Feature | Mr. Liquor: Ken Wynn ran the DABC for 30 years. Now, he wants to fix Utah’s crazy laws | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

July 16, 2008 News » Cover Story

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

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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

Ken 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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