Photo by Jack GouldSandwiched between the Sugar Shack and Longboard Pub on Main Street in Huntington Beach is an orange and green storefront. Its windows are mostly covered with brown butcher paper, but it's still possible to peer inside and see an empty room, stacked tables and exposed electrical wiring where drywall should be hanging. There are pretty flowers in the upstairs planter boxes, but they appear to be dying. Instead of a menu hanging in the window, there's a summons from the landlord demanding $40,000 in back rent.
This sad storefront was to be Bella Luna, an Italian restaurant for the thousands of locals and tourists who converge near the Huntington Pier daily. But Bella Luna was doomed before it even got off the ground, mostly because its lead partner was convicted felon and disgraced former Huntington Beach mayor Dave Garofalo.
It would be nice to assume Garofalo learned from his Jan. 9, 2002, felony conviction for benefiting financially from votes he cast on the Huntington Beach City Council. But he didn't. Today, besides facing a lawsuit from one of his Bella Luna partners, Garofalo has been sent a cease and desist letter from the owners of a fledgling Huntington Beach magazine alleging that he stole their artwork and press materials, then passed them off as his own.
In many ways, the cases hearken back to the freewheeling shenanigans that ended Garofalo's eight-year political career and branded him a felon. Bella Luna was supposed to rebuild his image and life. But now the restaurant is in much the same shape as Garofalo—wrecked, financially ruined, a mockery of what might have been.
Supposed to open back in April, the restaurant never served a single plate of ravioli or glass of vino. Almost immediately, say two of his estranged partners, Garofalo tried to seize control over the restaurant even though he had no idea what he was doing.
"He told me, 'This is going to be the finest dining on the West Coast,'" said partner and former restaurateur Ron Quick.
Quick says he was astonished at such nonsense, considering that Bella Luna was conceived as a modest family restaurant. Quick even recalls telling Garofalo at one point that he was "psycho." But having already sunk $35,000 into the joint, Quick stuck it out.
Same story with partner Dennis Boggeln, the building landlord who is suing Garofalo.
"I would describe Garofalo as Napol- eonic," said Boggeln. "He put together everything. He promised us a restaurant for $105,000. Now there's no real hope of completing it. He's not willing to take responsibility. He actually said that if I forgive the $40,000 in rent he owes that we'd be open now."
Quick, Boggeln, Garofalo and two other local merchants formed the Bella Luna LLC in early 2003 with seemingly the best of intentions. But the division of investment and control was unequal. Despite putting in just $15,000—Quick and Boggeln each invested more than twice that amount—Garofalo ended up with 27 percent of the restaurant, which amounted to controlling interest. But he divvied up his share with his two children, leaving him with just 9 percent ownership on paper. Alcoholic Beverage Control refuses to grant liquor licenses to convicted felons who own more than 10 percent of a business.
Quick and Boggeln claim that despite Garofalo's actual ownership of just a small share of the restaurant, he immediately seized power, making decisions without consulting the other partners, including hiring a contractor who did no work. They also allege that when they tried to reassert control, Garofalo took revenge by delaying the restaurant's opening through the summer.
"My perception is he wanted to screw the landlord," said Boggeln, the landlord. "I didn't forgive the rent. So if he can't have a restaurant, then no one can. I don't think his mom ever taught him responsibility."
Garofalo's ambitions have always been just a few steps beyond his abilities. He wanted to be a high-class restaurant owner, but his own ineptitude doomed that. He wanted to be a congressman, but his felony convictions and radioactive name make that impossible. And he wanted to be a big-time newspaper publisher, but now his own recklessness and arrogance is destroying that, too.
As the Bella Luna travesty unfolds, Garofalo has embroiled himself in charges of fraud and theft involving HB Magazine, a new four-color glossy lifestyle publication set to debut in Surf City on Sept. 15.
Carrie Case, the new magazine's publisher, on July 19 e-mailed prospective advertisers media kits, a mock-up cover and a press release that stated, "Each issue of HB Magazine features a unique blend of business trend features, entrepreneur profiles and company spotlights." Everything was going smoothly for the start-up until Aug. 5, when one of Case's partners opened up a new e-mail from Garofalo containing their mock-up cover with his new masthead covering theirs.
