Young and Hungry

Roberto Donna Pleads Guilty to Felony Embezzlement in Arlington County

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Roberto Donna, the chef who put regional Italian cooking on the map in the District with his Galileo restaurant, pleaded guilty today to one count of felony embezzlement in Arlington County, according to the Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney. Donna admitted withholding more than $150,000 in meals taxes, plus penalties and interest, from his now-shuttered Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City.

Arlington County Circuit Court judge Benjamin N.A. Kendrick sentenced Donna to a five-year sentence in the penitentiary but suspended it on condition of probation, good behavior, and restitution of $156,330. 96. The chef has not yet submitted a plan for restitution.

"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," says Arlington County Treasurer Frank O’Leary. "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."

One of Donna's attorneys, Danny C. Onorato of  Schertler & Onorato, says 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 says about Donna, whose flagship, Galileo, was once the benchmark of Italian cooking in the District.

In an interview this afternoon, the county treasurer laid out Arlington's long campaign to get Donna to pay his meals tax. The problems started, O'Leary says, right from the moment Bebo opened its doors in October 2006. Donna would file his meals-tax reports every month to the county's Commissioner of Revenue, his signature dutifully attached.

"Mr. Donna faithfully filed," O'Leary adds, "but he never bothered to give us any money."

This pattern continued until Bebo closed in April 2009, notes Kim Rucker, the county's  deputy treasurer. The treasurer's office tried to get Donna to comply with the law, O'Leary says.

"When we went after him to collect, we found it extremely difficult because he was very crafty," O'Leary says. "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 would even spend time with Donna, O'Leary adds, trying to convince the chef to cough up the money.  "They’d have a very nice conversation, but the end result was we were getting nowhere. So finally we said, ‘OK, no more nice guy.'"

That's when O'Leary 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 says. "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 says. "He couldn’t claim that he didn’t know, that his accountant misled him, that his wife lied, who knows what."

Does O'Leary have faith that the county will ever see that $156,000?

"I have faith that if he doesn’t, he’s going to go to jail unless he flees the country," the treasurer says. "So I don’t think he’s going to fool around, but I’d say he’s going to have to either re-finance or sells his house to pay us off. As far as we know. I mean, as I said, the man is a master at concealing his assets."

Bebo Trattoria, of course, is not alone in owing Arlington County meals tax money. Dozens of other restaurants have not paid their taxes, which are collected for and paid to the county on a monthly basis. You can find the full list here [PDF]. As of late 2009, Bebo, however, owed the most of any meal-service provider. The next highest delinquent account was held by Extra Virgin of Shirlington, which owes $83,219.72.  Other delinquent accounts include Arlington Catering Co ($70,734.58),  Murky Coffee Arlington ($52,949.69), and Tandoori Nights ($32,769.85).

Arlington Treasurer O'Leary hopes to convince the Commonwealth's Attorney to prosecute others on the list. "Our thought is that we’ll start at the top and go after the biggest fish first and just work our way down the list," O'Leary says.

Stamos in the Office of the Commonweatlh's Attorney "wouldn't rule out" the possibility of prosecuting others on the list.

A spokesman in the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which enforces the city's tax laws, couldn't comment on whether Donna owes the District any back taxes.

In the meantime, Donna's troubles come as he's trying to resurrect Galileo in the old Butterfield 9 space.  Donna is looking to re-establish himself in the District, which was once the center of a large restaurant empire that spread from Bethesda to Arlington. Donna himself recently wrote on the DonRockwell.com board that, "We are workng [sic] on the date as soon we will be ready I will post it on here for sure."

Onorato doesn't anticipate that Donna's plea will "impact [Galileo] at all." He says that the restaurant is still planning to open and may start serving within a couple of months. At present, Onorato says, Donna does not intend to talk to the press.

For the time being, the James Beard Award-winning Donna has been hosting Italian cooking classes in his home to earn a little bank.

  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    I always thought the service at Bebo was a crime, but this is ridiculous.

  • DC Voter

    Donna has also had myriad run ins like this and out of court settlements, OEO,INS types and the like, over the years. Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. One of his favorite early scams was to bring folks over from Italy, pay them less then starvation wages and hold the threat of deportation over their heads.

    Donna's claim to fame was mostly that he was the "other" of Rhyllis Richman's niece, a certifiable two-bagger, and Richman made him a star to the detrement of others. Truth was Donna's talent was marginal and his intellectual capacity that of a pile of pig dung - he appeals mostly to the pretentious but don't know any better set - but that was okay by Phyllis Richman because the only criteria by which she could judge, given how little about food she actually knew, was how many free cups of coffee were served after dinner.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish all the way around!

