Former Mafia man Frank Capri pleads responsible in restaurant rip-off, together with Celebration Pointe Rascal Flatts enterprise

A former Mafia soldier has admitted orchestrating the nationwide collapse of country-themed restaurants, including eight in Florida, one of them in Gainesville. 

Frank Capri told a federal judge in Arizona that he intentionally caused the failure of  Rascal Flatts and Toby Keith-branded restaurants in a scam that began in 2011. 

Among those were Rascal Flatts projects that fell apart in Gainesville and Orlando, and three others planned in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa. 

They also included a Toby Keith restaurant in Orlando that closed a few months after opening in 2015 and projects in Lakeland and Jacksonville that never materialized. 

Capri, who said at one point he was pocketing as much as $250,000 a week, pleaded guilty on Aug. 10 to one count each of conspiracy and tax evasion.   

Speaking via telephone to a near empty courtroom, Capri agreed to repay up to $18 million that he swindled out of developers between 2011 and 2015. 

“Guilty,” Capri said as U.S. Judge Magistrate John Boyle read the charges. “Guilty.”  

His admission follows six years of reporting by The Arizona Republic, which identified Capri as a former “made man” in New York’s notorious Lucchese crime family. 

Capri got a new identity in the Federal Witness Protection Program when he agreed to testify about the mob in 1993 and later moved to Arizona.  

The Republic laid out how Capri used his new identity to lure developers into paying him upfront fees to build restaurants, then walked away with millions of dollars meant for construction. 

The plea agreement makes no mention of Capri’s former life of crime or past deals with federal authorities. 

Capri’s lawyer, Steve Wallin of Phoenix, declined comment after the guilty plea. 

Asked about his client’s past as a mobster, he said, “We have not conceded that” and indicated he had no intention of doing so: “Hell, no.”  

No mention of past crimes, past life  

Avoiding a trial through the plea agreement ensures Capri will not face scrutiny about his Mafia past in court.  

It also allows the U.S. Attorney’s Office to avoid any potentially embarrassing disclosures about the Witness Protection Program and its oversight of Capri.

Assistant U.S. Attorney for Arizona Monica Klapper declined to speak about Capri’s plea agreement after the hearing. 

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for years have refused answer questions about Capri and the trail of financial destruction that followed him out of the Witness Protection Program.  

The U.S. Marshals Service, which manages the program, will not discuss Capri. 

Officials are legally prohibited from acknowledging if anyone is or was enrolled in the Witness Protection Program. 

In exchange for Capri’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop the bulk of the charges against him. 

A grand jury indicted Capri in 2020 on 16 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering that could have sent him to prison for almost 34 years.  

At 54 years old, it represented a life sentence for Capri. 

Capri was charged along with his mother, Debbie Corvo, 68, of Cave Creek, and former business partner Chris Burka. A lawyer who worked for Capri and two other business associates were charged separately. All took plea deals in which they agreed to cooperate with authorities.  

A failed Toby Keith’s restaurant chain 

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, contract breaches, unpaid rent, stiffing contractors or unpaid taxes.   

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 beginning in 2013. Even as restaurants went under, Capri was announcing plans to open new ones that never got built. 

The Toby Keith’s at Artegon Marketplace in Orlando opened in January 2015 and closed in July 2015.  

Lawsuits and liens filed by the landlord and contractors accused Boomtown of failing to pay rent and not paying contractors. The owners of the Orlando mall sued and obtained a $3.8 million judgment against Capri and his companies in 2015. 

Announced restaurant projects at Lakeland Square Mall in Lakeland and Roosevelt Square Mall in Jacksonville never were built. 

By late 2017, judges had ordered Capri and his companies to pay more than $65 million in judgments related to the Toby Keith restaurants. 

In a 2017 letter to The Republic, Capri denied pocketing development money and described the Toby Keith closures as nothing “other than the product of a business failure.” 

