Law & Justice

Operation Swill Details Announced by State Attorney General's Office

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Michael Halfacre, director, Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control , left, and State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa Credits: Patti Sapone-The Star Ledger
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Bottles taken from 29 establisments targeted in Operation Swill are stored for testing at ABC Headquarters in Trenton. Credits: NJSD-ABC
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TRENTON – NJ State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Director Michael Halfacre held a press conference today to discuss “Operation Swill,” and yesterday's raid at 29 establishments that allegedly substituted premium alcoholic beverage brands with non-premium brands.

The ABC investigation alleges the 29 establishments filled premium brand bottles with non-premium brands to increase profits. Customers were unaware of the switch and paid premium brand prices. 

“This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits, and it is a slap in the face to the consumer,” said Attorney General Chiesa. “Consumers should have the peace of mind of knowing that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every single time – no exceptions.”

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“I believe Operation Swill will go a long way towards restoring that peace of mind and will also serve as a warning to anyone currently engaging in, or thinking about engaging in, this fraudulent practice,” he added.

The complete list of investigated establishments raided is as follows:
 
  • Applebee’s in Kearny 
  • Bells Tavern in Lambertville 
  • Blackthorn Restaurant in Parsippany 
  • Brunswick Grove in East Brunswick 
  • Café 34 in Matawan 
  • Cucina Calandra in Fairfield 
  • Graziano’s Ristorante in Chesilhurst 
  • Italian Affair in Glassboro 
  • Murray’s in Dover 
  • Railroad Café in East Rutherford 
  • Ruby Tuesday in Bridgewater 
  • Sona Thirteen in Morristown  
  • Sunset Tavern in Burlington 
  • TGI Fridays:
    • Clifton 
    • East Hanover 
    • East Windsor 
    • Freehold 
    • Hazlet 
    • Linden 
    • Marlboro 
    • North Brunswick 
    • Old Bridge 
    • Piscataway 
    • Springfield 
    • West Orange
    • Woodridge
  • The Brick House in Wycoff 
  • Villari’s Lakeside in Gloucester Township 
  • Yesterdays in Marmora

The West Orange Fridays is owned by the Briad Corporation, a Livingston based hospitality company. Briad owns 70 Friday's country-wide including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. They also run 42 Wendy's in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Marriott and Hilton hotels, the Corner Bakery shops, Cups yogurt stores, Zinburger locations, and the Promenade Shops at Clifton. The 13 Fridays on the ABC Operation Swill list are all part of the Briad Corporation, who said they are looking in to the "serious allegations."

Investigators yesterday went to the 29 bars and restaurants, inspected their bar areas and confiscated all open bottles of the following: 
 

  • Vodka:
    • Finlandia
    • Smirnoff
    • Absolut
    • Grey Goose
    • Ketel One
       
  • Gin:
    • Tanqueray
    • Bombay Sapphire
    • Gordon’s
       
  • Vodka:
    • Finlandia
  • Rum: 
    • Bacardi Light
    • Bacardi Dark
    • Captain Morgan Spiced
       
  • Scotch:
    • Johnny Walker Black
    • Dewar’s
       
  • Whiskey:
    • Jack Daniel’s Black Label
    • Jim Beam
    • Knob Creek
    • Maker’s Mark
       
  • Tequila:
    • Jose Cuervo Silver
    • Jose Cuervo Gold
    • Patron Silver 

Approximately 1,000 bottles were seized and will undergo several rounds of testing by ABC and manufacturers.  The inventory is being stored at the ABC Bureau. Information was received from confidential informants, consumers, and sample testing conducted by the ABC and manufacturers of the products.

Samples were taken in January and February of 2013. ABC investigators visited 63 licensed establishments across the state and took 150 samples without the knowledge of the bar or restaurant. The investigators ordered drinks "neat," meaning straight liquor in a glass without ice or mixers. The establishments were chosen from consumer complaints, and by random selection.

“These cases can be difficult to prosecute because of the fleeting nature of the offense, and evidence of the offense is nearly impossible to collect after the fact. The ABC made the determination that the best way to address and eradicate this problem was with a coordinated effort like ‘Operation Swill’,” said Halfacre.

The samples were tested with a new device called the True Spirit Authenticator. The machine provides a preliminary analysis of samples in a short amount of time. Samples were also sent to the laboratories of the brand manufacturers. It was discovered that 30of the 150 samples tested were not the brand they purported to be.

In addition, Chiesa noted that in one sample scotch was switched out with rubbing alcohol and food coloring.  "I think it's pretty dangerous," he said. "I wouldn't drink rubbing alcohol in my house. It serves a very specific purpose: to rub." Dirty water was also mentioned as a replacement for liquor.  

Though "Operation Swill" is not a criminal investigation,  Halfacre made it clear that should tests prove establishments were guilty, they could have their liquor licenses suspended or revoked. Bartenders will not be charged, but the licensees will. He also added that further raids were possible across the state.

The International Federation of Spirits Producers, representing the manuafacturers, said they were happy to participate in the process, noting that drink substitution was a challenge for their business.

“The establishments raided yesterday by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control were targeted because we are taking this type of fraudulent business practice seriously,” Halfacre said. “This practice affects the entire alcoholic beverage regulatory system. Manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers are all victims of this scam.”

Sales records were taken during the May 22 raids and employee statements were taken by investigators. Establishments will have seven days to provide sales and invoice records that include information about the 20 brands in question, and information about the employees who were working on the day the samples were taken must also be provided, along with the retail prices from the last nine months of the targeted brands.

Penalties will depend on the whether the charge is a first offense or greater, and can result in suspensions of one to fifteen days for serving the wrong drink.  Bottles containing alcohol other than what was labeled could result in multiple violations.ABC regulations could also allow for a 30-day suspension for any illegal activity on the licensed premise and those locations could also face a 30-day suspension for non-cooperation.

The Calandra Family, a long time local family operation with a well known bakery, restaurant and Italian Village in Fairfield and Caldwell, responded to the allegations of their Cucina Calandra located in the Best Western in Fairfield, by saying they "do not believe these allegations are accurate."

"The Calandra family and top-level managers had no prior knowledge whatsoever of any wrongdoing and will do everything possible to get to the bottom of these allegations," the statements said. "The Calandra family strives to provide their customers with the best products at the best prices; they have not, do not, and will not stand for anything less."

 

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