Three Boston Bars Cleared in Ongoing Pay-to-Play Scandal

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Three Boston bars tangled up in Massachusetts' seemingly unending pay-to-play scandal have been absolved of any wrongdoing. Sort of.

Lyons Group, Briar Group, and Glynn Hospitality Group, the corporate owners of the three bars in question, had previously admitted to accepting bribes from a prominent beer distributor in exchange for product placement. But, as reported by the Boston Globe, there is no proof those inducements were handed down from the corporate owners to the three specific bars charged. And investigators are unable to charge the restaurant groups themselves—which, again, admitted to taking bribes—because the restaurant groups don’t actually hold the liquor licenses belonging to the bars that were charged.

If you'll recall, Craft Brewers Guild, the distributor at the heart of the controversy, agreed to pay $2.6 million in lieu of a license suspension back in February, and offered $750,000 more to the feds nine months later for its role in the scandal.

WHY IT MATTERS
We won’t call this exoneration by technicality. That said, investigators are none too pleased that they’re basically being stymied by their own bureaucratic limitations.

Take it from a lawyer for the ABCC, who explained it to the Globe: “By the tenor and tone of the decisions, the commissioners seemed to express their displeasure that there was nothing they could do… The commission is constrained by the Legislature in that it can only regulate licensees.”

That’s why charges against Game On (owned by Lyons Group), Gather (Briar Group), and Coogan’s Bluff (Glynn Hospitality Group) were dropped. Another bar wasn’t so lucky. Jerry Remy’s was found to have violated the law because its corporate owner, Cronin Group, does, in fact, own the bar’s liquor license.

You follow all that? Good, because it doesn’t all revolve around licensing.

Although the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission pursued charges against Game On, owned by Lyons Group, for instance, “the checks from Craft Brewers Guild were made out to ‘Bank On It, Inc.,’ a marketing entity of the Lyons Group that had no employees or payroll,” per the Globe. That, according to investigators, made it difficult to definitively proving any wrongdoing.

“It is clear…that Bank On It and/or Lyons received $22,345 as bribes for dedicated tap lines in Lyons-managed restaurants,” the ABCC commissioners reportedly wrote. “However, this is inadequate to show that Game On, as opposed to one of Lyons’s other [licensed] establishments (if any of them), actually received any money from the arrangement.”

That, of course, only pertains to one of the three cases. Meanwhile, investigators are now debating pursuing other actions related to the legality of the corporate structure whereby the restaurant groups manage the bars they own. Lawyers for the groups have said the companies will cooperate with any further investigation, but added the ABCC should clarify its rules.

Which is all to say, we’ve now seen three bars absolved, another punished, a distributor fork over an unprecedented settlement, and even an entirely new distribution business emerge to combat the status quo. And it doesn’t seem like this story is set to conclude anytime soon.

—Dave Eisenberg

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Three Boston bars absolved in state ‘pay-to-play’ case [Boston Globe]