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Life's work, business empire in ruin for man behind Able Body Labor

CLEARWATER — The U.S. marshals moved in on April 1, the last day of Frank Mongelluzzi's empire.

Marshals seized financial records at an Italian restaurant, three pawnshops and the vacant headquarters of Able Body Labor, Mongelluzzi's defunct day labor firm. In those buildings lay the last traces of Mongelluzzi's business holdings, once totaling millions of dollars.

The Florida construction boom turned Able Body into one of the country's largest temporary staffing services, with offices in 26 states. Profits from that business and others allowed Mongelluzzi to make hefty political contributions, buy private jets and create a special-needs school inspired by his adopted son.

But the business, so dependent on growth, was dismantled by the housing crash. Mongelluzzi watched his finances crash, too. In February, the Dunedin businessman filed for bankruptcy, handing much of his life's work to a court-appointed trustee. Creditors claimed he owed them nearly $60 million.

The bankruptcy proved devastating for Mongelluzzi, 62, whose stress sent him to a hospital in the week after the federal marshals' raid.

But the bankruptcy is also a problem for dozens of workers under Mongelluzzi's business umbrella, including the dozen faculty members of Vincero Academy, a private school in Palm Harbor for students with learning disabilities. The teachers haven't been paid in weeks.

At Pssghetti's, a colorful Italian market and restaurant Mongelluzzi and his wife opened on U.S. 19 in Clearwater last year, about 30 servers and cooks had worked three weeks for free, hoping they would be repaid, said manager William Owen. On Monday, out of options, Owen locked the restaurant's doors and left.

"It's the bottom of the ninth, we're down by three, there are two outs — and nobody's on base," Owen said. "Everybody's running out of faith right now."

• • •

In the boom years, contractors couldn't get enough of Able Body Labor.

Founded in 1986, the small Clearwater firm expanded into a national name. Carpenters and day laborers were dispatched to construction sites from 175 centers nationwide.

As the family business grew — Frank's son, Chris, was vice president — Mongelluzzi pursued new ventures. Records show he spent years scooping up property and incorporating dozens of companies, some with his wife, Anne. Between 2005 and 2008, the family gave about $55,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates.

Yet for all their wealth, the Mongelluzzis were not well known. Their brightest spotlight came in 2005, when airline staffers in Tampa refused to fly a quadriplegic man to Ohio because of his ventilator. The Mongelluzzis saved the day, offering their private jet.

The economic collapse crippled Able Body. The demand for day labor fell. The business, attorney Rich McIntyre of Tampa said, "was left holding the bag" for mounting debts.

Mongelluzzi sold Able Body for $40 million last year to MDT Personnel, a Pennsylvania staffing service. But the deal didn't go smoothly and the new owners soon sued, accusing him of locking them out of offices and using bankruptcy to try to dismantle the deal.

Meanwhile, the Mongelluzzis faced lenders encroaching on several fronts. Banks demanded millions in payment. A California mechanics company sued, accusing Mongelluzzi of owing $80,000 for repairs to a Gulfstream G-IV jet.

The largest claim came from Philadelphia lenders that accused Mongelluzzi of stiffing them for $18 million. The money had been spent on two business-class jets he planned to resell in 2009, The Deal Magazine reported.

In court filings, Mongelluzzi blamed "financial difficulties in other businesses" for his failure to repay that debt. After a protracted legal battle, the jets were repossessed.

• • •

Six years ago, the Mongelluzzis opened Vincero Academy, a year-round school for students with learning disabilities. Their son, Anthony, a "big teddy bear" who had been bullied by former classmates, was among the first to enroll, Mongelluzzi said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

This year marks the school's first graduating class — eight students are headed to college. But the school's future is much less certain. Its building on U.S. 19, owned by a Mongelluzzi partnership called Organized Confusion, is in foreclosure. Faculty members haven't been paid since the middle of March. Calls to school principal Richard Wolfe were not returned.

Mongelluzzi said he had high hopes that the school and restaurant would survive, though he said he no longer had control of them. Bankruptcy trustee Angela Esposito of Odessa now controls Mongelluzzi's former assets. Esposito did not return calls for comment.

Parents and benefactors of the Vincero Academy, Mongelluzzi said, had offered to pool money together to keep classes in session. In the meantime, dozens of jobs hang in the balance.

"My heart goes out to them. I tried my best," he said. "I wish I could have done something."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Life's work, business empire in ruin for man behind Able Body Labor 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 11:41pm]

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