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Trone Fires Back After Leventhal Accuses Businessman of Pay-For-Play Politics

Comments appear to be initial volleys in what is shaping up to be a hotly contested 2018 race for county executive


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David Trone, left, and George Leventhal, right

Bethesda Beat file photos

County Council member George Leventhal on Tuesday took aim at a possible opponent in the 2018 race for county executive—Total Wine & More co-founder David Trone—charging that the Potomac businessman’s political contributions in a state where his company operates amount to pay-for-play politics.

Trone didn’t take the comments lightly.

“George is running for office and everybody knows George is a fool, F-O-O-L, and a bully,” Trone said Wednesday. “Reckless and inaccurate comments from a career politician is why voters overwhelmingly passed term limits and George lost his job.”

Leventhal countered by comparing Trone to President Donald Trump. “He appears not to like to be held accountable for his record and he lashes out at his critics,” Leventhal said. "It would appear like President Trump is his role model.”

Trone and Leventhal are both Democrats who could square off in a June 2018 primary contest for county executive. Leventhal has announced that he is running while Trone told Bethesda Beat earlier this month that he “is focused very heavily right now” on exploring a race for county executive in 2018. He has also begun polling residents on questions concerning the race. Trone ran unsuccessfully in the District 8 Democratic Congressional primary last year—a race in which he spent about $13 million self-funding his campaign.

Leventhal brought up pay-for-play politics in the liquor business while questioning Robert Dorfman, the incoming director of the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC), with other council members during a public meeting Tuesday. He then mentioned David and Robert Trone—the brothers who own the Total Wine chain of liquor stores.

“We certainly have a recent case study in Wisconsin where the Trone brothers made enormous political contributions in order to get access to the Wisconsin market for their product,” Leventhal said. “They’re indicative of just one trend in the industry of paying off politicians to get what they want. The Trones have done that over a long period of time.”

Leventhal said Wednesday his comments refer to political contributions that the Trone brothers made to Wisconsin politicians during the fall of 2016, and said he mentioned those contributions in the context of the conversation about the liquor business.

In November, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Robert Trone donated $28,000 to GOP lawmakers and political funds geared toward helping Republicans in the state keep control of the state’s senate and assembly. David Trone contributed $5,000 to the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee.

The newspaper reported Total Wine was planning to open its first store in Wisconsin shortly after the election and was involved in a dispute with local officials over a liquor license for the location. That store opened Nov. 10 in Brookfield, joining the more than 140 other Total Wine stores in 20 states. Total Wine, which is based in Bethesda, is the largest U.S. independent retailer of wine with about $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

When reached for comment Wednesday, David Trone denied those donations had anything to do with the company’s operations in the state.

“Total Wine has opened in Milwaukee and three more have been approved all by local councils and mayors who have welcomed us to the state of Wisconsin because they support competition for the benefit of the consumer,” Trone said. “No one in our company has contributed a dime to these local politicians who voted on the approvals of our licenses.”

The Trones have a long history of donating to political candidates from both parties, and David Trone is known as a large fundraiser for Democrats. In 2015, he hosted President Barack Obama at his Potomac home for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

In January 2016, Trone was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “I sign my checks to buy access,” in response to questions about $150,000 he donated to Republicans in the country. The paper reported most of his contributions went to candidates and officeholders in states where he sought regulatory changes for his company. Trone maintains that the Post misquoted him.

David and Robert Trone have contributed $6,000 each to Maryland Del. Charles Barkley (D-Germantown) in the past six months. Barkley, a Democrat, is chair of the alcoholic beverages subcommittee in the House of Delegates and is also the sponsor of legislation under consideration in this year’s General Assembly session that would enable Total Wine to open a store in Montgomery County.

Trone said he and his brother make donations to elected officials whom they believe have an interest in furthering “the common good” and who support economic initiatives that benefit the consumer.

“Del. Barkley is one of those,” Trone said. “Even with the legislation he’s sponsoring, we have no interest and will not pursue a store in Montgomery County because all wine, beer and spirits have to be purchased through the monopolistic county dispensary, which makes it impossible to compete effectively.”

Retail Services and Systems Inc., a company run by David Trone, agreed to pay $60,000 in September under a settlement with the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor, which had cited the company for making more than $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions to political candidates between 2011 and 2014. A Trone attorney told The Washington Post at the time that the company admitted no wrongdoing. The company also agreed to contribute $90,000 to the Maryland Fair Campaign Financing Fund as part of the settlement with the state prosecutor.

Trone contended the donations from his company, himself and his brother have been part of a long-term effort to repeal liquor laws passed in the 1930s and bring them “in line” with today’s market. For example, he said the company is pursuing a state law change in Wisconsin that would allow a Class B alcohol license to sell more than four liters of liquor per transaction. He said the law wasn’t being enforced in Wisconsin, but the company discovered it as part of its research before opening stores in the state.

“We’re seeking to clean up the code so it matches reality,” Trone said.

Leventhal, before mentioning the Trones, also discussed Tuesday the scandal that broke this month in Prince George’s County in which two liquor board commissioners and others were arrested. They are accused of paying bribes to influence state legislation to receive favorable regulatory decisions. A Prince George’s County state delegate, Michael Vaughn, resigned this month in the wake of the scandal.

Leventhal described the private liquor business as “not a clean business.”

Dorfman responded during Tuesday’s discussion that the business varies by state and jurisdiction.

“It’s probably not as clean as a business as you might want it to be,” Dorfman said.

On Wednesday, Leventhal said preventing corruption is one advantage of having the county control the local liquor business through the DLC, which has a monopoly on the wholesale distribution and retail sale of liquor in the county. Some county officials and local business owners have argued that the department should be privatized.

Leventhal, who must leave office at the end of his term because of a term-limit ballot measure approved by voters in November, has set up a fundraising campaign for county executive through the county’s new public financing system.

The council member said potential conflicts that could arise because of the acceptance of campaign donations were a primary reason he decided to participate in public financing for his latest campaign.

“That’s precisely why I’m so delighted to participate in the public finance system,” Leventhal said. “That option wasn’t available to me previously, but I believe it will take the influence of big money out of politics.”

In previous election cycles Leventhal has accepted campaign contributions from a variety of donors including individuals, developers and legal firms, according to Maryland State Board of Elections data.

He said despite these donations, he’s never allowed any contributor “to buy access.”

Leventhal and Trone are among a number of candidates who are eyeing the county executive race. Council member Marc Elrich said in November he is likely to run for county executive. Other candidates who may run include council President Roger Berliner and member Craig Rice, state Del. Ben Kramer (D-Wheaton) and state Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Kensington). Berliner and Elrich are both subject to term limits and can’t run again for their council seats.

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