YOUR MONEY: Speakeasy Spectacular

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Every bottle of liquor you open originates at the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division warehouse in Ankeny.  You could say it's got the makings for a big party.

"We are the sole wholesaler of spirits in the state of Iowa," explains Tonya Dusold, the Communications Director for the IABD.

In addition to distributing alcohol, the IABD regulates it, serves as a licensing body and promotes social responsibility.

"We like to say Captain Morgan and Captain Crunch are not the same," says Dusold.

IABD Administrator, Stephen Larson echoes the sentiment, “You have to have a way to regulate a drug.”

Iowa belongs to three organizations that help the division regulate alcohol.  The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association is one of them.  It's a non-profit with revenues of nearly $9-million-dollars in 2010.  According to its latest tax forms, NABCA's mission is to promote ethical practices relative to the control, regulation, purchase, storage, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol.

iabd"The value any association provides is the ability for us to have the opportunity to network and also to learn best practices and ultimately determine what the emerging issues are in the alcohol industry," says Larson.

The IABD pays NABCA $2,000 a year in dues.  It also pays to attend the NABCA's annual conference.  This year, it was held at the Biltmore, a luxury resort in Phoenix.

Larson says the conference covers a whole range of topics within the alcohol world.  In a letter last March, Larson explained in detail the "necessity" of sending eight IABD employees to the conference.  Ten IABD employees ended up attending the conference.  That's nearly a third of IABD'S administrative and regulatory staff.  NABCA paid for five of them.  You paid for the rest.

We asked Larson why sending five employees wasn't adequate.

"There are just so many moving parts that sharing knowledge with four or five individuals to other individuals here, who I’ve empowered to provide value, and be a part of that decision-making process, basically would filter the ability to share knowledge with them and to provide value.”

The airfare, lodging, conference fees and poolside lunches at the Biltmore's Cabana Club cost taxpayers nearly $10,500.

Larson is adamant it was not a party.  He says the conference is all business.  And he should know - he serves on NABCA's Board of Directors.

The agenda for the five-day conference does lists a number of seminars, which are followed by banquets like the "Speakeasy Spectacular."

Regulating alcohol isn't easy, neither is deciding who should stay and who should go when it comes to NABCA's annual conference.

"I feel strongly, we need to have our employees engaged and it should not be limited, but to be reasonable, but at the same time it's a judgement call."

Read the statement from the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Commission:

The NABCA is a respected institution among liquor control states like Iowa. The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division’s staff spends most of their time crisscrossing the state to educate liquor licensees and enforce Iowa’s liquor control laws.

In order for them to stay up to date on best practices and also share their knowledge with colleagues in other states, the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages staff sometimes travels to out of state conferences. Every effort is made to insure that everyone in attendance has a valid reason for being there and that all staff behave as representatives of the State of Iowa.

As the chair of the Alcohol Beverages Commission, I stand behind Steve Larson and his staff and trust them to make good decisions on behalf of the division. They have my full support.

Claire Celsi

Chair, Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Commission