Galileo chef ordered to make up $527,000 in back pay

By Spencer S, Hsu and J. Freedom duLac
Friday, December 3, 2010; 10:53 PM

Less than two months after Roberto Donna reopened his flagship restaurant, Galileo III, the renowned Washington restaurateur has been served another enormous helping of trouble. A federal judge on Friday ordered the Italian chef to pay $527,000 in back pay, damages and legal fees to 12 workers who sued him for violating labor laws over nearly two decades.

In a 46-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote that Donna and his companies "consistently failed to abide by their duties" in failing to pay overtime, misstating the number of hours worked and rarely paying workers on time at Galileo, the upscale District dining room that closed in 2006, and at Bebo Trattoria, a Crystal City restaurant that was shuttered in April 2009.

Donna "engaged in a persistent and widespread practice of issuing checks without signatures, issuing post-dated checks, and issuing checks despite insufficient funds," the judge wrote. When they were paid, workers "stopped cashing paychecks because they often bounced." By not keeping enough cash on hand after each shift, the defendants also withheld large portions of workers' credit card tips, Lamberth wrote.

A hostess at Galileo III, which opened Oct. 4, said Donna was in the kitchen and not available to comment. "He's cooking away," she said. "We have a very busy lunch." Donna did not respond to a message left with the hostess.

Friday's ruling was the second blow delivered to the James Beard Award-winning chef in the past month. On Nov. 4, he pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement in Arlington County Circuit Court after collecting meal taxes at Bebo but neglecting to turn them over to the state. He received a five-year suspended sentence - and a bill of $375,439.56.

The case was nearly identical to one in June, when Donna also pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement over unpaid meal taxes - this time $157,984.21 owed to Arlington. Donna's treatment of employees was at the heart of allegations in another federal case filed in Virginia, in which five former Bebo workers last year won a judgment against the restaurateur, who was ordered to pay them nearly $25,000 plus attorneys fees.

An outsize figure in the food world, Donna has become as famous recently for his financial and legal problems as for his duck stew and white-truffle risotto.

In a Web chat this week, Donna addressed those problems, writing: "I am here working hard and being [a] responsible person and working on repaying and making amends. People learn from their mistakes, let's not dwell on the past and looking forward to a brighter responsible future!!"

Lamberth awarded the 12 workers back pay and an equal amount in damages, in amounts ranging from $8,364 to server Bisera Romic, who worked at Bebo for 18 weeks in 2008, to $63,060 to waiter Igor Vuckovic, who worked at Bebo for two years. The judge also awarded $133,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.

Donna has said in a deposition that he has no ownership stake in Galileo III and instead is a salaried employee earning $50,000 per year.

Licensing records show that the restaurant is owned by RCR, which is owned by Mabel, whose managing members are Corrado Bonino and Nancy Sabbagh. Bonino is Donna's longtime business partner and occasional bookkeeper, and Sabbagh is the chef's wife.

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