Fresco's restaurant partners locked in legal battle

Fresco’s minority owner Michael Roberts alleges fraud and embezzlement by David Sockol, who in turn accuses Roberts of engaging in fraud. The management company that handles Fresco’s lease for the city says it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

SLOBODAN JURIC | Special to the Times

Fresco’s minority owner Michael Roberts alleges fraud and embezzlement by David Sockol, who in turn accuses Roberts of engaging in fraud. The management company that handles Fresco’s lease for the city says it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

ST. PETERSBURG

A long-simmering dispute among owners of Fresco's Ristorante at the foot of the Pier has emerged in court, with claims of theft and deception between former "good friends."

Filings reveal conflict under the awnings of the waterfront restaurant on city land.

Michael Roberts, a minority owner since Fresco's was organized in 2003, says David Sockol unlawfully calls himself managing member of the company — and that four partners claim more than 142 percent ownership.

Roberts' 21-page lawsuit details allegations of fraud and embezzlement by Sockol, including paying top employees under the table so they could claim state benefits.

Sockol, a lawyer, says the story's much simpler: that he has been majority owner since 2005, and that Roberts is the one who engaged in fraud by recently identifying himself as managing member and registered agent in the company to open a bank account in the restaurant's name and to take out a $110,000 loan. He has filed a counterclaim for damages because the loan uses the restaurant's liquor license as collateral.

Both say they feel betrayed, and that the dispute represents loss of a close friendship: Sockol presided over Roberts' 2003 wedding.

"This is one of the saddest times in my life," Roberts said. "I can't express it."

Roberts, 40, owned the Vinoy Bed & Breakfast for a decade, and put profits from the 2007 sale into a 3,464-square-foot home in the Old Northeast. Its value has tumbled with the real estate market. Now he has his share in the restaurant but is unemployed — as he puts it, "living on the edge."

"I'm desperately hunting for a job," he said.

Sockol, 51, says the legal wrangling is "just a shame." Roberts no longer participates in restaurant management meetings because he behaved inappropriately, the counterclaim says. And the recent loan in the restaurant's name was simply stealing, Sockol says.

"It's a shame for me, because it's just costing too much money to deal with all of this," he said.

Sockol said that with the record cold winter having hurt the restaurant business, plus other expenses, Fresco's owes him $300,000. So he finds Roberts' accusations that he stole from the company "ridiculous."

"It's all so false. I'm shocked, I'm shocked. It's my fault for doing business with him," Sockol said.

The management company that handles Fresco's lease for the city (which owns the property) says Sockol's the one who signed it and that the rent has always been current.

Don Paul, the project manager for Urban Retail Properties, says it's hard to tell what's going on. And now mud is starting to fly.

"How do you sort out truth?" he said.

Roberts' attorney, James Hunter, hopes for clarity from the unfolding legal process.

"Everyone will get the records that they want, and we'll try to sort through the information to find what the facts really are," he said.

Fresco's restaurant partners locked in legal battle 06/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 6:54pm]

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