"Everything was the same," said Case. "But he replaced HB Magazine with People in Business/People in Neighborhoods/Greater Huntington Beach Area. It's pure plagiarism and theft."
Copies of both covers Case provided show that Garofalo was perfectly happy with the blue and yellow design announcing a main story about "Huntington Beach Captains of Industry" and smaller pieces on "Golf Fitness, Day Spas, Dining Destinations and Fall Fashion."
More disturbing, Garofalo also apparently swiped Case's press release, rewrote it slightly and then began e-mailing his version to addresses on his own distribution list. Copies of both releases Case provided show Garofalo didn't spend a lot of time reworking the original.
In one instance, theft is undeniable. One section of HB Magazine's original release reads, "'[W]e realized that there was no high-quality format publication distributed within the city with an editorial scope that specifically addresses issues affecting our community, features our business leaders and industry innovators, and encompasses articles on the many recreational activities and entertainment options found right here at home,' says Carrie Case, co-publisher."
Here's Garofalo's version, which he attributed to his daughter "Nancy Gray, Editor":
"[W]e realize the area was in need of a high-quality format publication distributed in the Greater Huntington Beach with an editorial scope that specifically addresses issues affecting our community, features our business leaders and industry innovators, and encompasses articles on the many recreational activities and entertainment options found right here at home."
Garofalo didn't respond to repeated phone, fax and e-mail requests for comment on this story. But he did write a series of rambling e-mails to Case and one of her partners. The Aug. 7 message stands out. It contains the same tortured syntax, terrifying misspellings and cascading run-on sentences that fill vintage Garofalo writings, and is basically a thinly disguised attempt to muscle in on the magazine.
"I have that plan [to start a profitable, glossy magazine in Huntington] but you jumped the gun on me," wrote Garofalo. "Actually, all you had to do is discuss with me what you wanted to do and that would have immediately lead to a dialogue that would probable have lead to a PLAN and more likely profitable program than would be possible otherwise. . . . So, while valuable time has passed, I am prepared to talk with you (and your staff) if you want to. Merging the ads of The Local News into a News-Mag format with other high profile ingredients would result in no less than a $65,000 Gross Sales effort."
Case responded by telling Garofalo to stop distributing their artwork and intellectual property and, more importantly, to leave her and her partners alone. Garofalo responded with more emails, denying that he'd sent his mock-mock-up cover and re-written press release to anyone but HB Magazine's founders, even though his email's cc box clearly contained two distinct distribution list addresses. He also cursed them for soliciting adds from "my clients," for not trying to involve him in their magazine and for talking with me.
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"For several days (your friends) at OC Weekly have been trying to reach me," wrote Garofalo on Aug. 12, just a few hours after I left phone and fax messages at his office. "As far as the OCW goes—seems like a pretty cheap shot. I am surprised. But then again—it's a different world out there today then [sic] it used to be."
Running a new restaurant into the ground before it even opens and stealing a magazine's mock-up cover and trying to pass it off as one's own are consistent with Garofalo's rich history of sleaze and crookedness. Remember, this is a man who, according to divorce records, dipped into insurance money intended to pay for his son's congenital kidney failure treatment. Back then, glad-handing around town, Garofalo was fond of passing out two-sided business cards. One side featured the official city seal, and the other his logo for The Local News. In 1998, he vaulted to the front of a local developer's waiting list for new homes, then sold the home for a $60,000 profit after owning it just one day.
His arrogance knows no bounds. He once cursed and yelled at a diminutive senior citizen in public—swore he would take "revenge" on her—when she attempted to bid on the lucrative Huntington Beach Visitor's Guidepublishing contract then being taken away from him because of conflicts of interest. Of course, Garofalo was under a lot of pressure—at the time he was not only fending off charges that he was a crook, but he was also trying to set up a dummy front company in his office to get the Guide contract back. Of course, all that pales compared to the time Garofalo strong-armed a local resident during an 8k race, calling him an "asshole" for daring to speak with the Weekly.
Case, Quick and Boggeln all said they had no idea any of that was in Garofalo's past or even that he'd been convicted of a felony when they began dealing with him. At least they learned their lesson. Garofalo, it seems, needs more convincing.