Bar, eatery shut for ABC violations

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent


A local tavern has been ordered shut for 60 days, and a local eatery that serves liquor will be closed for a week, after the owners pleaded guilty to a series of Alcoholic Beverage Control violations.

Last Tuesday, after a pre-meeting public hearing, the Kearny governing body slapped liquor license suspensions on The Gin Mill, Brighton and Afton Aves., and Ponte Romana Restaurant, Kearny and Johnston Aves.

Luis Gomes, licensee of Ponte Romana, didn’t contest the charges. Initially, attorney James Madden entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Gill Mill licensee John Hodnett but, in the end, he and his client accepted a reduced penalty.

The Gin Mill was charged with allowing narcotics activity on the premises on Oct. 8, 2013; purchase of alcoholic beverages from a prohibited source, transporting alcoholic beverages without proper documents and allowing a licensed business to be conducted in such a matter to become a nuisance, all on Dec. 21, 2013; and failure to maintain a complete employee list, failure to maintain invoices and other paperwork violations.

Before the hearing, Police Chief John Dowie said that his investigators had tried to work with the owner to clean up the operation but he said that “complaints keep coming.” As recently as the week of April 20, he said, undercover cops reported witnessing under-age drinking at the bar and, on April 25, one of those patrons was apprehended outside in possession of a clear plastic vial containing a hand-rolled cigarette and two small bags of suspected marijuana. The bartender was charged with serving alcohol to a minor. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dowie said.

Municipal Prosecutor Theresa McGuire said that in last October’s incident, a bartender was arrested on charges of having engaged in a narcotics transaction just outside the tavern entrance. McGuire said the bartender, who was subsequently fired, “took advantage of a diversionary program in municipal court.”

In last December’s incident, McGuire said detectives noticed that patrons “were paying to enter” the bar — something forbidden by law – for a party, for which, she added, the owner was seen bringing into the bar cartons of beer purchased from a Belleville liquor store that is “not an authorized liquor distributor.” And, she said, the party itself “became a community policing problem,” due to loud noise and public urinating by patrons outside the bar.

In February’s incident, McGuire said an ABC inspection disclosed a variety of paperwork violations.

If found guilty on all charges, the licensee – by law – could be suspended for 127 days, McGuire informed the mayor and Town Council. But if the owner agreed to plead no defense, “we’d recommend a 30-day closure.”

In his client’s defense, Madden sought to soften the blow by noting that, the fact that the bartender [in last October’s incident] went outside, showed that she was aware that “my client had a rule about not selling drugs in the bar” and that she was fired after the incident.

Since then, Madden said, his client “has hired a new, more mature manager with 30 years experience and strong ties to the Harrison Elks” and “has read the riot act” to his employees about following ABC rules. “He wants to have entertainment and he’s going to be walking outside [to police] the premises. There’s a bathroom in the bar so there’s absolutely no need for anyone to be urinating in the street.”

Mayor Alberto Santos suggested that keeping order among his patrons might be less onerous a task if he adhered to the capacity of the bar as regulated by the local fire code which, according to Hodnett, is set at 120.

Madden pointed out that, “this is the first time since 2008,” when a former bar manager was accused of selling cocaine, that ABC charges have been brought against the tavern.

If found guilty on all charges, the licensee – by law – could be suspended for 127 days, McGuire informed the mayor and Town Council. But if the owner agreed to plead no defense, “we’d recommend a 30-day closure.”

But after Third Ward Councilwoman Eileen Eckel suggested that some other option should be considered in light of what she characterized as “a pattern of abuse” involving “under-age drinking, narcotics and illegal purchase of alcohol,” the governing body went into closed session for deliberation.

Emerging soon after, Santos said the council was “not willing to accept 30 days closure” and, instead, that “60 days is what this governing body is willing to accept.”

After a brief caucus, Madden and Hodnett said they’d accept that penalty if the closure could begin June 5 because the bar had a “special event” scheduled for the upcoming weekend, during which, Hodnett said, he would “take every measure to maintain control.”

With First Ward Councilwoman Alexa Arce abstaining and Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Landy absent, the governing body voted 7-0 to impose the 60-day closure, ending Aug. 5 at 2 a.m.

In the case against Ponte Romana, the licensee agreed to accept the penalty of closure, from June 2 to 9, after pleading guilty to several ABC charges filed on Feb. 11.

The charges included: keeping low proof bottles, failing to display license certification, failing to maintain employee list, failing to maintain books of account within seven days of demand and failing to display fetal alcoholic syndrome warning poster.

Luis Gomes, the licensee, told the mayor and council that, “I’ve been in business 11 years. I’ve never had an issue like this.”

McGuire said that Gomes has been in municipal court on two prior incidents involving town ordinance violations on “accounting things – not ABC violations.” If found guilty on every charge, she said, his liquor license could be suspended for 44 days by law but, since “all [current] violations have been corrected, we’re recommending a seven-day closure.” The governing body consented.

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