Sunday liquor sales saga erupts

The top stories of 2017

It seemed like a fairly routine application. But businessman Gary Rutty’s efforts to get approval to sell liquor at his gas station store on Sundays turned into an administrative nightmare that was still rumbling at the close of 2017.

The saga began at the Liquor Board’s quarterly meeting in March when lawyers for Mr. Rutty first submitted an application for a “retail liquor license” which, together with its existing “package license,” would have enabled the store, , to serve alcohol to customers seven days a week.

In what was seen as a significant break from policy, the Liquor Board, through board secretary Marva Scott, announced shortly after the meeting that it had granted the license, enabling Sunday sales.

Several other gas stations and liquor store owners indicated they would soon seek similar licenses.

Then things started to unravel.

As the months went on, Mr. Rutty had still not received his official written license and was beginning to get worried.

When the minutes to the March meeting were published in June, they indicated that the application had actually been rejected and a new policy was created restricting businesses to one type of liquor license per premises only.

Liquor Board chairman Woody DaCosta claimed in a written response to questions from the Compass that the original statement, which indicated the license had been granted, had been sent out in error.

He attributed this to an “untimely and unauthorized release” by a member of Department of Commerce and Investment staff. He claimed the decision had been postponed and later rejected following a separate “electronic meeting.”

A series of stories by the Compass based on internal documents obtained by the newspaper, including an original draft copy of the minutes, suggested that the board had, as indicated initially, approved the license.

The draft minutes suggest that not only was the license granted, the board formulated a policy that would allow any gas station that sought a retail license to open on Sundays.

In the wake of those revelations, government ordered an inquiry from the Internal Audit Service. Mr. DaCosta was not retained as chair or as a board member when Commerce Minister Joey Hew announced a shake-up of the board membership.

Peanuts gas station will no longer be able to sell liquor on Sundays. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

The audit report concluded that the liquor board approved the gas station’s application to sell alcohol on Sundays, then quietly reversed the decision and doctored official records.

All board members interviewed by government’s Internal Audit Service acknowledged that the application had been approved at the board’s March meeting and that the official minutes, published in July, were an “inaccurate representation of those proceedings.”

“Changing official board decisions while the board was in recess was inappropriate,” the report concluded. Despite this, it said the board acted in “good faith.”

Following that report, the new board granted the license.

But that was still not the end of the issue. The license expired at the end of September – just days after it was formally issued.

The new board deferred a decision on whether to renew the license, as well as two additional Sunday liquor sales applications, pending legal advice and/or political intervention.

It still had not ruled on the application by the end of the year.

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