Union President Takes Issue With Local Delegate’s Acceptance of Campaign Donations from Total Wine & More Owners

Compares donations received by Del. Charlie Barkley to bribes allegedly taken by Prince George’s County officials


Published:

Gino Renne, left, and Del. Charles Barkley, right

via MCGEO website and state of Maryland

In a letter sent to local elected officials, UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne says state Del. Charlie Barkley’s (D-Germantown) acceptance of campaign contributions from the co-owners of Total Wine & More is no different than the alleged acceptance of bribes by Prince George’s County officials facing corruption charges.

Renne sent the letter Feb. 2 to the Montgomery County state delegation and County Council. He notes Barkley, who chairs the House of Delegates’ Alcohol Subcommittee, accepted a total of $6,000 each from David and Robert Trone in the past six months, as well as another $3,000 from a Total Wine & More subsidiary.

At the same time, Barkley has sponsored state legislation that would allow Total Wine & More to open a store in the county. The company, which is headquartered in Bethesda, is the largest family-owned retailer for fine wine and beer and has 149 stores in 20 states, including two in Maryland.

Renne’s comparison to Prince George’s County officials was related to an ongoing bribery scandal that led last month to the arrest of the director of that county’s liquor board as well as a board commissioner and two local business owners.

Barkley responded Wednesday to Renne’s allegations by describing the letter as “nasty.”

“He comes across as a bully,” Barkley said. “I think the letter was an attempt to bully the delegation into not voting for the bill.”

The proposed legislation, if approved by the General Assembly, would create a local loophole that would allow a Class A alcohol license holder in Maryland to get a second Class A license in the county. The legislation is colloquially referred to as the “Total Wine bill” because it would enable David and Robert Trone to obtain a second liquor license for a store, but it would also allow other  business owners to apply for a second license for a new store in the county.

The Trone brothers have already hit the state license maximum, since one holds the permit for a Towson store and the other for a Laurel location.

In an interview Wednesday, Renne said he sent the letter because he believes Total Wine is the “Wal-Mart” of the liquor industry and its entrance into the local market would threaten union members’ jobs as well as the business prospects of mom-and-pop-owned beer and wine stores in the county. The union represents about 7,000 county employees, including 350 workers at the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC), which controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol and retail sale of all liquor in the county.

When asked in late January about donations made to Barkley, David Trone told Bethesda Beat that he and his brother donate to elected officials whom they believe support economic initiatives that benefit the consumer. He also said that Total Wine wasn’t interested in opening a store in the county because of the monopoly protections enjoyed by the DLC.

Edward Cooper, Total Wine’s vice president of public affairs, said Wednesday the legislation would allow small retailers the opportunity to grow their businesses.

“This is an economic development bill—not a Total Wine & More bill,” Cooper said in an email. “The argument that smaller retailers cannot successfully operate around our stores is without merit.”

Cooper said 87 liquor stores operate within 5 miles of the company’s Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County stores.

The Montgomery County delegation approved the bill with a 16-5 vote Friday, sending the legislation to the House Economic Matters Committee and the county’s state Senate delegation for consideration. In past years, the General Assembly has failed to pass similar legislation affecting the entire state. Montgomery County legislators are now pursuing the measure as a local bill that would only impact the county’s alcohol regulations.

In his letter, Renne compares Barkley’s support of the bill to “pay-for-play” politics and references David Trone’s comments to Bethesda Beat about donating to elected officials who support economic initiatives that benefit the consumer.

“What he really meant was his interests and economic initiatives. And now we have this bill,” Renne said.

“In Prince George’s County, we’ve seen public corruption at its finest,” Renne wrote. “A lawmaker has been forced to resign and most of the members of the county’s liquor board face federal corruption charges after accepting bribes to move favorable legislation forward in the legislature. Honestly I don’t see much difference between Del. Barkley’s situation and the Prince George’s County delegate’s. Do you?”

Barkley responded Wednesday by saying it was legal for him to accept the campaign donations and that he believes the bill will help local businesses as well as the DLC. He said if a business owner decided to open another store in the county after the bill passed, the owner would still be required to purchase alcohol from the DLC.

He also said he is not influenced by campaign contributions and is accessible to donors and nondonors alike.

“I’m open to everyone,” Barkley said.

Del. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery Village), the chair of the Montgomery County delegation, also took issue with Renne’s comparison.

“The delegate who is the bill sponsor was operating clearly within the law, then to question his integrity is surprising, especially comparing him to Prince George’s County officials,” Robinson said Tuesday. “MCGEO is a great union, they work hard for working families … but it’s hard for me to tolerate the questioning of any members of the delegation’s integrity when they’re acting perfectly legally.”

He said delegates receive campaign contributions from a wide range of donors each year, including from MCGEO, and that he doesn’t believe “letters like this are particularly helpful” if the union wants to get support from members of the delegation.

In 2016, MCGEO contributed about $24,000 to elected officials in the state, according to Maryland campaign finance records. On Wednesday, Renne said he never asks elected officials to support any legislation specific to the union.

“When we give a donation to a candidate, that donation does not entitle us to any favorable treatment for our union,” Renne said. “What it is, is the union saying that we share your values and principles in regards to working families, in regards to economic and social justice.”

He said the union and other labor groups are “sick and tired of corporate Democrats” who receive a large percentage of their campaign donations from businesses. He said Barkley, as chair of the alcohol subcommittee, should consider refusing to take donations from liquor interests.

“I believe that if you’re a chairman of a committee that oversees the sale and distribution of liquor throughout the state of Maryland, then you might want to be cognizant of where your campaign funds come from to not allow at least the appearance that you’re in a pay-to-play relationship with your donors,” Renne said.

Barkley said it’s common for chairs of committees to receive campaign donations from parties who have interests or legislation before the committees.

“I talked to the ethics advisor,” Barkley said. “I did nothing wrong. I’d like to put this issue behind me.”

Letter from Gino Renne to Montgomery County elected officials by AJ Metcalf on Scribd

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted there were 17 other Class A license holders within 5 miles of Total Wine stores in Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties. In fact, there are 17 stores within 5 miles of the Anne Arundel location and 70 stores within 5 miles of the Baltimore County location, according to Total Wine. The story has been updated.

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