Bob Batt, a key figure in closing of Whiteclay beer stores, retires from Nebraska liquor commission

January 4, 2019

LINCOLN — A key figure in closing the notorious beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, Bob Batt has retired early from his post as chairman of the State Liquor Control Commission.

Batt, 70, a member of the family that founded Nebraska Furniture Mart, submitted his resignation letter on New Year’s Eve, about five months before his six-year term on the liquor board was set to expire. He served 11 years, overall, on the three-member board.

“My grandmother always taught me nothing is forever,” said Batt, of Omaha, referring to Rose Blumkin, a Russian immigrant who founded the famous, Omaha-based furniture store 82 years ago. “I’ve done it for a long time. It’s time.”

As chairman of the commission, Batt oversaw the historic vote in 2017 to deny liquor licenses for the four beer-only liquor stores in the unincorporated border village of Whiteclay. The beer stores sold the equivalent of about 3.5 million cans of beer a year, almost all to residents of the adjacent and officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, across the border in South Dakota. The beer stores took the brunt of the blame for the alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome and other liquor-related problems that are rampant on the impoverished reservation.

[Read more: Dry for a year, Whiteclay has cleaned up. But some alcohol problems have moved elsewhere ]

The liquor board took two steps that led to the closings. One was ordering a review of the beer stores’ liquor licenses over whether law enforcement was adequate in Whiteclay — a village with no local police force — to allow liquor sales. The commission ultimately voted 3-0 that law enforcement was inadequate, which led to the closings of the stores in April 2017.

The commission also ordered audits of the four stores to determine whether they were accurately reporting their sales and paying the proper state sales and income taxes. The suspicion, Batt said, was that many sales went unrecorded to bootleggers, who resold the beer on the reservation.

The Nebraska Department of Revenue, following an investigation, alleged the four stores had failed to pay nearly $700,000 in taxes over several years. The case was settled out of court in November. The terms of the settlement were not revealed.

One of the beer store owners declined to comment about Batt on Thursday. But in the past, the owners have maintained that they operated legal businesses that complied with all laws and that law enforcement in Whiteclay was not unlike the law enforcement provided in many rural towns.

Former Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who introduced Batt to Whiteclay during a tour in 2009, said that Batt “worked as hard as any liquor commissioner” he ever met.

“Bob was always really dedicated to his job,” said Bruning, who now heads a law and lobbying firm. “He had a commitment to public service.”

Batt, who said he made an unannounced visit to Whiteclay in 2010, said he hated the poverty and despair he witnessed at the so-called “Skid Row of the Plains” and on the adjacent reservation. Children, he said, “are in trouble as soon as they are born” on the Pine Ridge Reservation due to the alcohol-related problems there.

[Read more: Vodka the new liquor of choice in Whiteclay area as tribe cracks down on bootlegging ]

He said that closing the beer stores was only “one step” in a multistep process to end the hopelessness there.

“I don’t consider (closing down) Whiteclay a success. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, they still have the same problems with massive alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome, and teen suicides,” Batt said. “Until they reform their activities on the reservation, I wouldn’t consider any victories in that area ... people are still born (there) without a chance.”

The former vice president of the Nebraska Furniture Mart said he is not retiring from all civic activities. He will remain a member of the national board of trustees of Boys Town, continuing an Omaha tradition of Jewish support for the Catholic nonprofit.

Gov. Pete Ricketts will appoint a replacement for Batt to represent Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

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