A Jersey Shore bar owned by a local councilman wasn't giving customers what they paid for, and now it's paying the price.
The Brig Inc., which does business in Brigantine as the Laguna Grill and Martini Bar, has been fined $23,000 and ordered to close for eight days during the busy summer season for swapping inexpensive vodka for premium brands, authorities said.
The bar is owned Brigantine Councilman Dominic A. "Tony" Pullella and was managed by his sister, Prudenzia "Maria" Pullella.
The bar defrauded patrons from May to September, serving a "significant amount" of cheaper-grade spirits from other bottles, state officials said Monday.
"Defrauding the public is something we take seriously," said Jerry Fischer, state director of Alcoholic Beverage Control in the Office of the Attorney General, said Monday. "This is not something that pops up regularly.. . .
"There is no politics in this. These people admitted to defrauding then public," he said.
Manager Prudenzia "Maria" Pullella was responsible for the vodka swap, officials said Monday.
She "was a trusted employee for many years," said Tony Pullella, a Democratic at-large councilman. "For reasons never fully explained, she undertook these actions on her own for a period of about three months." His sister has been terminated, he said.
The state investigation began Sept. 2 after investigators received two anonymous tips that the bar may be duping its customers.
They questioned the manager and were shown to the Laguna's inventory, where they found a tell-tale red funnel and a sign on a liquor cabinet that read, in part: "Keep empties in order. Do not put them all over. Only save these vodka bottles."
In the cabinet, ABC investigators found unsealed bottles of premium vodkas - Three Olives, Ketel One and Stolichnaya - filled to varying levels.
According to the tips, Maria Pullella was pouring Burnett's flavored vodka into the Three Olives flavored vodka bottles, and pouring Absolut vodka into the Ketel One and Stolichnaya bottles.
Maria Pullella initially denied the accusations, then changed her story, officials said.
After comparing the restaurant's records and bar receipts, investigators determined the amount of Three Olives brought out of inventory didn't match what had been ordered and delivered by distributors.
Maria Pullella eventually signed a voluntary statement admitting that she switched the vodkas from Aug. 17 to Aug. 25.
Patrons paid about a dollar more per shot for what they thought was a premium vodka, Fisher said. The bar "clearly made money by comitting this fraud," he said.
State investigators made a follow-up visit to the business on Sept. 9 and discovered discrepancies in records that suggested the fraud went back as far as May.
Faced with additional evidence, Maria Pullella admitted that the vodka switch went back earlier.
The Brig was charged with serving an alcoholic beverage other than ordered, hindering an investigation by having an employee provide false information, and failing to produce complete and accurate records.
"We have been in business at the same location for over 26 years, and were mortified when we were advised what the [state] had uncovered . . . " said Tony Pullella, who ran for council on a platform of open, fair and fiscally responsible government. "I was not aware of what was happening and I should have been.. . .
"We immediately settled the matter with the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, will serve a suspension and pay a fine, and make certain that this never happens again," he said.