesville.

Previous meetings focused on what appeared to be overly aggressive action in that St. Patty’s Day case and the one two years earlier, in which a UVA co-ed was swarmed by gun-toting agents who mistook her canned water for beer.

But center stage for Wednesday’s meeting in Senate Room 3 at the State Capitol was soft-spoken Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney David Chapman, who painstakingly shared the evidence in the Martese Johnson case - including witness statements - and why he brought no charges against the agents and dropped those against Johnson.

The depth of his presentation drew praises from committee members and only a few questions, including one about “racial disproportionality” in terms of ABC agents discretionary contact with citizens.

Chapman told me that the agents involved in the Johnson case were doing routine questioning that likely would’ve been over “in a minute” if the citizen involved had been cooperative.

Chapman’s presentation may have shifted the tone of the meeting.

Well-known alcohol-industry lobbyist Thomas Lisk (Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, among others) addressed the committee, saying “It should be clear that, from what we've seen, the ABC is not a rogue agency, nor that its agents are somehow out-of-control or improperly trained.”

Lisk was part of a panel representing those whose businesses depend on alcohol and a decent relationship with the agency that controls it. Committee members (who include law enforcement, city and town officials, alcohol safety groups, public safety officials and even the UVA student body president) were told that agents appear overworked but dedicated and professional, and that there needs to be clearer communications between the ABC administration, the agents and the business community.

As the Martese Johnson case became national news, many called for the law enforcement arm of the ABC department to be taken over by local or state police. The complexities of that switch was only touched on during Wednesday’s meeting.

Mary Beth Williams, an advisor for business with ties to alcohol, told the committee, “I will tell you on a national basis, there are other states with bifurcated regulation and law-enforcement. Uniformly, those states are the most difficult do business in. People don't want to set up in those states - they don't want to go sell their products in those states - because they feel like whichever way they step, they're going to screw up. Somebody's going to be mad at them.”

Col. W. Stephen Flaherty, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, also spoke at the hearing.

“We’ve kind of taken a 10,000 foot view,” he told me afterwards. “We've met with ABC to kind of get a feel for how we would have to make that transition. And today, I covered a lot of the issues and challenges that would come with that.”

Jones, Harrisonburg’s mayor, said he’s not comfortable that enough changes will happen to keep another Martese Johnson from being bloodied. “I think whether we move ABC (enforcement) or not – and I’m a fan of more eyes and better regulation . . . I have not found any comfort as a citizen walking away from this, that this may not happen again.”

After that incident, McAuliffe issued an executive order requiring all that ABC agents undergo additional training in community policing, diversity, youth issues and in defusing potentially combative situation, which is apparently underway.

Based on the little that I heard, my guess is the huge and unusual option of removing enforcement from VA ABC’s duties is unlikely, given the specialized nature of what they have historically done.

The criminal investigation into the March incident has been completed. The Virginia State Police investigation into whether any of ABC’s administrative policies were violated then remains underway.

The final meeting is in mid-August, when the panel will decide on its recommendations.