But, say Larry, they are entirely fabricated. He questions why, if the event really happened, that the inspector, a sworn peace officer, did not step in and stop the illegal activity. Responding to the memo, Larry said, "that's like slander."
Larry believes that these accusations--and other intermittent, but frequent frictions with the OLCC--are due, in part, to racism. Larry took over King Liquor three years ago. Since then, he has struggled to keep his reputation untarnished from accusations of illegal and negligent business practices. He suspects that personal vendettas and racism by the OLCC inspectors (and staff) are responsible.
The most recent OLCC memo follows a similar, unfounded complaint that an employee at King Liquors on New Year's Eve, 1999 sold alcohol to an underage woman after failing to ask for her identification. The OLCC dispatches inspectors to monitor taverns and state-run liquor stores. Two inspectors claimed that they were standing in King Liquor, directly behind an under-aged woman, when the exchange occurred. In fact, the woman was a regular 22-year-old customer. A few days later when Larry produced a videotape showing his employees inspecting customers' licenses, the accusation suddenly disappeared, leaving no traces in OLCC records.
"After all this stuff I've been through in this short period of time," he claimed, "oh yeah, it is because I'm black." Larry points his finger at the bureaucracy of the OLCC for allowing unchecked power trips by inspectors. With five Commissioners appointed by the Governor, the OLCC is an independent entity. In addition to handing out liquor licenses to bars, the OLCC controls the bevy of liquor stores throughout the state. Each individual store is managed by an agent who, in effect, straddles a definition between small, independent business owner and state employee.
The set-up of the OLCC allows the organization to be insulated from complaints by agents. When contesting an alleged violation, like the one Larry now faces, the agent must file his complaint with an administrative judge housed at the OLCC.
Since Larry took over King Liquor in 1997, when the store was failing, he has struggled with the OLCC. Before him, the previous agent was consistently in the red by about $10,000 each year. Under Larry's management, the store is tidy and business quickly picked up. Within six months, Larry doubled revenue.
But, in his first routine audit by the OLCC, Larry allegedly fell $11,000 short. He immediately appealed this finding. While the matter was grinding through the administrative court at the OLCC, Larry was forced to relinquish the allegedly missing money as a form of a bail bond.
Ultimately, the OLCC determined that employee practices and pricing methods left in place by the previous owner were consistently short-changing the store. The more business that Larry generated, the more money the business lost. That ruling, however, took ten months to reach. During that time, the OLCC held onto his $11,000.
"There was no Christmas that year for my daughters," he said.
Even before Larry was an agent for the OLCC and managed King Liquor, he believes that he was subjected to racism. Applications to be an agent are judged on income, financial ability, and previous retail experience. Two months before securing the agency at King Liquor, Larry had applied for an opening at the Burlingame Liquor Store; a quaint shop located a brief drive from Lewis & Clark College and the gingerbread homes of SE Portland. It is a predominantly white neighborhood. He was denied.
About two months later, though, Larry was awarded the agency with King Liquor, located along the commercially desolate MLK Blvd and in the predominantly black Albina neighborhood.
"I don't see how I gained so much experience in such a short period of time," Larry said, puzzling over the quick turnaround that rewarded him with King Liquor. Even if not arrant racism, the message Larry heard was that a black man is best suited to sell in a black neighborhood. "It was like, 'these stores are fer yew-all,'" said Larry, putting on a faux, southern accent.But racism is a slippery term, subjective in its perception and difficult to make stick. Ken Talkie, a spokesperson for OLCC, defended the organization by talking about the application process. Talkie explained that the OLCC advertises each agency opening in publications that target specific ethnic demographics, like the Scanner and Asian News.
Of the 253 agents throughout Oregon, only 3 are African-American. It is estimated that a minimum of $60,000 in viable assets is necessary to secure an agency. With average income in Oregon among African-Americans significantly trailing whites and Asians, the pool of qualified applications in the state is severely limited.
In response to the recent memo accusing Larry of blatant liquor law violations, Talkie hastens to point out that "it is a memo, not a legal action." This explanation, however, does little to placate Larry. He feels harassed by subtle bullying intended to drive him out of the liquor business.
"Someone that didn't have the survival instinct would be long gone," he said, frowning. "By all accounts, I shouldn't even be in business anymore," he concluded.