Booze, smokes on agenda for government group

Associated Press file photo by Charles DharapakDr. Abdul Mabud, director of the scientific services division of the U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, holds up a bottle of snake liquor from east Asia in April at a laboratory in Beltsville, Md. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business, is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washingtons current zeal for cost-cutting. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by Charles DharapakDr. Abdul Mabud, director of the scientific services division of the U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, holds up a bottle of snake liquor from east Asia in April at a laboratory in Beltsville, Md. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business, is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washingtons current zeal for cost-cutting.

Deep in a secure laboratory just outside Washington sits the federal government’s heaviest smoker.

It is a half-ton hulk of a machine, all brushed aluminum and gasping smoke holes, like a retrofit of equipment used on an Industrial Revolution production line. It can smoke 20 cigarettes at once and conclude which are unsafe because they are counterfeit and which are unsafe merely because they are cigarettes.

Down the hall, a chemist tests shiny flecks from a bottle of Goldschlager, the spicy cinnamon schnapps, to make sure they’re real gold. A government agent was sent out to stores to buy it and hundreds of other alcoholic drinks randomly chosen for analysis.

Back at headquarters in downtown Washington, a staffer prepares for a meeting of the Tequila Working Group — a committee created to mollify Mexico and keep bulk tequila flowing north across the border.

These are the proud scientists, rule-makers and trade ambassadors of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, one of the federal government’s least-known and most peculiar corners.

The bureau, known as TTB, collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business — from approving beer can labels to deciding how much air a gin bottle can contain between lid and liquor.

It decides which valleys in Oregon and California can slap their names on wine labels, what grapes can go into wine and which new alcoholic drinks are safe to import.

The bureau is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washington’s current zeal for cost-cutting. Obama administration officials weighed eliminating it during the fiscal stalemate of 2011, according to news reports at the time. Its officials were called to the White House budget office to justify their existence — or risk having their duties split between the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration.

The White House ultimately left the bureau’s $100 million budget in place for this year — perhaps because it spends far less money to collect each tax dollar than its counterpart, the IRS. But officials there remain hyper-aware of their vulnerability as Republicans and Democrats look to squeeze savings from unlikely places.

If they look closely, the belt-tighteners will discover an agency whose responsibilities often appear to conflict — a regulator that protects its industry from rules it deems unfair, a tax collector that sometimes cuts its companies a break.

Some of its decisions are open to negotiation. A tequila-like liquor with a scorpion floating in it made scientists balk until the producer convinced them that the scorpions are farm-raised and non-toxic.

In other words, this may be the only federal agency that responds favorably to receiving scorpion candy in the mail — an edible tool for persuading scientists that the arthropods were fit for human consumption.

If labs, rules and taxes weren’t enough for the bureau’s 500-odd employees, they also have law enforcement authority. TTB investigators can send people to jail for things like removing alcohol from the production line and reselling it before it has been taxed by authorities.

With all these responsibilities, it’s no surprise the agency’s priorities sometimes clash. The bureau gives companies a wide berth on some rules and taxes, officials and experts say, mainly because of its small size and history of collaborating with business. It has granted millions in tax givebacks because of concerns that companies will sue and tie up government resources.

“Because we’re regulated by such a friendly agency, and because enforcement isn’t huge, there’s a level of non-compliance that’s sort of acceptable,” says Rachel Dumas Rey, president of Compli, a California company that helps wineries comply with Treasury policy.

Agency officials say they use scant resources where they can make the most difference, generally on the biggest producers or companies where there is an indication of wrongdoing.

Yet last July, the bureau slashed a tax bill for the multinational agribusiness conglomerate Cargill from $839,370 to $63,000. Cargill failed to report or pay taxes on about 23,000 gallons of nearly pure industrial alcohol that leaked from a rail car, violating several U.S. laws, according to documents on the bureau’s website.

Since 2010, under similar deals with alcohol and tobacco companies, the agency has forgiven more than $25.4 million; the total amount is unclear because some public documents do not list the size of the tax bill or penalty that is being reduced. Nine companies persuaded the agency to slash their bills by more than 95 percent, including Procter & Gamble’s Olay subsidiary, which uses alcohol in its skin care products.

Tom Hogue, a spokesman for the bureau and former explosives inspector, says it only agrees to reduce companies’ tax bills “if we are satisfied that the (remaining) penalty is commensurate with the violation and is sufficient to deter future illegal conduct.” In cases where settlements are granted, Hogue says, “they allow us to use our resources to counter non-compliance, instead of tying them up in court.”

When the alcohol and tobacco bureau was split from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, it held on to the former agency’s tax collection duties, including for firearms and ammunition. It’s still the government’s third-biggest revenue collector, after the IRS and Customs and Border Protection. It took in $23.5 billion in federal taxes on alcohol, tobacco, weapons and ammo in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, the most recent data available. That amounts to $468 for every dollar the agency spent collecting taxes — more than twice the IRS’ ratio, officials note.

The bureau also works with government trade officials to protect and expand international markets for American alcohol and tobacco. Its expertise is crucial in negotiating with Europeans about wine labeling, or standing up to countries that refuse to recognize American “straight bourbon” for what the government says it is: corn whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for at least two years.

In this role, the agency has come to the rescue over the years of whiskey lovers in China, Colombia and Brazil. Those countries’ governments tried to ban booze containing too much fusel alcohol, the pungent byproduct of fermentation that gives some whiskey its spicy, solvent-like aroma. Working through international trade groups, armed with data from TTB scientists, U.S. officials spent years convincing them to reverse their policies and allow the importation of whiskey that meets American standards. That was a win for American alcohol producers.

Sometimes, to protect U.S. producers, the bureau erects trade barriers of its own. Under a proposal by the bureau last spring, anything labeled Pisco must have originated in Chile and Peru. (Pisco is a South American grape brandy whose signature cocktail, the Pisco Sour, is so celebrated that it has its own official Peruvian holiday.)

Aspiring Pisco producers in Bolivia, in the U.S. government’s eyes, can take a hike.

This is no accident: It’s the result of a trade agreement that compels Chile and Peru, in exchange for the Pisco rule, to make sure any bourbon sold there is from the U.S. and meets this country’s standards.