Wednesday 21 March 2018

Questions over obligations on alcohol testing in Lar Corbett pub 'counterfeit vodka' case

Former Tipperary hurler Lar Corbett. Photo: Liam Burke
Former Tipperary hurler Lar Corbett. Photo: Liam Burke
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

THE State has been told to clarify Revenue Commissioner obligations on the testing of seized alcohol samples as the prosecution against the pub firm operated by former Tipperary star Lar Corbett was adjourned.

Thurles District Court heard that counterfeit vodka was discovered by Customs & Excise officers during an inspection of Lar Corbett's Bar at Coppingers in Thurles, a premises operated by Marlstone Investments Ltd.

The firm contested a Revenue Commissioner charge that it had spirits for sale on which the correct alcohol tax had not been paid.

Marlstone Investments challenged the single charge brought by the Revenue Commissioners under the Finance Act, 2003.

Mr Corbett, who is a director of Marlstone Investments, attended the case before Judge Elizabeth MacGrath but did not address the brief hearing.

Judge MacGrath has further adjourned her ruling in the matter after warning that important points of law need to clarified.

She directed Michelle O'Connell, for the State, to make further legal submissions on the precise obligations of Revenue Commission officials in respect of the scale of sample testing required over such seizures.

"This is a very important point," Judge MacGrath said.

Padraig de Burca BL, for Marlstone and Mr Corbett, had previously challenged the Customs & Excise inspection findings and the fact that vodka samples were not taken from either a drinks wholesaler or an off-license.

It was also pointed out that while 23 bottles of Smirnoff were seized from the Thurles pub, only one was sent to the State Laboratory for testing.

This was despite the fact Mr Corbett supplied Customs & Excise officials with receipts which confirmed he had purchased 36 bottles of 700ml Smirnoff vodka from the wholesaler and off-license between December 29 2014 and January 25 2015.

Mr de Burca argued that the scale of the testing was totally insufficient and cited a Supreme Court case to underline his submission that the analysis was totally insufficient.

Mr de Burca also said there were issues of strict liability arising.

The State has argued that the sample testing was in line with normal Revenue Commissioner policy.

This includes normal sample testing for alcohol and tobacco products seized.

Customs & Excise officials, Sean Moloney and Sara Cushnahan, testified that they inspected pubs in Roscrea, Nenagh, Borrisoleigh and Thurles on January 29 2015.

During an inspection of Coppinger's Pub, a special 'authenticator' device issued by Diageo indicated irregularities with 23 bottles of 700ml Smirnoff.

These largely involved the appearance and seal of the bottles, not the contents, but raised issues over the authenticity of the drink product involved.

The bottles were detained and a sample from one bottle was sent to the State Laboratory.

Diageo also received one of the Smirnoff bottles involved.

Diageo official Colin Cushley informed Customs & Excise that the Smirnoff involved was counterfeit.

Mr Cushley said the label and seal were not genuine - and that while the glass bottle was genuine it had originated in the UK and not Ireland.

State Lab official Michael Doyle said he tested one of the 700ml bottles involved and found that it had an alcohol content of 34.1pc rather than the 37.5pc level required by EU law.

He also told the court that the product in the bottle was not Smirnoff vodka.

"It was not pure vodka...nor was it Smirnoff vodka," he said.

Mr Doyle also confirmed that tests indicated the presence of "denaturisers" in the product, additives that are usually only included for commercial reasons.

However, Mr de Burca claimed the prosecution was flawed because Customs & Excise did not seek samples from vodka in the wholesaler or the off-license identified by his client.

He also said the State had failed to offer sufficient evidence as to the precise tax issues involved.

Mr de Burca stressed that his client had co-operated fully with the investigation and had submitted detailed receipts as to where the vodka originated.

Judge MacGrath adjourned the matter until October 25 for final legal submissions.

The single count alleges that, on January 29 2015, at Coppinger’s Pub, 4 Parnell Street, Thurles, Co Tipperary there were “for sale or delivery specific alcohol products, to whit 16.1 litres of spirits, on which the appropriate rate of tax had not been paid.”

The charge is brought contrary to Section 79 (2) of the Finance Act, 2003.

Lar Corbett (35), who retired from inter county hurling in 2015, ranks as the Premier County’s all-time scorer.

Over his 15 year career he won two All-Ireland titles with Tipperary as well as six Munster championships and two National Hurling league medals.

He received three All Star nominations and was a recipient of the Hurler of the Year honour.

The Thurles Sarsfields player is considered one of the outstanding forwards of the past 25 years.

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