The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board launched an investigation yesterday into a report that a delicatessen in the fashionable Spring Valley neighborhood of Northwest Washington illegally sold liquor on credit to Vice President George Bush.
On Jan. 14, a week before his inauguration, Bush visited Wagshal's delicatessen and liquor store at 4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW and bought $77.72 in merchandise on credit, including bottles of Scotch whisky, rum and vodka and -- according to columnist Jack Anderson -- asked that the bill be sent to his new White House office.
The retail sale of bottled liquor on credit is a violation of the District's alcoholic beverage law, which was enacted by Congress in 1934, the year after Prohibition ended, and was reinforced by an amendment as recently as 1970 that specifically barred charging liquor on credit cards.
Despite the law, it is not uncommon for liquor store operators to grant credit informally to regular customers. But formal reports of violations are rare, according to James Boardley, staff director of the ABC Board, because retailers fear the potential punishment the suspension or revocation of their licenses.
Boardley said the investigation of the credit sale to Bush stemmed from an item in Anderson's nationally syndicated column, published Saturday in The Washington Post. Anderson reported that Bush used "the prerogative of a longtime customer" of Wagshal's in asking that he be sent a bill for the goods as he departed. The column did not point out that liquor sales on credit are illegal in the District.
Bush's press spokesman, Peter Teeley, confirmed that the vice president bought the liquor and other items on credit "but was unaware of any statute [making it illegal] in the District of Columbia." He declined to say whether Bush had made similar purchases in the past. The Wagshals, operators of the store, "are old friends of Bush's," Teeley added.
Benjamin Wagshal, owner of the store, was not available for comment. George Eghinis, manager of the store's delicatessen department, said in a telephone interview that Bush's bill was sent to his home, as it has been sent in the past, "for whatever he buys. We do it for another 3,000 people -- Mr. Bush is no different than any other customer."
When reminded that credit sales of liquor are illegal, Eghinis backed off. "I didn't say if he [Bush] charges liquor," he said.
The walls of the crowded store, located in a costly neighborhood near the Montgomery County line favored by Washington's political and economic elite, are lined with autographed pictures of politically notable customers, including former presidents Nixon and Ford, Sen. Barry Goldwater and the former chairman of the Senate District Committee, Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.). Prominent among the pictures is one of Bush when he was a member of the House in the late 1960s, inscribed "with admiration and respect and friendship."
Boardley said the ABC Board would assign an investigator to check the store's records to see if there was evidence that credit had been extended to Bush or others. If that is indicated, Boardley said Wagshal's could be cited to appear at a hearing to which witnesses could be summoned.
"It would be interesting," Boardley said, "to summon the vice president of the United States before the ABC Board."