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Sons' troubles cited as Liquor Authority denies license

A year ago, the State Liquor Authority swooped in to suspend the liquor licenses of two Southtowns bars that it said had, because of underage drinking and violent assaults, become an "imminent and grave threat" to those in Orchard Park and Elma.

But the mother of Michael J. Sweeney, the West Seneca man who operated both Mia's Restaurant locations and was accused of the assaults, has applied for a liquor license at the renamed Casato's Bar and Grill she runs at the Orchard Park location.

State and village officials are wary of the attempt, citing numerous ties between Marie Sweeney and the two sons who found trouble with the law when they ran the restaurants.

"What we feared would be that it would be in name only, and her sons would be the ones running the show," Orchard Park Mayor John B. Wilson said. "Historically, the business in that area was certainly not what anyone would like to have in a neighborhood."

The Orchard Park restaurant, located at 4905 South Buffalo St. near Orchard Park Country Club, was the site of more police calls than any other restaurant in Orchard Park during a two-year period, according to Liquor Authority and Orchard Park police reports made public last year.

Michael and Chad M. Sweeney, also of West Seneca, were accused of violently beating a man in the bar's parking lot, and Michael Sweeney was accused of assaulting female employees and allowing 10 documented instances of underage drinking from 2009 to 2011.

Marie Sweeney, the mother of Michael and Chad Sweeney, opened Casato's Bar and Grill in February at the same location. She has failed to obtain a liquor license, but she is appealing.

"Marie has ensured that her son Mike is not involved in the business whatsoever," said Christopher M. Pannozzo, an attorney for Marie Sweeney who also represented Mia's Restaurant before its license was suspended.

To change the image of the bar, Pannozzo said, Marie Sweeney has hired new staff members, scaled down the bar and plans to offer more family-friendly selections. She has also vowed to close the bar by 11 p.m. each night and serve craft beers, not cheap liquor.

"She's doing this with her funds," Pannozzo said. "She's doing this her own way."

But the Liquor Authority, in denying Marie Sweeney's application for a liquor license, pointed out a number of connections between Marie Sweeney, her son and the former operation.

Marie Sweeney, as owner of the new restaurant, would pay rent to her son, who still owns the building. On her application, Marie Sweeney also lists Tina DiRienzo -- the live-in girlfriend of Michael Sweeney and the mother of his children -- as a manager for the new restaurant, and she lists Steven Rodriguez, a former sous chef at Mia's Restaurant, as another manager.

Both Marie Sweeney and DiRienzo, in their applications, list a Seneca Street address identical to that of Michael Sweeney. Her attorney also acknowledged that Chad Sweeney has worked as a chef at the new restaurant.

Marie Sweeney previously worked at the Elma location of Mia's Restaurant.

The Liquor Authority also accused Marie Sweeney and DiRienzo of not fully disclosing their relationships with Michael Sweeney in their application. An appeals judge last month disagreed with that point but ruled generally in favor of the denial.

"There's a very slim chance that we would allow the same licensee an opportunity to hold a liquor license based on the severe action the board has taken against them," said State Liquor Authority spokesman Michael R. Smith.

Marie Sweeney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At an upcoming meeting, the Liquor Authority board will determine whether to adopt the findings of the administrative law judge. Pannozzo, meanwhile, has indicated Marie Sweeney will continue her appeal of the ruling.

"I don't think the State Liquor Authority's reason for denial was based in fact," Pannozzo said.