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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  Feature | Mr. Liquor: Ken Wynn ran the DABC for 30 years. Now, he wants to fix Utah’s crazy laws Page 1
Cover Story

Feature | Mr. Liquor: Ken Wynn ran the DABC for 30 years. Now, he wants to fix Utah’s crazy laws Page 1

By Stephen Dark
Posted // July 16,2008 -
A lavender-lined path in Red Butte Garden leads to a quiet nook guarded by pines. Two benches there offer a tranquility punctuated by bird song and nearby children’s laughter. One is dedicated to the memory of Verna Wynn, the other to her son, Brian. When Brian died of AIDS in 1994, his father, Ken Wynn, asked for gifts to the arboretum in lieu of flowers. He did the same when his wife Verna died in 1999. Ken Wynn’s colleagues from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, where he was director for 30 years, and members of the hospitality industry, which the DABC oversees, contributed over $20,000 to pay for the alcove. For two groups who have fought many hard-bitten battles over Utah’s liquor laws, tragedy for two brief moments brought them together.

Ken Wynn is Utah’s “Mr. Liquor.” For 30 years, under four governors, Ken Wynn directed one of the state’s most powerful and controversial agencies, overseeing the sale and control of alcohol throughout Utah. Now 72, Wynn retired from the DABC in June 2007. A few months ago, he married for the second time. Along with this change in his personal life, the man who steered Utah’s $265 million-in-annual-sales liquor agency for three decades has taken a hard look at his life’s work.

And Wynn doesn’t like what he sees when it comes to how the DABC, in cahoots with the Attorney General’s office, bullies private clubs over alleged liquor-law violations.

“Kenny was a good soldier,” says Jim Sgueo, president of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. “I never knew a director who had a better handle on finances and budgeting.” Wynn and his deputy, Dennis Kellen, ran the state’s liquor stores. Under Wynn for 18 years was also regulatory director Earl Dorius, who continues to manage the educational department that helps licensees comply with the law. Dorius also presides over prehearings with the attorney general’s office on licensee violations brought to him by law enforcement.

Wynn reported to the five-person commission, appointed by the governor to serve staggered terms. The commission is charged with implementing liquor laws, including approving new licenses and settlements with violators. Until recently, former DABC compliance officer-turned-attorney Rick Golden says the commission typically consisted of white, Mormon, male lawyers. Now, there’s a new commission in town—three women and two men, only two of whom are lawyers. Their mostly open-minded approach to Utah’s liquor laws is apparent in the recent staging of public hearings on repealing private-club membership requirements.

Wynn is now watching the commission and the DABC as a board member of the Utah Hospitality Association, a lobby group of bar owners. He takes no compensation for the job. A twinkling-eyed grandfather, Wynn drives around town in a Ford Thunderbird with a vanity license plate proclaiming “DA BIRD.” He approaches everything on his own terms, whether as a beer-friendly Mormon or in his work at the Utah Hospitality Association. The man who says he would often go home and pound the walls in frustration at the liquor laws the Legislature passed or at the dictatorial high-handedness of some former commissioners is now lobbying for a better world for Utah’s drinkers and liquor licensees. Finally, it seems, he’s free to speak his mind.

Wynn has survived two sons and his first wife, along with a bout of heavy drinking to cope with his grief. After Verna Wynn died, DABC’s spokeswoman and Wynn’s administrative assistant for seven years Sharon Mackay says the agency became his family. Indeed it’s tempting to see his former deputy, 65-year-old Kellen, now the DABC’s director, and regulatory director Dorius as Wynn’s younger brothers. Now, as if out of the script of a 1960s John Wayne Western, Wynn has returned to the ranch house to put his family—and his legacy—in order.

A Broken Family
The “misbehaving” relative is ex-state prosecutor Earl Dorius. “He did a hell of a job for me,” Wynn says. But prosecution, he adds, is in Dorius’ blood, it’s his nature. And it’s Dorius’ punitive DABC role with which Wynn now finds fault.

“I didn’t like it then, I don’t like it now,” Wynn says, over a beer at his friend Randy Finnas’ Murray establishment, the Barbary Coast Saloon. “It’s just a conflict of interest. You don’t license, regulate and punish all in the same spot.”

Yet Wynn oversaw the very process he’s now criticizing. He sat to the left of the commissioners each month, as they approved—or rejected—the settlements of bars and restaurants’ violations. So why, after so long, is he challenging Dorius, a man he regards as a friend? “I should have done it sooner,” Wynn admits.

