TABC taps new director to ‘restore confidence’ of the public, legislature

Adrian Bentley Nettles (TABC Photo)
Adrian Bentley Nettles (TABC Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After scandal and a barrage of high-level resignations, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission appointed a new executive director to help turn the embattled agency around. Lawyer and decorated military officer Adrian Bentley Nettles will take over in August.

The news came Tuesday evening from Kevin Lilly, recently appointed chair of the TABC.

“The goals are restoring the confidence of the public and the legislature,” Lilly told a crowd of mostly TABC staff.

The agency has been hit with controversy after controversy this year. On Monday, the acting head of the agency Ed Swedberg abruptly resigned because he didn’t want to fire Licensing Director Amy Harrison, the Texas Tribune reports. Harrison oversaw the creation of a controversial internal flier showing the heads of the agency partying on a plane while traveling to a liquor conference in California.

Swedberg was the latest in a handful of resignations after lawmakers grilled agency leaders in the spring for taking industry sponsored trips to lavish locations while misreporting public resources back in Texas. Swedberg took over after Sherry Cook resigned in April after the Texas Tribune discovered the flier promoting the trips.

That flier led to a hearing by the House Committee on General Investigations and Ethics. Lawmakers didn’t like what they heard. Then-TABC director Cook resigned after those lawmakers scolded her publicly for misusing state resources, giving herself questionable perks, and losing track of paperwork for two state-owned vehicles.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled large changes needed to be made and tapped Lilly to lead the Commission.

Lilly and the other remaining member of the Texas Alcoholic and Beverage Commission went into executive session Tuesday morning to interview six candidates for the position of executive director. Lilly announced they chose Nettles in a public meeting after the closed door session.

“We’re taking immediate action in response to the desires of the legislature,” Lilly told KXAN. The commission chose Nettles for several reasons: he’s a lawyer who can understand legal tasks and challenges, he’s used to running complex multi-national organizations and his military experience will relate to the law enforcement aspect of the agency.

“My message to the people and to the legislature is that — we heard you, we understand the concerns and we are acting swiftly and decisively to meet those ends,” said Lilly.

The commissioner says he will look to rebuild the trust of the people they regulate: bars, retailers and manufacturers. He expects more new hires in the coming weeks as the agency looks to get out from under lawmaker scrutiny.

Robert Saenz, executive chief of field operations, will serve as acting executive director until Nettles can take over in later in the summer. Julia Allen will act as general counsel until a permanent replacement can also be found. She replaces Emily Helm who was one of six high level employees to resign after lawmakers started asking questions.

Commissioners hope to work fast. According to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the “lack of leadership at the highest levels constitutes an imminent threat to public health and safety.”

Abbott spokesperson John Wittman told KXAN Tuesday afternoon, “Gov. Abbott believes that Chairman Lilly and the TABC are taking the right steps and putting the appropriate people in place to ensure the agency becomes a good steward of Texas taxpayer dollars.”

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