In an Arlington County courthouse last week, Roberto Donna—celebrity chef, James Beard Award winner, and onetime chief of a restaurant empire that stretched from Bethesda to Alexandria—answered the question that for months had been bouncing around the local food scene: Yes, he was a tax cheat.
But a second question still hangs in the air like the aroma of burnt garlic: Will the plea doom Donna’s plans to resurrect Galileo, the once-famous District establishment that launched his culinary star?
During its first incarnation, starting in 1984, Galileo earned Donna five James Beard nominations for best chef in the mid-Atlantic; he finally won the prize in 1996. In 2006, after a mostly successful run, Donna closed his flagship operation and almost immediately launched the more informal Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City. In December 2008, months before Bebo went belly up, Donna announced that he was going to revive Galileo in the former Butterfield 9 space on 14th Street NW.
He’d call it Galileo III because it would be the third location of the historic brand. Donna was hoping for an April or May 2009 opening.
As the months passed, however, Galileo III never materialized. Industry insiders traded theories—none of them flattering—about the reason for the delay. Then last week, Arlington County offered the first verifiable look into Donna’s past business practices. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney announced that Donna had pleaded guilty to one count of felony embezzlement for withholding about $140,000 in meals taxes at Bebo. With penalties and interest, Donna’s total tax liability was pegged at $156,330.96.
Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Benjamin N.A. Kendrick sentenced Donna to a five-year prison sentence but suspended it on condition of probation, good behavior, and restitution. Afterward, County Treasurer Frank O’Leary’s exulted in having finally gotten his man:
“Part of the problem is that there’s a tendency to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, what’s the big deal here?’ Well, the big deal here is he’s stealing our money,” O’Leary told me last week. “Some kid walks into the 7-Eleven and knocks it over and gets 10 years in the slammer. Roberto steals money from us month after month after month, and it didn’t look like anything bad was going to happen. Well, guess what? Now Roberto knows better.”
If the size of the tax bill and the possibility of jail time were both surprising, so was the story behind it all.
The problems started, O’Leary said, from the moment Bebo opened in October 2006. Donna would file his meals-tax reports every month to the county’s commissioner of revenue, with his signature dutifully attached. According to O’Leary, “Mr. Donna faithfully filed, but he never bothered to give us any money.” This pattern continued right until Bebo closed in April 2009, a period of at least 30 months without paying the county a dime in meals taxes.
Not that the treasurer’s office hadn’t tried to get its money. “When we went after him to collect, we found it extremely difficult because he was very crafty,” O’Leary said. “He rented all the equipment in his restaurant, so we couldn’t go and seize equipment. He didn’t have a readily identifiable bank account in Virginia, so we couldn’t seize his bank account. He didn’t own a car. At one point, we found that he was essentially paying the waiters by just taking money out of the register at the end of the evening and giving it to them.”
The chief tax collector even spent time with Donna trying to convince the chef to cough up the cash. “They’d have a very nice conversation, but the end result was we were getting nowhere,” O’Leary said. “So finally we said, ‘OK, no more nice guy.’”
That’s when authorities decided to make an example of Roberto Donna. The treasurer collected evidence and presented it to Theo Stamos, chief deputy in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
“Our first problem was actually convincing the prosecutor that this was something they should be doing,” O’Leary said. “At first they were somewhat skeptical, but we put together the evidence in a very convincing manner. It got pretty clear when month after month Roberto is signing off [on meals-tax reports], admitting that he owes us the money.”
Those monthly filings would prove to be Donna’s downfall.
“Each and every one has his signature on it,” O’Leary said. “He couldn’t claim that he didn’t know, that his accountant misled him, that his wife lied, who knows what.”
One of Donna’s attorneys, Danny C. Onorato of the D.C. firm Schertler & Onorato, said last week that the chef is working cooperatively with the county to pay back the taxes and penalties. “He has every intention to pay the county back as quickly as possible,” Onorato added.
When it comes to the planned opening of Galileo III, the key question isn’t whether Donna will pay back Arlington; it’s whether he still owes the District government any cash from his old Galileo days. A spokesman in the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which enforces the city’s tax laws, couldn’t comment on the matter. But here’s the bottom line for anyone applying for a permit or license, including a business license, within the District: An applicant cannot owe the city more than $100 for anything, from tickets to taxes.
Long-time restaurant consultant and owner Joe Spinelli explained to me that Donna could work around the District’s so-called clean-hands law by not putting his name on any of the permit or license applications, which would essentially make the chef an employee of, not a partner in, Galileo III. “The only name they need is his on the door,” Spinelli said.
Donna isn’t speaking to the press following his guilty plea to embezzlement. But on June 1, the chef wrote on the DonRockwell.com board that he was still working on an opening date. “[A]s soon [as] we will be ready I will post it on here for sure,” Donna added. The chef’s attorney didn’t anticipate that the embezzlement plea will “impact [Galileo] at all.” He said the restaurant was on schedule for a July opening.
That may be difficult. One restaurant industry source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Galileo site is still a construction zone and is nowhere near ready for an opening.
Even if the deal isn’t dead, it’s unclear how Donna will pay back his tax liability to Arlington. The chef has been hosting Italian cooking classes in his home, for which he charges around $160 per person. That’s likely not going to generate the necessary cash to pay back his debt.
The Arlington treasurer told me last week that, as far as he can tell, the lone asset in Donna’s name is his house. “I’d say he’s going to have to either refinance or sell his house to pay us off,” O’Leary added. “As far as we know. I mean, as I said, the man is a master at concealing his assets.”
But one fellow chef has grown tired of hearing about Donna’s dramas.
“Honestly, people today are too busy trying to make sense of their own lives to care all that much, one way or the other, about this type of controversy—and are way too used to it to be shocked,” says Michael Landrum, who recently opened in the District himself with Ray’s the Steaks at East River. “Those who do care might choose to spend their money elsewhere. Those who don’t wouldn’t care anyway. And some will simply judge the restaurant on the merits of its food, value, and service.”