  • Wassup

    $156,330. 96? Thats a whole lot of nose candy!

  • JAC

    With a felony conviction he may have a problem getting an ABC license in D.C.

  • http://Twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    I don't think a felony conviction ever stopped anyone from getting an ABC license in DC. In fact, it's practically a requirement if you're running for Mayor.

  • capt trips

    put him in jail.

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  • SuperMe

    Sure it's a big deal to owe back taxes, but certainly not uncommon - as can be told about the attached restaurant list in the article. if i recall, many appointed officials owed taxes. pay them back and move forward. the guy reported, just didn't pay. he did not rob a store, that's a whole different category of crime, it's called theft, not documented/yet unpaid taxes. don't be dramatic about the crime.

  • Meaghan Parker

    How many restaurants in DC are not paying their meals taxes?

  • Jed

    He's crafty for renting restaurant equipment and not owning a car? Really? That's considered to be hiding assets? Plenty of people do not own cars and rent equipment for their business-I've never heard that called hiding assets before.

  • antonio

    I used to work for a company that supplied his restaurants. he NEVER paid his bills. he was one of those people who skated by on his reputation. glad to see him facing some consequences.

  • Washington Foodie

    antonio is so right. I also worked for a company that supplied his restaurants and he used people in the wholesale industry as his personal bank. He would buy from us on credit, get paid every night and then not pay us for 120 days if at all. He's been involved in bankruptcy before and has left many a Washington business holding the bag. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It's been suspected for years that he's been sending his money to Italy. I wouldn't dismiss the idea that he could flee.

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  • Tony

    "Superme" does not seem to understand. This is theft. Here is how: consumers pay 4% meals tax in Arlington restaurants. The restaurant owners collects the tax from the consumers and is supposed to submit it to the county. If they don't don't submit it, they are stealing from the County and the taxpayers. Plain and simple. This is not a tax paid on your profits or on your business property. This tax is supposed to be held in trust for the county by the restaurant until they submit it to the County. I think that's supposed to happen on a monthly basis. It's theft. From the County and the taxpayers.

  • Hammerhead

    The problem is that the county makes business owners become tax collectors. Businessmen should not be tax collectors. Btw- Murky Coffee was closed in DC for the same reason.

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  • Javier

    Mr, Donna has lots of money problems, I went to buy some plates at the store and his name was write on the wall as a no welcome person because he didnt pay the plates he got in credit. Sprry mr Roberto we have to play with the rules.

  • Bill Ventworm

    The statement by Hammerhead that "The problem is that the county makes business owners become tax collectors. Businessmen should not be tax collector?" is BS. Firstly Roberto is no businessman, all of his restaurants have failed, no matter how much you like him personally. Everyone knows the rules and play's by them. Your argument is weak, just because the process is flawed he should not have to turn the cash, that he collected on behalf of the county. If he felt that way, which i realize you are not suggesting, he should have not collected it. Fact is he was cash hungry and have an available source.

    Joker has yet to pay $1.00 of his bill to the county.

  • Waitress

    That motherf**** owes me $15000!!! I wish him to burn in hell!!

  • Chefjp

    As a former employee of Mr. Donna (I reserve the term Chef for people who actually lead kitchens and train cooks), I can say that he is an unrepentant thief and sociopath. He cares only about himself and was never above stealing from his vendors, employees, customers or investors. He is probably smirking about the suspended sentence. I will be very disappointed if he does not serve time. The level of filth, chaos, and mismanagement I experienced as a cook at Galileo quickly convinced me (and most of the staff) to leave in short order.

  • AwareOfaLot

    Those restaurant guys, including his former partner at Primi Piatti, Savino Recine, have been keeping separate "cash" from "credit card" books for decades. Usually stashing it above the ceiling of the bar. I'll bet DC has 250 million in unpaid taxes - it's common for restaurants to not take DC government seriously. Sad.

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  • ideagirl

    In a time when all municipalities, county and even the fedleral government are scraping by and services are being cut to a minimum, this is disgraceful. The fact that he received a suspended sentence is a joke. Clearly, he will flee if it comes to that.
    To those that don't think it is such a big deal, think of this when you see your next local tax hike. I bet you'll think it is a big deal then...

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