Arthur Goldman and the PLCB: Rare Wines. Bad Law. Big Trouble.

Chester County lawyer ran afoul of the state’s liquor monopoly. Can you blame him?

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Let’s grant this: What Arthur Goldman (allegedly) did was dumb. It was, if proven, certainly illegal. And if convicted, he’ll likely pay a steep price for his sins.

But was it wrong?

Goldman, you’ll remember, is the Chester County attorney who this week found himself in the headlines after being accused of wine smuggling by that county’s district attorney. Apparently, Goldman bought lots of rare wine through unapproved channels — that is, without including state-owned liquor stores in the transaction, and then sold lots of rare wine through unapproved channels … that is, without including state-owned liquor stores in the transaction. Now he’s in big trouble.

The wines in question? Not technically illegal, except that they weren’t actually available through state-owned liquor stores.

And yet we get this press release from the Chester County prosecutor’s office, trembling with all the righteous outrage one imagines is possible to summon over a rare bottle of chablis, using his full middle name — Arthur David Goldman! — like he was a serial killer or something.

“This was a brazen violation of the law by someone who clearly knew better,” thundered First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone. “He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he continued to systematically break the law.”

Again: Goldman probably did know better. “How do I know you’re not an agent for the PLCB?” he reportedly asked the undercover agents who brought him down.

But again: Was he wrong?

To buy that idea, you may have to accept that Pennsylvania’s odd setup — where the state sells every bit of wine and spirits allowed inside its borders — makes sense. You may have to accept that, in our more-or-less free-market society, socialism of a very real sort is allowed when it comes to alcohol sales.

There are reasons for all of this, some of them better than others: I  get that legislators might want not to lose the revenue generated by alcohol sales; I’m less sympathetic to the idea that it’s the state’s mission to safeguard the apparently cushy jobs staffing liquor stores. In the end, though, the state’s decision to elbow aside the market and go into business for itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It makes even less sense to me now that it’s turning Goldman into a criminal. He faces up to $200,000 in fines for the array of misdemeanor charges brought against him — and as a lawyer friend of mine suggested, may face some professional sanctions as well if he’s found guilty of violating the law.

Certainly, it seems likely Goldman could’ve purchased his wine through legal means. But it would’ve been a huge pain. He would’ve had to have had the wine shipped to a state-owned liquor store. He would’ve had to pay that store a handling fee — on top of the hefty state and local taxes he already would’ve paid. (Eighteen percent for liquor, 6 percent for state sales tax, and 2 percent in Philadelphia for a city sales tax.)

Hey: Products are regulated and taxed all the time. You sell unstamped cigarettes out of a trunk, you’re probably going to get in trouble.

If the regulations and taxes on a product are so stringent, however, that they help create a black market for an otherwise-legal product — and that’s what happened here — then it’s likely those regulations and taxes are just a bit too burdensome to be considered, strictly speaking, fair.

Ever buy a bottle of, well, anything, in Delaware or New Jersey, then bring it home to Philly? If so, you know the experience was cheaper, more customer-friendly, better than the same experience here. But that also means you’ve violated the same laws that Arthur Goldman allegedly did.

That doesn’t make Goldman right. In fact, given his status as a lawyer, his apparent decision to flout the law on such a scale probably does make him wrong. In this case, though, the system itself creates a powerful temptation to sin. Arthur Goldman being wrong doesn’t make Pennsylvania’s liquor laws right — it just means that the state’s only liquor store can use police and prosecutors to put its competitors out of business.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

  • phillysportsfan

    I recently had the opportunity to go to a liquor store on Long Island. A small store in a strip mall, one third (or less) than the size of an average “Wine and Spirits” (state store) and was amazed that it had (at least) 5x the inventory. And of course lower prices.

  • Josh Heebner

    Joel, it’s amazing that you are clearly on both side of this argument – one day you’re anti-Corbett, the next you’re advocating that the state shouldn’t be in this business – “In the end, though, the state’s decision…doesn’t make a whole lot of sense”. Corbett tried to privatize this and eliminate ridiculous rules, allowing a more free market approach. This guy didn’t harm anyone except the state’s pockets – why should he be prosecuted? He’s only going to harm the state’s pockets further by being locked up.