Rascal Flatts restaurant projects go under 

After the collapse of his Toby Keith chain, Capri was back in business with Rascal Flatts.  

The Republic found that Capri was behind the financial ruin of 19 Rascal Flatts restaurant projects that he set up and secretly ran. 

Capri’s name does not appear on corporate documents tied to the Rascal Flatts restaurants. But working from behind the scenes, he oversaw hiring, firing, employee payments, permits, construction schedules and collection of development fees. 

Secretly recorded audiotapes of Capri’s phone calls obtained by The Republic provided a vivid picture of his role. In the profanity-laced recordings, Capri threatens and intimidates developers in an attempt to squeeze cash out of the Rascal Flatts projects. 

Federal authorities don’t name Toby Keith or Rascal Flatts in court documents, which reference them by initials TK and RF and refer to them as the “branded restaurants.” 

Neither Keith nor Rascal Flatts was involved in the operation of the restaurants. They sold naming rights to Capri or his companies. 

Keith has declined for years to talk about his business arrangements with Capri. Rascal Flatts in 2019 terminated its licensing agreement as the restaurants failed and told fans the project was no longer happening. 

What happened in Florida? 

The Rascal Flatts projects in Florida exploded in 2018 amid a state contractor’s investigation and claims that unlicensed builders were working on jobs across the state.  

The Rascal Flatts project at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville was the flash point. Contractors who worked there said state building inspectors became concerned over a worker’s compensation claim. 

Phone calls recorded by one of Capri’s contractors show how Capri tried to control the damage and how he discussed moving contractors from city to city to take advantage of a loophole in Florida laws. 

Celebration Pointe officials declined in the past to discuss the project.  

They announced the Rascal Flatts restaurant in May 2018 with a promise of Southern-fried eats and live music. By August, the project was dead. 

Celebration Pointe sued to unwind the deal and won an eviction five months later in October.  

In February 2018, developers announced Rascal Flatts would be part of the $750 million Margaritaville Resort Orlando. It was supposed to be included as part of the development’s initial phase, called Sunset Walk. 

It never happened.  

Charlie Morris is the owner of Premier Plumbing in Florida. He said in 2019 that he was among those “ripped off by Frank Capri” in Gainesville.  

Morris said contractors were promised payments as soon as RF Restaurants got “draws” from the developer. But he said the payments weren’t forthcoming even after draws were paid. 

Morris said all of his communication was with Capri through another contractor. 

Morris said he lost $25,000 on the job. 

Plea deal focuses on developers’ losses 

The plea agreement deals exclusively with development fraud. 

It does not address claims raised by contractors like Morris, who said they were never paid for work on the restaurants. That includes painters, plumbers, welders and other workers who said the jobs cost them tens of thousands of dollars. 

Nor does it mention claims by former employees at Capri’s restaurants, who said they were shorted wages or owed pay when his restaurants abruptly closed. 

Authorities originally accused Capri of bilking developers out of $64 million. The plea deal, however, caps the amount Capri can be held responsible for taking. 

At sentencing, a judge could rule Capri’s fraud amounted to no more than $9.5 million. 

The deal stipulates that “the loss associated with defendant’s fraudulent conduct is between $9.5 million and $25 million.” 

Arizona businessman Frank Capri apparently orchestrated the collapse of Rascal Flatts restaurants in cities across the country, including one in Cleveland, according to an investigation by The Arizona Republic.

The most, however, that Capri will be required to repay to victims of his fraud under the deal is $18 million. 

Conspiracy and tax evasion each carry a maximum five-year prison sentence. But prosecutors agreed that Capri could serve any prison terms concurrently.  

That means Capri will likely spend no more than five years behind bars, a fact he made sure to clarify with the judge, who confirmed the five-year cap. “Yeah, Capri said. “I understand the agreement … OK.”  

Capri also faces $350,000 in fines and up to five years’ probation. He also must pay $1.5 million to the Internal Revenue Service for failing to disclose income in 2013, 2014 and 2015, according to the plea agreement. 

