Landlady of Sunderland bar Ttonic fined thousands over potentially dangerous vodka bought from shadowy Chinese supplier

Vodka seized from Ttonic bar in Sunderland as part of HMRC's Operation Ding Dong.
Vodka seized from Ttonic bar in Sunderland as part of HMRC's Operation Ding Dong.
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A city centre landlady who had ‘potentially dangerous’ counterfeit vodka has been fined thousands of pounds.

Lorraine Griffiths, 39, bought more than 450 litres of the spirit from a Chinese man she knew only as Mr Allan, handing over £6,500, Sunderland Magistrates Court heard.

ttonic, Vine Place, Sunderland

ttonic, Vine Place, Sunderland

While the majority of the vodka was European stock with fake labels, other bottles contained counterfeit vodka with potentially dangerous sediment.

The vodka – branded Smirnoff and Glen’s – was found by officers from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), during a visit to Ttonic in Vine Place last June.

The mum-of-three, who is a 100 per cent shareholder in Ttonic owner Rubix Management Ltd, said she had no invoices or receipts, nor any contact details for the mysterious salesman.

She appeared alongside her husband Tony Griffiths, who was in court on behalf of the corporate entity of Rubix, in his capacity as director.

Lorraine Griffiths had a duty of care to her customers, but she abused that trust by filling their glasses with potentially dangerous vodka and placing her profits above their safety and wellbeing.

George Hazel-Owram, prosecuting on behalf of HMRC, said of the vodka found at Ttonic, 412.3 litres of legitimate Smirnoff had fake labels stuck over the top of European labels, incorrectly stating UK duty had been paid.

However, Mr Hazel-Owram said 39 litres branded Glen’s Vodka, which also had fake labels, was found to contain something completely different.

Loch Lomond Group, which owns Glen’s Vodka, tested the contents and said they were “different to genuine vodka”.

Lorraine Griffiths said she had been a victim of fraud, having purchased spirits for eight to 10 weeks and bought Smirnoff by the pallet-load.

“She disagreed that the price should have alerted her to there being something illegal about it,” Mr Hazel-Owram added.

Griffiths, of The Square, Fulwell, and Rubix admitted possession of unstamped containers under section 5 (1) of the Alcoholic Liquors Duties Act 1979.

Nick Lane, defending, said the Griffiths’ had faced financial ruin during the recession having lost Tony Griffiths’ business Wylam Leisure.

He said Mr Griffiths was declared bankrupt as a result, and the family lost their home. Rubix was set up by his wife two weeks later.

Lorraine Griffiths and Rubix were fined a total of £5,000, with a £240 victim surcharge and £500 costs. They were also ordered to pay £4,775.87 in excise duty to HMRC.

Diane Donnelly, assistant director of criminal investigation for HMRC, said: “Lorraine Griffiths had a duty of care to her customers, but she abused that trust by filling their glasses with potentially dangerous vodka and placing her profits above their safety and wellbeing.

“Not only that, Griffiths cheated the wider public by buying and selling illicit alcohol.

“It is vital that HMRC are able to collect the taxes that are needed to keep the country’s public services running and prevent it going into the pockets of greedy criminals.”

After the case, a spokeswoman for Rubix said: “It is very difficult for a licensee to know whether the duty has been paid or not when a delivery comes in.

“We have learned a valuable lesson and we will only be dealing with large organisations, not small suppliers, in the future.”

“This was real vodka that the duty hadn’t been paid on and we are very sorry for this and of course we will be paying any duty that is owed.”

‘We have learned a valuable lesson’

After the case, a spokeswoman for Rubix said: “It is very difficult for a licensee to know whether the duty has been paid or not when a delivery comes in.

“We have learned a valuable lesson and we will only be dealing with large organisations, not small suppliers, in the future.

“This was real vodka that the duty hadn’t been paid on and we are very sorry for this and of course we will be paying any duty that is owed.”