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N.H. Liquor Stores Are At The Center Of Cross-Border Bootlegging Stings


New Hampshire may proudly have a libertarian streak, but the Live Free or Die state also boasts about its state-run liquor stores. Alcohol's a big revenue generator for the government - low prices in stores located near the state's borders draw in customers from across the region. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports, that convenience is also attracting modern-day bootleggers and prompts a wave of recent arrests.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Right around noon on November 9 of last year, a black Chevy Suburban pulled up to a New Hampshire liquor store. The driver was a guy named Juncheng Chen - 46 years old, from Queens, N.Y. Chen bought some booze, then headed off to another liquor store to make another purchase, then another, then another. In total, he bought liquor at six different New Hampshire stores that afternoon.

Chen didn't know it, but he was being watched. A criminal investigator with the New York State Department of Taxation was trailing him from store to store, and then southbound on the highway. When Chen crossed the border back into New York, he was pulled over with more than a thousand bottles of alcohol in his trunk, including more than 500 bottles of Hennessy cognac. He was arrested on felony charges for violating New York state law regarding importation of liquor. Mingli Chen - no relation - is his attorney.

MINGLI CHEN: He was buying the alcohol for personal use - for parties at home or parties somewhere.

BOOKMAN: Five-hundred bottles of Hennessy for personal use. Anyways, New York officials declined to answer questions, so it's hard to know how frequently they're conducting these types of stings. But what's clear is this. New Hampshire is a known source of cheap alcohol for bootleggers, who likely resell the product in other states. And law enforcement from other states are paying attention.

GARY KESSLER: From our perspective, this is an organized criminal activity.

BOOKMAN: Gary Kessler is Deputy Commissioner at the Vermont Department of Liquor Control. Court records show his agency is also staking out New Hampshire liquor store parking lots. When the customers cross back into Vermont, they're arrested for violating that state's liquor laws regarding importation. Defendants have been caught with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of booze in their vehicles.

KESSLER: Clearly, these guys aren't just randomly deciding that they're going to come up and buy some cases of alcohol.

BOOKMAN: These operations by other states are happening without the assistance of New Hampshire officials - officials who quickly point out that, A, these customers aren't violating any New Hampshire laws, and B, that the state-run liquor stores have always made attracting customers from other states a priority.

JOSEPH MOLLICA: Fifty percent of our business comes from cross-border sales.

BOOKMAN: This is New Hampshire Liquor Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica, speaking recently at the grand opening of a new state store.

MOLLICA: So contrary to what some people may feel, people coming to our outlets from cross-border and purchasing is extremely important to us.

BOOKMAN: These bootlegging stings come at an awkward time for the Liquor Commission. Earlier this year, New Hampshire politician Andru Volinsky called for an investigation into how the commission handles large, all-cash transactions. He says it may be violating federal financial laws. The IRS has also been questioning state employees about bootleggers in recent weeks.

Volinsky says the lack of communication between the states and the wave of recent arrests raises additional concerns.

ANDRU VOLINSKY: I think it's a sad state of affairs that we, as New Hampshire, are not setting an ethical example.

BOOKMAN: Ethics and booze, however, rarely go hand in hand. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISKEY N' RYE'S "BOOTLEGGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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