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Spec’s

Spec’s sues TABC

Another lawsuit to watch.

The state’s largest liquor chain — Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods — is suing the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission for “abusive regulatory overreach” over an enforcement action that dragged on for almost two years before falling apart in administrative proceedings last year, court documents show.

The federal lawsuit, filed in Houston in late August but only recently unsealed, alleges that the TABC “wrongfully and maliciously” attempted to “extort” money from Spec’s by threatening to effectively shut the company down or by making the family-owned business fork over more than $700 million in civil penalties.

The TABC, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment.

In a stinging rebuke of the TABC last year, a pair of administrative law judges said the agency failed to prove dozens of allegations and chastised the agency for failing to disclose evidence to their own witness (and the court). The judges also called out the agency for “stacking” charges, a tactic commonly used to pressure defendants into a settlement. In the end, the judges recommended no fines be assessed against the liquor chain.

Now Spec’s is seeking an unspecified amount of money for damages that include lost profits, more than $1 million in attorneys fees and harm to its reputation. The lawsuit includes a request to impose exemplary, or punitive, damages — which are three times the amount of actual damages.

“Acting under color of law, [the TABC] threatened and pursued groundless allegations and enforcement actions,” the lawsuit says. “[The TABC] intentionally trumped up false claims in knowing violation of the law.”

The lawsuit also alleges the agency provided false testimony during the spring proceedings, which were the administrative equivalent of a trial.

The whole story is fascinating, and more than a little gross and enraging on the part of the TABC. Follow the links in the Trib story to see how all that went down last year. They’ve done a lot to clean up their operations, but stains like that don’t come out on their own. The TABC is in for a spanking from the legal system, and it’s one they have coming. The only question is how big the number will be.

Blue laws

Ever wanted to buy some booze on a Sunday? Maybe soon you’ll be able to.

Most Texans are familiar with the Blue Laws.

Put into effect decades ago, they prevent the sale of hard liquor on Sundays, among other things.

“There is certainly an inconvenience there, no doubt about it,” Spec’s Liquor Warehouse customer Bud Hall said.

And it’s inconvenient even for customers wanting to buy beer or wine. The same laws make it illegal to sell those items before noon on Sundays.

“If we are having a barbecue on a Sunday or something like that, and it is before noon, we have to sit there and wait,” Spec’s customer Scott Moody said.

Now, a bill filed in the Texas Legislature is looking to repeal those restrictions for good.

There’s no information given about said bill or its author in the story, so I’m not sure what its number is, or whether there may be more than one such bill. The closest thing I could find is HB863 by Rep. Robert Roland Gutierrez (D, San Antonio), which would allow for liquor sales on Sundays between noon and 6 PM; it doesn’t mention anything about beer or wine. That doesn’t quite fit the description in this story, but it’s all I could find.

But that’s not good news for Spec’s owner John Rydman.

“In the 2,500 or 2,600 package stores that there are all over the state of Texas are family people. We don’t want to necessarily work another day. It’s not good for my employees. They need a day off,” Rydman said.

It would also add more overhead to the store’s bottom line, Rydman said.

With the economic downturn, state lawmakers are looking for different ways to generate revenue. Selling booze on Sundays is just one of their ideas.

“I think this is a good source of revenue without having to increase taxes or cut valuable state programs,” District 143 State Rep. Ana Hernandez said.

Hernandez said Sunday liquor purchases could generate upwards of $5-8 million for the state.

Rydman disagrees.

He said his sales wouldn’t go up. Instead, he believes they’d just be spread out over seven days instead of six.

“Those who filed the bills are still convinced there is extra money somewhere. They just think we are crazy—that we people in business don’t know what we’re talking about,” Rydman said.

I support repealing the blue laws because I think they’re a relic of a bygone past that doesn’t really serve any purpose today. I think there would be a modest increase in state revenue from such a change; in context, five to eight million bucks is pretty modest and is probably in the neighborhood. It also likely would spread existing sales around more, but that sounds like a convenience customers have wanted. I appreciate Rydman’s concern about his employees and his bottom line, but I feel confident he can make it work. Spec’s notes that its hours of 10 AM to 9 PM Monday through Saturday are “The maximum allowed by law”, which suggests to me they’d do more – certainly that their customers would want them to do more – if they could. So whether it’s HB863 or some other bill I was unable to locate that’s the vehicle for this, I support the effort to extend the allowable hours for the sale of alcoholic beverages.

UPDATE: Roland Gutierrez, not Robert. My apologies.