As election looms, state digs into sheriff’s link to vodka company
The Colorado Department of Revenue confirmed it is examining incumbent Pitkin County Sheriff DiSalvo’s association with Lift Vodka.
Incumbent Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and challenger Michael Buglione have plenty of campaign talking points, whether concerning the current jailhouse’s operations and if the facility should be replaced, their approach to law enforcement and other aspects of the job.
Typical sheriff’s race stuff, but only in Pitkin County will voters hear the state is investigating the sheriff’s stake in a vodka company under the majority ownership of Lance Armstrong and another Aspen resident.
The Colorado Department of Revenue confirmed it is examining DiSalvo’s association with Lift Vodka, which was founded by Armstrong and another Aspen partner.
“This is still an active investigation, so by policy we cannot comment,” said Suzanne Karrer, spokeswoman for the state’s revenue department, which has a liquor and tobacco enforcement division, in an email Friday.
Less clear is when the investigation began. Last week state officers contacted Lift Vodka’s administrative offices at the Aspen Business Center seeking company documents relating to DiSalvo, the sheriff said.
“Last Tuesday or Wednesday somebody called or came by the office and said they want the following documents on my involvements with the company,” he said.
The request, according to Lift Vodka general counsel Avery Nelson, was for an inspection of Lift’s financial records for a potential audit.
“All we’re doing right now is giving them a really general set of documents about the partnership, and certain bookkeeping records,” Nelson said. “I totally expect them to say ‘everything looks good here.’ We don’t have an answer yet, but the documentation has been provided.”
Nelson said the state’s request is not unusual but typically is made when a complaint is filed about the liquor license holder in question.
“This is the type of audit that doesn’t come up randomly,” she said. “If we wanted to know more, the only way would be to do a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) request, but I don’t think anybody wants to do that.”
DiSalvo’s involvement since 2020 with Lift Vodka shows his lack of commitment to the Sheriff’s Office, Buglione said. DiSalvo countered that his role as a minority owner borders on ceremonial, because he hasn’t invested any money in the Lift Vodka company and his 5% stake was given to him by Armstrong.
DiSalvo and Armstrong, who owns an Aspen home, are friends and golf buddies. DiSalvo said he owns a 5% stake in Lift Vodka that Armstrong gave him ahead of the company’s launch over Labor Day 2020. Armstrong’s gift was a show of appreciation for the sheriff’s ideas and advice about starting the company, DiSalvo said.
The sheriff said he is not involved in the company’s management or daily operations and has not received any compensation since the company started.
The state issued Lift Vodka a wholesale license for wines and spirits on Feb. 26, 2020, according to public records. The license identifies Aspen bartender Zack Neiditz as the manager and a member, and Armstrong as a member. DiSalvo’s name does not appear on the license. Lift does not have city or county liquor licenses.
“In order to be on a liquor license, you also have to be an owner,” Buglione said. “In order to be an owner, you also have to be on the liquor license. You can’t say ‘I’m part owner’ and not be on a liquor license. … Joe has in the past admitted that he is part owner, so that means he needs to be on the license.”
Under Colorado law, liquor licenses must disclose the company’s executives and managers and list all individuals or entities owning at least 10% of the company.
“Early on, the offer was made, and even the 5% was a handshake deal,” DiSalvo said. “There’s no paperwork.”
The sheriff added that “I am merely a person who was gifted 5%, and I don’t manage day-to-day or anything.”
Nelson said DiSalvo’s ownership has not been documented in company records but it will be.
“Our understanding of the Colorado liquor code is that Joe’s minority interest does not violate any provisions of the statute, specifically prohibition on peace officers holding certain types of licenses,” she said.
Still, if DiSalvo received the ownership as a gift then he should have reported his stake, Buglione said.
“Even giving him something is unethical,” Buglione said. “You can’t give the sheriff a bicycle. You can’t give them gifts unless they’re declared.”
DiSalvo said there is nothing to declare because he has not received any compensation from Lift Vodka.
“I collect no money until or if the business ever sells,” he said. “I will get 5% of the profit.”
Under the “Ethics in Government” article in the Colorado Constitution, public employees and officials are not allowed to accept gifts with a value of more than $59, a figure that is adjusted every four years. The prohibition does not apply when the gift is “given by an individual who is a relative or personal friend of the recipient on a special occasion.” DiSalvo said he is exempt from any ethics violations because Armstrong is his friend.
Certain positions in government authority also are prohibited from having a liquor license — auto industry investigators, the Department of Revenue’s executive director and senior director of enforcement, the state’s director of gaming, the state lottery investigator, the director of racing events and eight positions in the state’s attorney general office. The sheriff is not one of them.
Sheriffs, however, are precluded by state law from owning or operating a liquor establishment licensed in the same jurisdiction they are employed.
Lift Vodka has an office at the Aspen Airport Business Center, and “we don’t have paid employees,” said DiSalvo.
“The water is shipped from Aspen to Mira Loma, California, and that’s where it’s blended and it’s shipped back in bottles,” he said.
Lift Vodka is available in Colorado but not outside of the state, the sheriff said. It is most widely distributed in Aspen, he said.
As the county sheriff, DiSalvo has a responsibility to serve the public first, Buglione said. DiSalvo’s association with Lift Vodka illustrates his lack of commitment to county residents, he said.
“Our biggest problem in the country is alcohol abuse,” Buglione said. “Joe knows it, Joe saw it. … I’m going to be a full-time, hands-on sheriff. I’m not going to be dabbling in other businesses. My wife has a business. That’s hers. I’m not going to be interested in other businesses.”
Said DiSalvo: “I can understand that, but I don’t feel that way. It’s not my primary job. It’s not even an investment. … If I have mutual funds and they are in General Dynamics, does that make me a warmonger?”
One of DiSalvo’s most outspoken critics, former Aspen mayor and ex-county commissioner Mick Ireland has taken aim at the sheriff in a column he writes for the Aspen Daily News. Ireland, who as mayor in 2009 called for a Lance Armstrong Day in Aspen before the performance-enhancing drug scandal erupted, suggested in a June column that DiSalvo has asked businesses to sell Lift Vodka.
“Hawking vodka to businesses subject to your enforcement authority may or may not be legal under the convoluted state liquor code, but it has the look and feel of pulling someone over for speeding and being asked whether you want to buy some tickets to the police officers’ fundraiser,” Ireland wrote, adding that “DiSalvo thinks it’s OK to solicit sales of his Lift Vodka to local bars and restaurants. Joey is quoted in The Aspen Times as personally ‘schlepping’ cases of the vodka to local establishments.”
The Times feature article on Lift Vodka that Ireland cited was published in April. DiSalvo said if this were not campaign season, his ownership in Lift Vodka would not be an issue.
Election Day is Nov. 8.
Read our previous coverage on the sheriff election: