Restaurateur charged with robbery after snatching Arizona Republic reporter's phones during interview – The Arizona Republic
A restaurant owner faces a robbery charge after police accused her of snatching two cellphones belonging to an Arizona Republic reporter, then pushing and shoving her way out of a 2019 interview.
Tawny Costa, who operates Italian Parma Roots in Scottsdale, could face up to three years in prison if convicted. She has pleaded not guilty.
Costa served as the front woman in a mobster’s nationwide chain of failed Rascal Flatts restaurants and is behind the closure of several other eateries from San Diego to Boston.
Neither Costa nor her lawyer would comment on the case Monday.
Costa is accused in police reports of assaulting Republic dining reporter Priscilla Totiyapungprasert during a Dec. 5, 2019, interview at her now-defunct Phoenix restaurant, which also was called Italian Parma Roots.
Totiyapungprasert told police that Costa agreed to be recorded during the interview, then became agitated when questioned about her track record of restaurant closures and her relationship with a former Mafia soldier named Frank Capri.
Costa grabbed Totiyapungprasert’s cellphones off a table, then pushed and elbowed her before fleeing the restaurant, according to police reports.
Costa ditched Totiyapungprasert’s phone in the trash of a nearby business, police reports indicate. The phones were not recovered.
Costa, through a lawyer, declined to speak to police about the incident, according to police reports.
An officer recommended charging Costa with robbery for taking the phones and using physical force by thrashing about to prevent Totiyapungprasert from getting them back, according to police reports.
Totiyapungprasert said Monday the assault was unsettling.
“I’m thankful to have the support of my colleagues, as well as the police and prosecutor who investigated this case,” she said. “It wasn’t just the actual robbery that bothered me, it was the reason behind it: A restaurant owner stole private property … to silence a story.”
Costa said during the interview with Totiyapungprasert that she was the “sole owner” of Parma and Capri was not involved in the day-to-day operation of the Phoenix restaurant.
Her claims were contradicted by Arizona liquor regulators, who forced the closure of her Phoenix restaurant in December and are now investigating the “legality of her ownership” of the Scottsdale restaurant.
Costa provided false and misleading information on liquor applications about the true ownership of Parma, the money behind it and her involvement in Rascal Flatts and other failed restaurants, according to an Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control investigation.
“Costa engaged in a scheme to deceive,” Detective John Barchak wrote in a 19-page report.
Barchak said Costa admitted that she did not pay any state or federal income tax from 2015 to 2019, refused to comply with a subpoena to turn over financial documents and deceived authorities about her relationship with Capri.
Barchak’s report follows a Republic investigation into Capri and Costa that began in 2015.
Capri is best known for the epic failure of his Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill restaurant chain, which went under in 2015 amid allegations of fraud and theft. He was also behind the financial ruin of 19 Rascal Flatts restaurant projects that were set up in Costa’s name.
Capri’s real name is Frank Gioia Jr. He was a “made man” in the notorious Lucchese crime family when he flipped to become a government witness in the 1990s. Authorities said his testimony led to the conviction of more than 70 organized crime figures.
The Republic documented Gioia’s transformation into Capri through the Federal Witness Protection Program. It showed how he used his new identity to build himself up as an Arizona real estate mogul and restaurateur and then bilked developers out of tens of millions of dollars.
Mafia in our midst:A mob soldier turned Phoenix businessman
Capri’s company, Boomtown Entertainment, built 20 Toby Keith restaurants beginning in 2009 and announced plans to build 20 more that never opened. It closed 19 restaurants in about 18 months. Even as restaurants went under, Capri was announcing plans to open locations that were never built.
By 2017, judges in cities across the country ordered him or his companies to pay at least $65 million in civil judgments. But Capri was already at work on his next big restaurant failure: Rascal Flatts.
Capri’s name does not appear on corporate documents tied to the Rascal Flatts restaurants. But secretly recorded audiotapes of Capri’s phone calls obtained by The Republic showed he oversaw hiring, firing, employee payments, permits, construction schedules and collection of development fees.
Neither Keith nor Rascal Flatts were involved in the operation of the restaurants. They sold naming rights to Capri or his companies. Rascal Flatts later terminated its licensing agreement as the restaurant projects failed.
Capri, 53, of Scottsdale, was arrested in 2020 and is being held without bail in an Arizona prison pending trial on fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for years have declined to answer questions about Capri or the trail of financial destruction that followed him out of the Witness Protection Program.
Federal authorities have accused Capri of using restaurant licensing deals with Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts as a lure to defraud developers across the country. They said Capri enlisted his mother and other associates to funnel money meant to pay for restaurant construction at malls into their own accounts.
Authorities said they used fraudulent paperwork, fabricated contractors, forged signatures and false notary stamps to convince developers work was progressing on projects when it wasn’t.
Federal authorities do not name Costa in the indictment. They refer to her as a Capri “nominee.”
Capri and Costa have orchestrated the failure of 65 restaurant projects since 2013 that either closed after opening, were left unfinished or never started; 39 under Capri and 26 under Costa’s name, according to a Republic tally.
Costa has described her relationship with Capri differently depending on who is asking the questions.
She told Barchak they began their relationship in 2013 and it ended sometime in 2019. She said even though they lived together, they weren’t a couple for at least a year.
Capri is father to Costa’s two daughters.
Costa initiated calls to The Republic in 2017 posing as other people to gather information for Capri. She later acknowledged the ruse and described herself as Capri’s girlfriend and his facilitator.
Costa claimed in 2018 she didn’t know about Capri’s Mafia past and denied being his girlfriend.
“While they at one point in time had a personal relationship … Ms. Costa is and was not Mr. Capri’s girlfriend,” a lawyer representing Costa wrote in a letter to The Republic.
The letter was sent at the same time Costa was helping Capri to develop Rascal Flatts restaurants.
In 2018, Costa also took over as manager for Capri’s last remaining Toby Keith restaurant in Foxborough, Massachusetts. She appeared at a public meeting to assure public officials the restaurant was in good hands. It closed for good in 2019.
Costa admitted in 2019 to fronting the Rascal Flatts restaurants for Capri. In a series of texts to The Republic, Costa said Capri manipulated her into putting her name on corporation and business records for restaurants from Hawaii to Florida.
She claimed she was inexperienced and naive. Costa’s sister also had a role in the Rascal Flatts restaurants, records show.
Costa has similarly given various explanations of her ownership roles in now shuttered restaurants. In publications and in interviews she has described herself as the owner of restaurants, including Parma.
When questions have arisen over closures and lawsuits involving those restaurants, Costa has said she is only a manager or a member of the controlling limited liability company.
Costa opened Parma on Indian School Road near 36th Street in 2019 and operated under an interim liquor license for more than a year.
But just before a Dec. 3 hearing by the State Liquor Board on her permanent license, Costa withdrew her application and closed the restaurant.
Barchak raised doubts about Costa’s ownership of Parma, saying financial records and interviews indicated Capri maintained interests in both the Phoenix and Scottsdale restaurants.
The report cited five violations that could have prevented Costa from getting a liquor license under Arizona law, including her lack “of good moral character” and her “capability, qualification and reliability.”
Barchak said Costa failed to disclose two prior arrests; one in Dallas County, Texas, in 2011 and in Scottsdale in 2015. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in both cases.
He also highlighted Costa’s alleged assault of Totiyapungprasert.
Barchak said the incident appeared “to be an act of violence” and said police reports indicated Costa was in a disorderly or intoxicated condition at the time, a violation of state liquor license regulations.
He said Costa, as the restaurant owner, failed to deescalate the situation and call police.
“Instead, Costa allegedly took Priscilla’s phones and engaged in an altercation or tumultuous conduct inside the kitchen,” Barchak said in his report.
Robert Anglen investigates consumer issues for The Republic. If you’re the victim of fraud, waste or abuse, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8694. Follow him on Twitter @robertanglen
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