Woody DaCosta removed as chair of Liquor Licensing Board

Commerce Minister Joey Hew confirms reshuffle

Woody DaCosta – PHOTO: ROOSTER RADIO

Woody DaCosta has been removed as acting chairman of the Liquor Licensing Board of Grand Cayman.

Mr. DaCosta, who will no longer serve on the board in any capacity, was asked to step down Wednesday afternoon by Commerce Minister Joey Hew.

He will be replaced by board member Noel Williams, with Lynn Bodden, managing partner at Bodden and Bodden law firm, as his deputy.

Mr. Hew did not directly attribute the decision to the recent controversy over the liquor board’s handling of an application from a gas station to open on Sundays.

He said the new government had taken the opportunity to reshuffle the board and bring in more experienced and legal-minded leadership.

“As times change and things become more complex, along with the recent turmoil, we felt there was a need for fresh leadership,” he said.

Mr. DaCosta confirmed he had been informed by Mr. Hew of the decision in a 12:30 p.m. phone call Wednesday. He said he had not resigned and had been looking forward to the results of an independent audit report into the board’s handling of the application from Peanuts convenience store at Red Bay gas station.

“I have nothing to hide because the entire board was part of all decisions made and kept in the loop every step of the way,” he said.

The decision comes amid an inquiry into the board’s handling of Peanuts’ application for a retail license, which would have allowed it to sell alcohol on Sundays.

The board initially announced the application had been granted following its March meeting, releasing the decision to the media and the business owner, and listing it on the Department of Commerce and Investment’s website.

Mr. DaCosta later claimed this was an administrative error and that the application had actually been adjourned and later rejected at a separate “electronic meeting.”

The minutes from the meeting, the official public record of the board’s deliberations, suggest the application was rejected in March and make no mention of a separate electronic meeting.

The Cayman Compass later obtained a copy of the original minutes of the March meeting, which suggest the board granted Peanuts’ application and further agreed that all gas stations that applied could obtain similar permission.

Those minutes were never publicly released, and all references to the wider discussion on Sunday licensing were absent from the official published minutes. That document details a different discussion, indicating that the board decided on a new policy restricting all businesses to one type of liquor license. On that basis, the minutes suggest, the application from Peanuts, which already had a package license for weekday sales, was rejected.

Mr. Hew said he would sit down with the new board to discuss the one business, one license policy decision, among other things.

He said the normal procedure was for Cabinet to make policy decisions, though he said this was done based on consultation with and recommendations from the board.

He said the independent audit inquiry into the Peanuts decision would continue.

“There are certainly some gray areas and we would like to resolve that matter once and for all,” he said. “We would like to identify if there are issues relating to the staff or the board.”

He characterized the reshuffle of the board as a broader strategic decision, rather than one that was connected specifically to the Peanuts issue.

“We have made some changes, as governments will do from time to time, and those will be gazetted shortly.

“The previous chairman had resigned, [board member] Ralph Lewis had resigned, and we took the opportunity to make some other changes.” He said he had not waited for the results of the audit inquiry because the business of the board needed to continue.

He said both Mr. Williams and Ms. Bodden, a previous board deputy chair, brought years of experience to the positions.

Mr. DaCosta suggested he had been unfairly treated by the media, particularly the Compass.

He said, “Frankly, I had sincerely looked forward to assisting the investigation if required, to ensure the good names of the members of the liquor licensing board were maintained.”

Clerical error

In a separate development, Department of Commerce and Investment Director Ryan Rajkumarsingh said additional confusion that was revealed this week over the Peanuts’ convenience store package license was the result of a clerical error on the department’s website and that neither the department, nor the board, had granted the business any license to sell alcohol on Sundays.

Lists of license holders on the website published in April, May and June had indicated that the Red Bay area store had both a package license and a retail license allowing it to sell alcohol seven days a week. Those lists subsequently were altered to remove the retail license after liquor board acting chairman Mr. DaCosta said the permission for Peanuts to sell on Sunday had been announced in error, and claimed the application had actually been rejected.

Then, a list of license holders for July was published, and again included Peanuts as a premises with both package and retail licenses.

Mr. Rajkumarsingh said the inclusion of Peanuts in the July licensing notice dated from the board’s March decision on the matter and should have been removed from the list, but had not been. The entire list was removed from the site earlier this week. Mr. Rajkumarsingh said the department would write to Peanuts owner Gary Rutty’s attorneys Wednesday to further explain the matter.

By press time Wednesday, Mr. Rutty’s lawyer, Cline Glidden, Jr., said he had received nothing in writing from the department.

Board member resigns

A second liquor licensing board member, local newspaper publisher Ralph Lewis, confirmed Wednesday that he had resigned from the board.

Mr. Lewis told the Compass his decision to step down had “nothing at all to do” with the issues surrounding Peanuts’ licensing application.

Rather, he said, he was concerned about “potential conflicts of interest” involving some of his advertising clients who were liquor-licensed businesses. Mr. Lewis said he was worried about the perception of those businesses advertising with his company at the same time he was making decisions regarding their license applications.

“I had to step away,” Mr. Lewis said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

Mr. Lewis said his newspaper, the Caymanian Times, had received some paid ads from the liquor board itself for public notices of meetings and the like. However, he said, his view on those ads was slightly different, given that the government was seeking to publicize public hearings.

“They should put [the ads] in all the newspapers,” he said.

Compass reporter Brent Fuller contributed to this report.

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