For years, he thought the system was fine. Then, he heard some club operators were getting strong-armed. Wynn cites one club’s 2007 violation for serving an intoxicated person. The club received a letter proposing a 15-day closure for the alleged violation. The club’s manager called assistant attorney general Sheila Page to complain, Wynn says, that the punishment was too harsh. When the manager asked what would happen if the club appealed the sentence, Wynn says Page’s offered this response: He would get more than 15 days in the dark.

That Wynn should be standing up for bar owners against the DABC doesn’t surprise some. Former DABC compliance officer Golden recalls Wynn held little faith in what he describes as “detail-orientated rules, such as membership.” Wynn’s approach was simple, Golden says. “He was more of a ‘Let’s try and keep it simple, stupid. Keep your nose clean when it comes to serving minors or intoxicated customers.’”

Wynn’s personal tragedies showed licensees and the DABC could find common ground in a pine-sheltered alcove high above Salt Lake City. He hopes his new role will provide further reconciliation. “There’s no question there’s a sense of fear out there [among bar owners]—as much as I tried and tried over the years to convince them, “We’re not here to put you guys out of business, we’re here to keep you in compliance,’” Wynn says.

“I don’t want to do battle with the department, although I know it looks like that,” he adds. “It’s about fairness.”

Beer Fear
hspace=5Ken Wynn was born in 1936 in Thermopolis, Wyo. Raised by a strict Mormon mother and a bourbon-drinking father who resisted entering the LDS Church until his son was 32, Wynn shared some of his father’s diffidence about his mother’s faith.

While Wyoming, like Utah, is a liquor-control state, its approach to control is quite different. Wynn was raised with open public bars and billboards touting liquor. He drank his first beer when he was 19, just before he married Verna, as equally devout a Mormon as his mother. Just prior to the wedding, Wynn was baptized LDS. “I thought it was about time,” he says.

With a degree in bookkeeping, Wynn was appointed a state income-tax auditor in Eleanor, Mont., in 1962. After a theft and bribery scandal in Montana’s state liquor operations, Wynn in 1973 took over the newly formed liquor division. Despite his faith’s condemnation of alcohol, Wynn took a less critical view. “It’s a legal product, so I figured people have the right to drink if they wanted to,” he says.

Montana politics were controlled by an odd coalition of bankers, churches and cattlemen’s associations. Wynn took products off the shelves that weren’t selling, running afoul of liquor companies and their brokers. In 1977, Wynn’s new boss, a former beer distributor, fired him. Wynn was 41.

Utah Gov. Scott Matheson appointed Wynn director of the DABC in the fall of 1977. His wife had mixed feelings about leaving her first son’s grave behind in Montana. Two years before, at the end of a day of tobogganing, 17-year-old David tied his sled to the back of a car. As he rode the toboggan down the hill, he lost control, careened off the road and hit a rock. He had severe brain damage and was comatose for seven months, paralyzed from the neck down. “He’s not going to make it,” a doctor told the family. “I hated him,” Wynn says now about the pull-no-punches physician.

After David’s death, Wynn grew closer to his church. “I just thought we needed to get active, to get to the temple, to have our kids sealed to us,” he says, referencing the Mormon ritual to unify families for existence in an afterlife. Not that he experienced the moment of divine inspiration most Mormons cite as part of their rite of passage into the church. “I don’t know I ever got there, but I spent a lot of time praying,” he says.

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Posted // December 7,2010 at 16:21

Interesting note, I once met Mr Wynn and asked him what his line of work was. After ample opportunity to tell me what he did for a living...he instead distanced himself from his current or past employment and said only that he retired from the state. I found that interesting.


Posted // September 3,2008 at 19:38 Earl Dorius is manipulative man that beleives he is God. He runs the Udabc no differently then the Godfather ran his made men. As a club owner that has been around for years, 10 to be exact. Running and owning some of the hottest clubs here are in Utah. The UDABC is a pure an simple a MOCKERY of justice. They make there own rules with a mad man at helm of their ship, they manipulate, create and then bully licensees. They clearly violate civil rights and there has been nothing done by the govenor. It is and remains a JOKE


