Labor Department job-training money, earmarked to help the hard-core unemployed, was used instead to run Tampa's largest string of bars, paying bartenders and lounge managers to learn jobs they've been doing for years.
That's what a federal grand jury said earlier this month in charging that one of the bar's owners and the local job-training director had conspired to defraud the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program.
There have been other CETA fraud cases since the program was set up in 1973, but this is the first time Justice Department organized crime specialists have got involved, U.S. strike force chief Dave Margolis said.
The pivotal figure in the case is Cesar Augustus Rodriguez, a nightclub owner, a convicted-but-pardoned bolita peddler and survivor of two 1975 gangland assassination attempts -- one by car bombing and one by sawed-off shotgun. Rodriguez doesn't talk to reporters.
Rodriguez, 49, wasn't charged in the job-fraud case, but public records and the 15-count indictment show the alleged scheme revolves around his business and private relationships.
In 1975, Rodriguez and four other men set up a company called Spigrin Inc. For $1.5 million they bought 11 Tampa bars with names like Bop City, Gator Bar, Paradise Inn and the Blind Pig.
One of Rodriguez' partners was Ray Tamargo, a prominent lawyer who, in the 1960s, was the county's Democratic Committee chairman, a public defender and special assistant state attorney general. Tamargo 47, took care of Spigrin's day-to-day operations.
Tamargo fired many key people who worked in the bars and ordered that all bar managers be hired through Hillsborough County/Tamp Comprehensive Employment Program (TCEP), the local agency that administered CETA, the grand jury said.
The director of TCEP was Angelo Cannata, 48, a 10-year county employe who had advanced through the city welfare department to head a program that administered $7.5 million a year in federal job money.
Cannata and Rodriguez grew up together in Tampa. Unknown to his bosses in county government, Cannata had for several years been moonlighting in one of the many bars Rodriguez owned.
With Cannata's help, Tamargo found employes for the Spigrin bars and then enrolled them in a TCEP on-the-job training program, the grand jury said.
Spigrin trained no one, and used the new employes as cheap labor, it was charged. However, Tamargo submitted bills to Cannata, who, knowing they were fradulent, approved them and passed them along to the federal government, the grand jury charged.
Cannata's lawyer, former federal prosecutor Gary Trombley, said Cannata was supervised by the county administrator and commissioners.
"Why they chose [to indict] Cannata out of that hierarchy is a mystery," Trombley said, calling the case "vague and flimsy."
Spigrin became Tampa's biggest job training program participant. Twenty-three of its 50 employes were TCEP trainees. None of the 169 other businesses in the program got as much money -- $12,300 in a year -- as Spigrin. TCEP paid up to half the salaries of in-training employes, for up to 20 weeks each.
One trainee, Linda Bowling Scott, worked in the Spigrin office as an accounting clerk. She came to that job from county government, where she's been Cannata's secretary. She, like her bosses, Cannata and Tamargo, was indicted.
Another trainee was Aaron Melton Jr., then a 20-year-old who trained to be assistant manager of Carrollwood Lounge. But before training, Melton had worked for two years at another of Rodriguez' solely owned bars.
In numerous cases like Melton's, the government alleges, employes were simply put to work and not taught anything.
Melton won't talk about his experience, but his father said, "The only training he ever got was by working. He got screwed. It was a bad deal all around."