In the aftermath of last week’s public breakdown of Grand Cayman’s Liquor Licensing Board due to perceived conflicts of interest, the Department of Commerce and Investment said it had already formed a review committee to look into the board’s legal and operational structure.
However, that was news to most of the Cayman Islands’ largest holders of liquor licenses.
According to the department, the committee was formed Aug. 28, has met twice and “includes representatives from prominent law firms, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, local businesses and government.”
The local businesses apparently do not include Jacques Scott, Reflections or Tortuga Rum Company, who together own more than 10 percent of Grand Cayman’s 364 liquor licenses.
The department announced the existence of the review committee Friday afternoon. Shortly afterward, leaders of the three companies told the Caymanian Compass this was the first they were hearing about it. They all said they welcome the opportunity to give feedback to the committee.
The Compass was unable to reach leaders of Cayman Distributors for comment Friday.
Reflections CEO Prentice Panton expressed reservations about relying on the tourism association to play a major role on the committee, saying the group’s interests are concentrated along Seven Mile Beach and are not in line with his company, which has stores in George Town and Savannah.
Dracula, blood bank
During the board’s annual general meeting Thursday, three of the five board members declared they had conflicts of interest and walked out, meaning the board did not have a quorum and could not consider nearly a dozen applications by liquor stores to have their hours extended to 10 p.m.
The three board members who recused themselves were longtime chairman Mitchell Welds, his niece Tammy Welds and Neil Bryington, who holds licenses for his own restaurant and package store interests.
Board chairman Mitchell Welds’ mother, Ena, owns Joe Ena’s Liquor Store, which has been in existence for nearly 50 years and is allowed to operate until 10 p.m. Additionally, Mr. Welds’ son, Simon, has a mobile liquor license for his company, Cayman Mobile Bartending.
Echoing the general sentiment of Cayman’s biggest alcohol retailers, Tortuga Rum Company President Robert Hamaty said people with interests in the liquor industry should not be appointed to the board responsible for regulating the industry.
“If I were put on the Liquor Licensing Board, it would be putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” Mr. Hamaty said.
Thursday’s walkout came after board members received a letter from Mr. Panton alleging that the board has been prejudiced against his many applications to extend the operating hours of his licensed businesses.
During the meeting, several license holders said the board members’ sudden declaration of sweeping conflicts of interest raised questions about the legality of the board’s previous and future decisions.
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.”
Brian Barnes of Barnes Bartender Service had his request denied to remove conditions placed on his mobile liquor license.
On Mr. Barnes’ request, Mr. and Ms Welds recused themselves from considering his application during Thursday’s meeting. At the time, Mr. Barnes said he would file a lawsuit covering the past seven or eight years if the board did not approve his request.
“I am taking legal action,” Mr. Barnes said Friday after getting notice of the board’s denial.
Mr. Barnes said his litigation would include actions by the board dating back to 2006, when Mr. Welds’ son was granted his mobile liquor license.
Government here to help
In Friday’s news release, Department of Commerce and Investment Director Ryan Rajkumarsingh said, “We are aware of unresolved issues, such as allegations of conflict of interest, and have formed a review committee in order to recommend improvements.”
According to the statement, “Over the next few months, the group will review the moratorium policy; 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.”
Mr. Rajkumarsingh said, “DCI is working diligently to resolve the issues; however, the matters are entrenched and highly complex, so this will not be an overnight fix.”
According to the news release, the department assumed responsibility for liquor licensing July 1, along with the processing of tobacco registration certificates. The news release cites improvements to trade and business licensing and local companies control licensing since the department was put in charge of those functions in 2010.