Capri has been held without bail since his arrest in February 2020. Prosecutors described him as a danger to the community and said in court filings that he posed an extreme flight risk, with access to diamonds, business accounts, credit cards and artwork that could be converted quickly into cash. 

They said Capri was living off of his ill-gotten gains and still had access to tens of millions of dollars he defrauded from developers. 

Prosecutors also said he had access to more than 100 bank accounts and sold high-end real estate and deposited the funds into an account controlled by his mother. Those properties included house and condominiums in Arizona, a condominium in Chicago and properties in Malibu and San Diego, California. 

Laying out the scheme  

Capri promised property developers and mall owners long-term leases in exchange for up-front cash to build the restaurants. 

These tenant improvement payments are supposed to serve as a kind of collateral, released in stages as construction goals are met. Except Capri didn’t meet his goals so much as make them up. 

Capri admitted he had no experience building, owning or operating restaurants when he began negotiating deals with developers. 

Capri and his associates ”provided inflated financial projections to property developers during lease negotiations and agreed to pay significantly increased rental amounts, so the developers would agree to larger TI fund amounts,” according to the plea agreement. 

Capri said he started defrauding developers about two years after he opened his first Toby Keith restaurant at Mesa Riverview in 2009, the plea agreement said. 

Capri told Boomtown employees in 2011 to fake construction records in order to pull money out of the projects, according to the deal. They used fraudulent paperwork, fabricated contractors, forged signatures and false notary stamps to convince developers that work was progressing on projects when it wasn’t. 

They also created virtual offices with phone numbers and addresses in case developers tried to verify information on the bogus paperwork, the deal said. 

Capri admitted that he used the money to buy luxury vehicles, expensive property and jewelry. He also used Boomtown debit cards to pay for personal expenses. He spent more than $2.7 million of Boomtown funds on jewelry alone, according to the plea agreement. 

He said between 2011 and 2015, property developers paid Boomtown $12,997,478 for work on Toby Keith restaurants that were never completed or didn’t open. 

Capri also admitted to conning developers out of another $5,035,225 on the Rascal Flatts projects. 

Mafia in our midst 

Capri in court told Judge Boyle it was his birthday. 

“Some birthday present,” Capri said, chuckling. 

It wasn’t, however, the birthday he was born with. 

Capri’s real name is Frank Gioia Jr., a third-generation mobster from New York’s Little Italy. Mafia historians say he’s one of the most important government witnesses ever to testify against the mob. 

His cooperation with law enforcement led to the conviction of more than 70 Mafia members — soldiers, captains, capos and bosses — in the 1990s and 2000s. He helped clear several unsolved murders. 

The Republic pieced together Capri’s identity as Gioia through court records, business documents, background searches and interviews with past and current associates. 

As a boy, Gioia dreamed of joining the mob. 

His father, Frank Gioia Sr., was a “made man” in the Genovese crime family. His grandfather, Nunzi Russo, ran a social club on Grand Street in the 1960s and 1970s that fronted a bookmaking operation. 

By his own admission, Gioia was a regular racket boy at 12, loan-sharking, bookmaking, stealing cars and doing the occasional stickup. He first shot someone at 18 and became a “made man” in 1991 at 24. 

He earned the nicknames “Baby Face” and “Spaghetti Man.” 

Gioia was running a heroin pipeline from Boston to Manhattan when he was arrested in 1993 on federal drug charges. He faced 30 years to life in prison when he got word the mob planned to kill his father. 

He became an informant instead. He testified that as a soldier in the Lucchese crime family, he plotted murders and committed assaults. He said he was an arsonist, shakedown artist, drug dealer and gun runner. 

Capri won’t talk about his past. He maintains stories about him are “false and defamatory” but has offered no proof to support his claims. 

He was scheduled for sentencing on the fraud and tax evasion charges in January.