Suburban hospital, Pennsylvania prosecutors spar over fate of 1,400 bottles of seized wine

Health Care Associated Press

A dispute between state prosecutors and a suburban hospital over the fate of nearly 1,400 bottles of confiscated wine will play out in a southeastern Pennsylvania courtroom Thursday, as a county judge decides whether the contraband ends up going down the hatch or down a drain.

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Chester County Hospital wants the judge to give it the wine seized two years ago during a state police investigation into a Paoli lawyer, Arthur Goldman, accused of skirting Pennsylvania's liquor laws by selling wine from his home.

Goldman is now in a program designed for nonviolent first-time offenders. He struck a deal Aug. 18 with the attorney general's office that let him and his wife, lawyer Melissa Kurtzman, keep 1,047 bottles, which they have since chosen and collected.

Two days later, the nonprofit hospital in West Chester asked the court for possession of the remaining bottles, citing a 1935 provision of the state Liquor Code that permits judges to give seized booze to a hospital "for its use."

The hospital would likely auction the bottles as a fundraiser, according to court records.

A prosecutor for the state attorney general's office disputed a claim by the hospital's lawyers that state liquor law would allow the hospital to sell it.

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In a brief filed Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Danielle Graham said "use" in that case can only mean medicinal use, a throwback to a time when alcohol could be part of a doctor's treatment.

"However, medicinal use of alcoholic beverage is quite likely inconsistent with any current and acceptable standard of medical care, essentially leaving the court a single choice: to reaffirm its order to destroy the wine," Graham wrote.

The top lawyer for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board warned state prosecutors that destroying the wine would be pointless and wasteful, and she urged them to let the hospital have it.

"Ultimately, the needless destruction of this wine will not serve any meaningful purpose," the board's chief counsel, Faith Smith Diehl, wrote to Attorney General Kathleen Kane late last year. "The defendant is unable to reap the benefit of his unlawful activity even if the wine is donated rather than destroyed."

The attorney general's office has taken the position that Chester County Hospital waited too long to inject itself into the matter. Prosecutors also worried that it would set a bad precedent.

The hospital's lawyer, Dawson Muth, did not return several messages seeking comment.

It is not clear whether the wine is still good to drink.

Prosecutors are concerned that state police did not properly store the wine. The hospital said it would take the free wine "as is," but Graham said the state could still find itself with civil liability if the wine turns out to be unfit for consumption.

State police made undercover purchases from Goldman after learning he may be selling it illegally out of his home in Malvern, said Chester County prosecutor Michael Noone. Goldman gave the troopers a 97-page list.

"When the undercover state troopers were there, he basically said anything in his collection is available for sale, which is not permitted," Noone said.

The value of the full collection of 2,500 bottles was estimated by prosecutors to be more than $150,000.

Goldman, 51, was charged more than two years ago with 15 counts of liquor-related violations and last summer was admitted into the accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, often referred to as ARD. He has paid about $1,300 in fees and other court costs. Neither he nor his lawyer returned messages seeking comment.

Kane spokesman Jeff Johnson said Wednesday the attorney general's office agreed to let Goldman and Kurtzman keep some of the wine "after both parties weighed their options and considered the time and resources it would take to continue litigating the case."

Pennsylvania's prohibition-era system of state-owned liquor and wine stores has long been a target for critics, who say the state should not be in the alcohol business and that private businesses would do a better job.

A Republican-backed proposal to sell it off is on the table as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who instead favors modernization of the existing system, seeks an end to the state's 2-month-old budget stalemate.