Co-owner of landmark Biloxi restaurant Mary Mahoney’s pleads guilty to misbranding seafood dishes

Published 7:22 pm Thursday, May 30, 2024

GULFPORT — A Mississippi corporation, operating as Mary Mahoney’s Old French House restaurant in Biloxi, pled guilty Thursday to conspiracy to misbrand seafood and wire fraud.

A co-owner/manager of the restaurant also pled guilty to misbranding of seafood, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi announced.

According to court documents, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, Inc., pled guilty to a felony Information, filed April 26, 2024, charging the corporation with conspiracy to misbrand seafood and wire fraud in connection with a scheme that began as early as 2002 and continued through November of 2019.

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Mary Mahoney’s, founded in 1962, admitted that between December 2013 and November 2019, it and its co-conspirators fraudulently sold as local premium species, approximately 58,750 pounds — more than 29 tons — of fish that was frozen and imported from Africa, India, and South America.

Additionally, Anthony Charles Cvitanovich, 55, a co-owner and manager at the restaurant, pled guilty to a felony Information, also filed April 26, 2024, charging him with misbranding of seafood during 2018 and 2019.

Cvitanovich admitted that between 2018 and 2019 alone, he was involved in mislabeling approximately 17,190 pounds of fish sold at the restaurant.

The scheme involved the fraudulent sale of fish by Mahoney’s and its wholesale supplier that was described on Mahoney’s menu as premium higher priced local species, such as snapper and grouper from the Gulf of Mexico, when the fish was actually other species from abroad, including Lake Victoria Perch from Africa, Triple Tail from Suriname, and Unicorn Filefish from India. Genetic testing of fish by the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the fraudulent scheme.

“When people spend their hard-earned dollars to enjoy the incredible local seafood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they should get what they paid for, not frozen fish from overseas,” said U.S. Attorney Todd W. Gee of the Southern District of Mississippi. “Mislabeling food and defrauding customers are serious crimes, and this case will help convince restaurants and seafood suppliers that it is not worth lying to customers about what is on the menu.”

“U.S. consumers expect their seafood to be correctly identified. When sellers purposefully substitute one fish species for another, they deceive consumers and cause potential food safety hazards to be overlooked or misidentified by processors or end users,” said Special Agent in Charge Justin Fielder, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Miami Field Office.

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, Inc., and Anthony Charles Cvitanovich are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12.

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, Inc. faces a maximum penalty of five years’ probation and a $500,000 fine, or not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or twice the gross loss, whichever is greater.

Cvitanovich faces a maximum penalty of three years of prison and a $10,000 fine. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Mary Mahoney’s issued a statement to Biloxi TV station WLOX through its attorney, Tim Holleman.

“Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant is incredibly grateful to have served the Gulf Coast for over 60 years. Over the past five years, we have had extensive discussions with the federal government over inaccurate entrée descriptions of a certain item on our menu. This issue was immediately corrected five years ago,” the statement said.

“Mary Mahoney’s will continue doing what we have done best since 1964, which is serving our valued customers with impeccable service,” the statement continued. “We take pride in serving the highest quality steaks and seafood in a beautifully preserved historic home. The Mahoney and Cvitanovich families along with their outstanding Team Members look forward to serving this community for many more years to come.”