A well-known Houston restaurateur has been accused of operating an illegal seafood network that allegedly funneled nearly 28,000 pounds of unlawfully-caught finfish through his restaurants.
Texas game wardens allege that Bruce Molzan, 59, bought and then sold the illegal finfish off the menus at Ruggles Green and Ruggles Black. Molzan hasn't been associated with Ruggles Green since 2016 but still owns Ruggles Black.
In addition, another restaurant illegally sold shrimp to Molzan for use in his restaurants in violation of commercial fish wholesale regulations, according to investigators.
The illegal catches were made by a web of about a dozen unlicensed commercial fishermen and sold to the restaurants, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife investigators. Their catches consisted primarily of highly-regulated red snapper, along with other protected game fish species, including tuna, amberjack, grouper and red drum.
The investigation expanded significantly last April after U.S. Coast Guard crews stopped an unlicensed commercial fishing boat in coastal waters near Freeport with 488 red snapper weighing approximately 1,900 pounds. Texas game wardens and the National Marine Fisheries Service seized the fish, which were illegally caught in the Gulf of Mexico off Freeport and Galveston, and investigators were able to link the subjects with the illegal seafood operation.
“This is a big deal and exemplifies the critically important work our Texas game wardens do to protect the state’s natural resources,” said Col. Craig Hunter, TPWD law enforcement director. “Not only did these unscrupulous actors violate recreational fishing regulations at an extreme level for personal profit, but they also circumvented restrictions and rules governing the possession, safe handling and sale of commercial aquatic products intended for human consumption.”
The illegal network made more than $400,000 in profit from the operation, believed to be the largest of its kind in Texas history.
Game wardens have issued more than 200 Class C misdemeanor citations related to the investigation thus far on an array of violations, including unlawful purchase of aquatic products by a restaurant, sales and purchases of protected finfish, operating without a wholesale fish dealer’s license and related commercial fishing-related issues. Additional cases are anticipated.
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) special agents and the U.S. Coast Guard provided assistance in the investigation. NOAA also filed felony charges against two recreational anglers in Freeport in connection with the case.
Based on evidence gathered during an extensive two-year investigation by Texas game wardens, they believe the illegal network has been operating since 2013.
"These are Class C misdemeanors, the equivalent of a traffic ticket. We are challenging these allegations in court and expect them to be dismissed. We look forward to resolving this matter expeditiously," said Joel Androphy, the attorney for Ruggles.
Molzan has been the target of several lawsuits during his controversial career on the Houston restaurant scene. His Ruggles Grill, in Montrose, was one of Houston's hottest restaurants in the '80s and 90s. But Molzan was forced to shut it down in 2012, three months after his staff walked out on a busy weekend night to protest they hadn't been paid in weeks.
Late Wednesday evening, Ruggles Green issued the following statement:
"Today Texas Parks & Wildlife announced findings from an investigation of an illegal seafood network allegedly involving former Ruggles Green co-owner, Bruce Molzan. As of October 1, 2016, Ruggles Green is under new ownership and since that time Mr. Molzan has not been an owner, or involved in the management or operations of the company. Under its new ownership, Ruggles Green has not served any illegal seafood, has not received any citations in connection with this investigation and ensures lawful and sustainable practices. We stand behind our processes to provide guests with the highest quality of food."