Conflicts of interest blow up Liquor Board meeting

Update: The Department of Commerce and Investment, which assumed responsibility for liquor licensing on July 1, is reviewing the legal and operational structure of the Liquor Licensing Board. 

“We are aware of unresolved issues, such as allegations of conflict of interest, and have formed a review committee in order to recommend improvements’, said department Director Ryan Rajkumarsingh. 

Although the committee’s existence was apparently not known about by many in the local liquor business, Mr. Rajkumarsingh said the review committee has met twice since its formation on Aug. 28. The committee apparently includes representatives from prominent law firms, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, local businesses and government. 

Over the next few months, the group will review the moratorium on liquor licenses, give guidance on how to address conflicts between liquor license activities and neighboring entities, such as schools and churches and suggest an efficient mechanism to renew licenses administratively, without board input. 

Initial story: Long-simmering tensions between Grand Cayman’s Liquor Licensing Board and some of its licensees boiled over Thursday, as the majority of the board walked out during its annual general meeting, with three of five members, including board chairman Mitchell Welds citing conflicts of interest. 

On the board’s agenda were applications by multiple liquor stores in George Town to extend their operating hours from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Generally, the board only allows liquor stores in the other four districts of Grand Cayman to stay open that late. 

Board member Neil Bryington, a restaurateur, announced that he was recusing himself from considering those agenda items because he is the liquor license holder for one of the applicants, Premier Wine & Spirits on West Bay Road. 

After Mr. Bryington left, Mr. Welds also recused himself, saying he had fielded allegations that he has a conflict of interest because he has a relative who has a liquor store that is allowed to operate until 10 p.m. 

Mr. Welds’ mother, Ena, owns Joe Ena’s Liquor Store on Church Street in West Bay. 

After that, board member Tammy Welds also recused herself, saying she is a also a relative of a license holder. 

With only deputy chairman Noel Williams and member Bernice Richards left, the board did not have a quorum and was unable to consider the applications. 

Mr. Williams said the board had received a “real eye-opener” of a letter from someone who detailed potential prejudices by board members against certain entities. 

Saying he doesn’t even drink alcohol, Mr. Williams said, “I would not have accepted my position on the board if I had conflicts of interest.” 

He apologized to applicants for the developments. 

The Caymanian Compass obtained a copy of correspondence between Prentice Panton of Liquor 4 Less and Mr. Welds. 

In an email sent Monday, Mr. Panton alleged the board has been prejudiced against his many applications to extend the operating hours of his liquor stores and lately, his Papa Jack Mobile Bar Service. 

Mr. Panton said the board’s decisions were affected by Mr. Weld’s connection with Joe Ena’s and also because his son, Simon, owns a mobile bar service, adding that he was confident that the board’s decisions could be successfully challenged in court. 

While acknowledging his familial relationship with license holders, Mr. Welds denied Mr. Panton’s allegations. 

“You must appreciate that given the size of the Cayman Islands, it is very difficult for some members of various boards to not have a conflict of interest with some applications. What is important is that members of boards declare their interest in any application and recuse themselves from the proceedings,” Mr. Welds wrote in an email Tuesday. 

He said we would comment further on the matter during Thursday’s meeting. 

The 10 applications to stay open until 10 p.m. were from Mr. Panton, Robert Hamaty of Tortuga Rum Company, Joanne Rutty of Big Daddy’s and Blackbeard’s, and Lloyd Samson of Central Liquors, in addition to Mr. Bryington. 

Ms Rutty also had an application for Cayman Distributors (Liquor Outlet) on Eastern Avenue to operate until 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday. That item was also not considered. 

“This is a big disappointment to all of the applicants here today,” Mr. Hamaty said, saying they had wasted time and money on legal counsel to attend the meeting, only to have their items deferred. 

Mr. Panton’s attorney Clyde Allen said they were concerned that if Mr. Welds had a conflict of interest in regard to liquor stores, does that mean he has a conflict of interest in regard to all applications. 

Mr. Allen said his clients did not have a problem with Mr. Bryington hearing their applications, despite Mr. Bryington being a license holder. He said the procedure should be for a board member to announce a potential conflict of interest in regard to a particular item, then leave it up to the applicant to decide whether or not to ask the board member to recuse himself or herself. 

Instead, because three members broke quorum, the board was unable to act. 

Mr. Panton said the members with conflicts of interest should be permanently removed from the board. 

Matthew Leslie of Cayman Islands Brewery said, “This sets the precedent that any future application that is not favored can be appealed on the basis of conflict of interest.” 

After the 11 applications were postponed, the full board returned to hear other agenda items. 

Brian Barnes of Barnes Bartender Service was applying to change the terms of his mobile vending license. He requested that Mr. and Ms Welds recuse themselves from the meeting because Mr. Welds’ son has a mobile license. The board members complied, and the remaining three members considered his application. 

Mr. Barnes complained about onerous limitations on his license, such as the board requiring a weeks’ notice before he can do an event, mandating he provide security and asking for floor plans of locations, including private homes. 

“If I don’t get those restrictions removed, I’m going to file a lawsuit covering the past seven, eight years,” he said. 

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