Friday, May 28, 2010

28 MAY 10: From Riccis to Rags

Many stories of history are "rise and fall" stories. In the last century, the Soviet Union rose and fell. The Nazi Third Reich rose and fell. And some people probably don't want me to keep bringing up WRCG radio.

A classic case of rising and falling reached a sad end in Columbus federal court Thursday. WTVM reported Jose Ricci pleaded guilty to money laundering, and will spend nearly four years in prison. If only he had settled for laundering his staff's uniforms....

Jose Ricci owned the Ritmo Latino Club on South Lumpkin Road with his brother, Gerardo. He pleaded guilty to money laundering as well, but was sentenced to only six months in prison. It's not clear why Gerardo's sentence is shorter. Did his attorney spend less time in the "spin cycle" - trying to claim he was innocent?

Federal prosecutors believe the Ricci brothers illegally sold cocaine, then transferred drug money from their personal bank accounts into an account set up by drug agents. But clearly the trouble started with cocaine - at a club which certainly wasn't known for rock stars.

But it's Jose Ricci's name who grabbed my attention, because of his background. Ricci turned a job as executive chef at the Columbus Civic Center into a restaurant, then a weekend radio station and a monthly magazine. It seemed the next logical step was for Ricci to buy a minor league baseball team.

Former Mayor Bob Poydasheff still may shudder a bit over writing these words for the City of Columbus 2003-2004 annual report: "Ritmo Latino, Inc., with a sharp new office on Victory Drive, leads various enterprises that serve the growing Columbus Latino community...." Only days after that was printed, Jose Ricci was indicted for embezzlement [8 Jul 04]. While his office was sharp, his criminal skills were not.

The Jose Ricci case disappeared from media attention after the indictment. It was left to your blog to track down what happened, in the wake of an e-mail question [11 Sep 08]. Ricci admitted in court in 2007 he stole at least $150,000 in Civic Center concession money, so he could accept a business proposal. This was before officials set aside city money to steal businesses from Ohio....

An Assistant District Attorney told me in 2008 Jose Ricci still had not repaid all the money he embezzled. If he still owes money now, he'll have to repay it very slowly - selling one pack of prison cigarettes at a time.

Then came the F.B.I. raid of the Ritmo Latino Club 13 months ago [26 Apr 09], which led to Thursday's guilty pleas. No real successor to the nightclub has emerged for the Columbus Hispanic community. Why, Café La Vaca on Victory Drive changed its name before I could check what "La Vaca" means in English.

The only Hispanic music left on Columbus radio can be heard Saturdays on WRCG. And while "Eco Latino" offers a little news in Spanish every two weeks, former radio personality Gladiola Unzueta now is publishing her own Hispanic business magazine - making this Gladiola a hardy periodical.

You can draw your own lessons and conclusions from the story of Jose Ricci. I see a man who made several good steps on the road to success, then made an ethical misstep which ruined it all. Keep your business affairs clean, and you won't need to resort to laundering of any kind.

Other criminal matters begin our review of other Thursday headlines....

+ Columbus Police told WLTZ the city has had nearly 500 car thefts so far this year. Yet preliminary F.B.I. figures show that's a pace below last year, when the city had more than 1,500 thefts -- so which video game has become more popular than "Grand Theft Auto?"

. (Officers say a surprisingly high number of auto thefts occur because people leave their keys in plain sight, inside the car. There's a crime prevention marketing idea waiting to happen here - involving fuzzy dice with hidden zippers.)

+ Officials with the "Georgia Meth Project" came to Columbus, showing their latest graphic billboards and commercials. While the images may seem shocking, they could have been worse. They could have hired that guy with the big glasses from Six Flags to dance and sing.

+ City Manager Isaiah Hugley told WTVM once Columbus Council meetings are moved to the planned Citizen Services Center, the current council chambers in the Government Center might be converted into courtrooms. Considering how many times Ed DuBose and Paul Olson have grilled councilors there, it would be only fitting....

+ Almost all Columbus city swimming pools opened for the summer. I assume at some point in the next ten weeks, the Columbus Tea Party will throw tea bags in them and demand they be sold to Gold's Gym.

+ Long-distance runner John Teeples began a five-day jog from Columbus to Savannah, raising money for the House of Heroes program. Teeples ran 85 miles on the opening day - so I assume he was carried along for a while by one of those pop-up thunderstorms.

+ Alabama and Auburn won their games in the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament. Auburn eliminated South Carolina 3-1 in 12 innings - but there's no word about whether the South Carolina coach threw his visor on the ground in disgust.

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