We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
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.