Posted // July 17,2008 at 14:04 Four years ago, if anyone had asked me to describe the feelings that came to mind at the mention of Ken Wynn’s name, I would have described a sensation similar to that of being caught by your mom whilst trying to sneak back into the house 3 hours after curfew on prom night. In short, he terrified me. Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to see that assessment discredited. Ken is a fair man & I’m glad he’s decided to remain involved in public affairs.nnI’ve worked in the UT spirits industry for 10 years now. I’ve experienced it as a customer, from behind a bar, managing a club, & from a sales perspective. I’m also on record as being a member of the LDS church.nnI hope LDS members realize someday soon that aside from the obvious important issues affecting public safety (over consumption, DUIs, underage drinking...), many of UT’ liquor laws do little more than restrict free agency. A vote in favor of cleaning up UT liquor laws so they are reasonable, fair, & unbiased, is a vote for free agency “ it is not condoning a lifestyle contrary to their values, it is allowing everyone an equal opportunity to be responsible for his or her actions; & isn’t that a fundamental LDS belief?nnNo one can deny we are in an economic slump. Now, more than ever we need to do what we can to find ways that will get our local economy back on track. One way to reach that goal, rather than focus our efforts on penalizing local businesses, would be to promote local businesses & make Utah more tourist friendly (i.e. abolish the private club law). If done responsibly, I believe we can develop laws that bring the community together in agreement instead of feeding unrealistic fears & putting a wedge between the LDS & everyone else. It might sound naive & idealistic, but it’s time we spent a little energy trying to find a middle ground we can all live with instead of encouraging polarized opposition.


Posted // July 17,2008 at 11:44 Nick Hales is a son of a bitch.nnWynn is a bitter man.nnI dunno about Nick Hales, but Wynn does look like the bitter beer face guy from the old commercials.


Posted // July 17,2008 at 00:35 I am the owner of a large club in Murray,nnIts good to see that people are starting to see the intimidation tactics that the DABC uses, they leave us feeling alone and helpless, the very people that we license through and get guidence through are the same people that hand out the punishment. up to $20,000 fines and endless amounts of closur time for them sneaking in a minor, and a 3 week closure for something as silly as someone slipping out the front door with a 1/2 drank beer in there hand. and even worse sometimes UNTRAINED local authorities take it apon themselves to derail a night club for political/religious reasons im sure.nnIm tired of this states rediculous liquor laws and im tired of being embaressed when I have to try to explain them to tourists who stare at me with a confused annoyed look on there face. were killing our own TOURISTS TRADE by making others feel unwelcome, and coming across as unfriendly. nmembership......whats that?nwhy do you have to write down all my ID information?nWhy can’t I get a real drink?nWhy can’t I get a real beer?nWhy is last call so early?nWhy can’t I buy wine at the grocery store to go along with my fish or steak?nand just like everyone else in this state IM MORMONnthats the problem I fear is that this state still has the impression that mormonism is still the majority, facts are that there counting people like myself and half my staff who are also mormon, Its time that religion took a step back out of polotics.nand its time Utah Liquor laws start mimicing some of our neighboring states. and treated its people like adults once and for all


Posted // December 7,2010 at 16:13 - Dear "owner" I feel your frustration and you are certainly entitled to have it, however, you need a new perspective. First and formost, drop the "religious" vendetta. You live in America. I don't think I need to tell you that America is a Republic based on democratic priciples as well as laws. You live in Utah where Mormonism is the predominant religion. When a lions share of citizens share a viewpoint, whether they be Utah Mormons or Bostonian Cathlics...guess what? It's perfectly legal and American for those values to be reflected in the laws that are created. Again, you are entitled to your frustration, however don't turn your fustration with state law into delusions that "UNTRAINED local authorities take it apon themselves to derail a night club for political/religious reasons" Perhaps they are just enforcing the laws as is common in a Republic. Have you had any officers tell you they are ticketing you because they were Mormon? I hate to say the cliqued phrase, but if you don't like it, if you find it so intimidating, move. Second: Do you think Tourists come to Utah to drink? Do you plan your vacations on where you can and can't drink? Sure tourists get annoyed with local liquor laws but please! People don't go to SLC to get a "Real Beer" from that large club in Murray but if I'm wrong and they actually do...can you say ALCOHOLIC! Lastly, the whole, "I'm Mormon too" thing really gets under my skin. I hear people tout that they are Mormon all the time and 99% of the time it is try and lend credibility to what they are saying. They think if people think they are Mormon then somehow their argument suddenly lends credibility. The nasty truth is these "I'm Mormon" touters don't realize they just end up looking like hypocrits and lose any credibility whatsoever. "I'm Mormon...but I think it's ok to drink." "I'm Mormon...but It's ok to be gay." "I'm Mormon, but it's wrong the Mormons rule the state with an iron fist." I'm interested, are you a baptized Mormon, (cause there are a lot of those) or are you a REAL Mormon, you know, one that actually goes to church on a weekly basis? Or one that knows that everyone has problems, including yourself, but instead of just saying the church is wrong to view your problem as a problem, you actually try to live the priciples of the Gospel despite your propensity to drink, or smoke or be gay or whatever. In other words, being Mormon, or Baptist or Jewish means you actually believe, and try to follow the teachings, not that you had a bar mitvah when you were 12. What category do you fall into? And please, for the love of all things holy, don't say something like, "I've been to the temple but I haven't been able to make it to church for a while because of my job."