Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Say it ain't so, Joe

Maybe I’m just a late bloomer, or perhaps it’s a function of not living near Houston or a satellite Enron office. But until yesterday, I’d never known an acknowledged white-collar criminal. Joe Micatrotto is the first acquaintance of mine to be facing jail time.

It’s all a little weird, even with the lead-up. It must have been two years ago that reports first surfaced of a glaring impropriety. Joe was accused of listing himself on the deed to a house in Italy that had actually been purchased and maintained by his employer at the time, Buca Inc., parent of the Buca di Beppo family-style Italian chain. That facility—ostensibly a training center for Buca’s chefs, but actually a prop intended to give the peasant-themed Buca a dash of authenticity—was something that Joe seemed to view with great pride. When he spoke about the house, you had to hold back the obvious comment that he was merely copy-catting what Olive Garden had done years earlier to make its Florida-developed menu seem more Florentine.

But you make concessions for good guys, and Joe certainly was one. He volunteered readily for industry events, and would pick up the phone when a reporter called. I’d met his wife, and she and he had even cooperated on a difficult story we’d run at Restaurant Business, the magazine where I served as chief editor before rejoining Nation’s Restaurant News. The article aired the unpleasant truth that being married to a restaurant executive isn’t easy, given the long hours, incessant travel, and intense pressures that are inflected on most foodservice higher-ups. Joe’s wife had spoken freely about how she’d sharply felt those negatives early in their relationship, and how she’d felt somewhat trapped by the life.

To illustrate that point, we photographed her in a jail setting, behind bars.

And now, of course, it’s Joe who’s likely heading toward incarceration. He pleaded guilty on Tuesday to fraud charges, stemming from shenanigans that make me ashamed. He was accused of working in cahoots with a supplier to bill Buca for $65,000, which offset what the vendor had given Micatrotto to repay debts on a restaurant he owned. Technically, he’d also violated stringent new financial disclosure requirements, which makes him the first executive in the country to be convicted under the much-cursed Sarbanes-Oxley statutes.

I know this is very politically incorrect, but I feel sorry for Joe. He was once honored with industry awards, and stood on stages with some of the industry’s greats. Many of the trade’s big names called him friend and colleague, and he was featured in the pages of Nation’s Restaurant News just weeks before his guilty plea was entered. And now he’ll likely never know that industry esteem again.

But, lest you think I’m about to bake a file into a Buca meatball for delivery on visiting day, I can’t shake the memory of what happened when accusations of serious wrong-doing were first leveled against Joe. I wrote an editorial for Restaurant Business at the time, noting that the industry shouldn’t righteously smirk at Enron or Tyco when it had its own steamy scandals. I mentioned Joe by name in the column.

Not long after the editorial appeared, I was working late one night at Restaurant Business. Coming back from a soda-machine run, I found a voice-mail message, angrily blasting me for suggesting Micatrotto was involved in a scandal, and chastising me for not speaking with him before putting something like that in print. If I had tracked Micatrotto down, the caller said, I’d have learned that he was a victim of circumstances. And how could he have ever regarded me as a friend? It was Joe, and he left his number, challenging me to give him a call.

So I did. I think he figured I’d left the office long ago and wouldn’t find the message until the next morning; he seemed a bit nervous when he answered his home phone and found me on the line. I told him I had to report what the authorities were saying, but I’d welcome his side, if he’d give it. He demurred, strongly suggesting he really couldn’t say a word because of legal complications. But he never backed away from his assertion that the problem lay in the circumstances, not in his behavior.

And now he’s pleaded guilty to actions that were worse than the accusations I’d reported.

Regardless of what he actually did, or how truthful he was that night he called, I wish him well. If there’s a positive aspect to this, it’s that this might be the vigorous body shake that convinces Joe to change whatever landed him in this mess, and to move on, positively.

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