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Firm ‘embarrassed’ by liquor licence error

A local distributor appeared before the Liquor Licensing Panel yesterday after it was revealed they had been operating without a liquor licence for more than a decade.

The panel heard that Bermuda Import and Export Company Ltd, the local distributor of Beck’s beer among other products, has not had a liquor licence since 2006.

Graham Fowle, managing director, said he was “shocked and ashamed” by the revelation, explaining that the company had been acting on the mistaken belief that they did not need a liquor licence because it was a wholesaler rather than a retailer.

Giving a summary of the history of the matter, panel president Juan Wolffe said that the company applied for and received liquor licences in 2003, 2004 and 2005 with Mr Fowle’s signature.

However, there were no further applications until December, when an employee contacted the board about obtaining a temporary liquor licence to hold a warehouse sale, which would have involved selling products including beer and wine directly to members of the public.

Mr Fowle explained that until 2006 the company’s accountant had handled the liquor licence, saying that while he signed for the application during that period he was not otherwise involved.

In early 2006 he asked his sister Lillian Fowle, who had recently joined the company, to contact the Magistrates’ Court about the licence.

Ms Fowle testified that she contacted the court and spoke to a woman, who informed her that the company did not require a liquor licence. She passed the information along to Mr Fowle, who asked her to call the court back to confirm if that was the case.

She told the panel that she called back minutes later, and was again told the company did not need a liquor licence.

“She didn’t say why and I didn’t ask because I didn’t know to ask,” Ms Fowle said, explaining that she was new in the position and still learning the ropes at the time.

Mr Fowle said that after that incident, he assumed that the company as a wholesaler did not need a liquor licence as it was selling to retailers rather than the general public.

He explained that the company immediately stopped selling alcohol when the error was discovered, leading to the company taking a “substantial” financial hit, made worse by missing out on the holiday season.

When the panel noted a recent report in The Royal Gazette about a shortage of Beck’s beer on the island, Mr Fowle said the company has thousands of cases of beer that it cannot sell.

Asked about his reaction to the discovery that the company had not been compliant with the law for the past 11 years, he said: “I was shocked and embarrassed. I’m a law-abiding citizen.

“I wasn’t trying to get away with anything. Morally, I’m not that way.

“I’m an honest person. I pay my taxes.”

Mr Wolffe said the panel remained concerned over the prolonged period that the company acted without a licence, but that they would aim to decide if a liquor licence should be issued before the end of next week.