    • Joel Mathis

      Josh: I don’t think Tom Corbett is a good governor, but I don’t think that makes me “on both sides of this argument.” On this argument, at least, I’m on the governor’s side. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and again; I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s me or the governor who qualifies as the blind squirrel in this example. :)

      • MystiKasT

        Please write an article about how blacks are destroying philadelphia.

        • Northeaster

          ^racist

          • MystiKasT

            How is that racist? Blacks have destroyed every city they have taken over. Detroit, camden, trenton, chester, etc.

          • Northeaster

            If you think that statement isn’t racist…you are a racist. Camden, Chester, Detroit and Trenton lost their industries and their jobs, that’s why they are destroyed.

          • MystiKasT

            Then tell me why everywhere blacks go turns to shit? Africa has been shit for thousands of years.

          • Northeaster

            Most of the world has been shit for thousands of years. Egypt, Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia…I advise you broaden the histories that you read. Northern Europe was the backwater for most of history.

    • MystiKasT

      I’m assuming you feel the same way about marijuana then, it is even more harmless than alcohol

      • Josh Heebner

        I DEFINITELY feel the same way about marijuana.
        Joel: Do I remember you writing an article on Corbett failing to privatize the PA lottery? I can’t find it. I think the issues are similar, though (state stores & the PA lottery).

        • Joel Mathis

          I don’t think I’ve written much about the lottery; it’s possible I did, but I don’t remember and can’t find it either. Sorry. I’m willing to cop to a possible inconsistency, but I don’t think I’ve written strongly on the lottery.

          • Josh Heebner

            Nah, don’t fall on a sword you don’t own. I couldn’t remember – maybe it was someone else. But maybe I’ve given you something to write about!?

  • MystiKasT

    Morally, no it is not wrong, just like selling marijuana is not wrong. They are both just ‘illegal’ because it puts the power and finances of the state in jeopardy.

  • RogerS

    Agreed PA liquor laws are ridiculous. So that makes it ok for this attorney Goldman? I think you finally get the point – yes wrong – congrats with wasting the type to get there. Disbar him and fine him for being stupid at the least.

    • Joel Mathis

      I think bad laws tend to undermine the legitimacy of a system over time, and thus do raise the question of whether violating them is necessarily “wrong.” I arrive at the same conclusion you do, but I think it’s a closer call.

  • CraftyConsumer

    PA Consumers are constantly getting screwed by this system and have been for years. In my 30-plus years as a local wine afficionado I have seen very little in the way of positive change in this archaic state-store system. Exorbitantly high prices, poor selection, impossible to get certain items via any means, quantity minimums for special orders, poor customer service – need I keep listing the issues? I am regularly forced to have wines shipped to an alternate address in another state in order to even get them or just try them, then bring them into PA via other means (legally, of course). I know of several area restaurants that use some very “creative” practices to have certain wines on their lists, yet noone from the PLCB seems too concerned about that issue. Instead, let’s go after one guy who found a loophole and tried to help out others in the same predicament and fine him heavily and put him in jail. Why not call in Martha Stewart now for a comment? Really, I can’t wait for my retirement so I can be rid of this whole convoluted system and enjoy the wines I want in the privacy of my own home, regardless of how I procure them – as long as I’m not stealing them from someone else’s wine cellar. Corbett has done absolutely nothing to improve this situation except blow smoke up the average consumer’s bums, since his Republican cronies would never allow their far-right leaning political base in most of the state (except possibly the Philadelphia area) to be offended by making some actual progress in this arena. Anyone who has ever checked out a liquor store in even NJ or the tiny state of Delaware just across the border probably had that “kid in a candy store” type of epiphany. Even though the prices and selection aren’t always the greatest, it’s still a MASSIVE improvement over PA!!

  • Denise Rambo

    I am not a big fan of wine – I generally go for the cheap, fruity stuff so when I found that I liked the wine my niece served at her wedding in North Carolina, I was happy to be able to add another wine to my, admittedly, very short list of wines I liked. Wouldn’t you know that it would turn out that you can’t get that kind of wine in Pennsylvania! The State Store system really never bothered me before – except for the prices – but now I don’t know who I’m more ticked at … the PLCB or my niece!