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ABC probe clears director

By Gregory Phillips
Staff writer

An independent lawyer hired by the Cumberland County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to investigate anonymous complaints against ABC Director Gene Webb found no wrongdoing.

The report from lawyer Lonnie Player Jr. determined the allegations were unfounded, board members said.

Webb said he has done nothing wrong and has an open door policy if any employees have concerns.

“They can come to me, they can come to my assistant, they can come to the supervisor,” Webb said. “If any of the allegations had been true, I’m sure they would have come to one of us. … There’s certainly no chance of reprisal. They had plenty of avenues to discuss anything.”

The county ABC system – comprising eight stores in Fayetteville and one each in Spring Lake and Hope Mills – has thrived under Webb’s leadership. Annual liquor sales in the county have climbed from $13.9 million when Webb took the helm eight years ago to $28 million so far this fiscal year. The system has contributed an average of $1.7 million a year into county coffers since Webb took over and employs about 75 people.

Last year, the board began receiving anonymous letters apparently written by one or more current or former employees. The letters alleged favoritism and mismanagement by Webb and contained allegations of beer being illegally sold out of one store with his knowledge.

Board Chairman Eddie Maynor said hiring Player cost about $5,000. “Basically, every complaint we had was unfounded,” Maynor said.

Neil Yarborough, the ABC Board’s lawyer, would not release the report to the public, citing personnel privacy laws.

“This is an internal personnel matter,” he said. “It is not unusual for a disenchanted employee to make anonymous complaints – that is a general observation.”

But Terri Thomas, who was appointed to the ABC Board last year, said employees fear reprisal if they speak out.

“I would love for the employees to have the opportunity to share a voice in a setting where the board can hear what they have to say without fear of losing their jobs,” she said.

County Commissioner Charles Evans, the county’s liaison to the ABC Board, said that he has visited ABC stores to introduce himself to employees.

“I do know there are a number of employees unhappy,” he said.

Yarborough said the state ABC Commission was fully informed of the allegations and subsequent investigation. Commission spokeswoman Agnes Stevens said Alcohol Law Enforcement was “in the loop.”

“Based on the information that we had,” Stevens said, “it looked like a local personnel matter that was handled appropriately.”

ABC Board member A. Johnson Chestnutt said he was satisfied that the investigation was thorough. He said he is satisfied with Webb’s leadership, too.

“I haven’t found where he was doing anything except following the board policy and procedures and doing exactly as instructed,” Chestnutt said.

Maynor said the board is hiring an employee to handle human resources. As a result of the investigation, Maynor said, cameras were installed at the ABC warehouse to record incoming shipments and ensure the quantities match what is checked in as inventory.

Maynor said Webb’s business acumen has saved the system thousands of dollars and that he’s been “exceptionally pleased” with Webb’s management.

“We are clean,” Maynor said. “That is something we’ve taken great pride in since the first time I came on the board. We are seen as a role (model) board across the state.”