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Mayor urges caution in dealing with activist

The arrest of Ron Vassallo, who is active in civic affairs and owns a 1950s-style restaurant on Alt. U.S. 19, has caused at least one city official to say the city should be cautious in dealing with him. "I would think that until the air is cleared, our staff would shy away from having any real contractual agreement with him," said Mayor Manuel Koutsourais. Last year, Vassallo helped stage an oldies concert at Dunedin Stadium.

Vassallo, 43, owner of the Dog House, was charged Tuesday with bank fraud and money laundering. A federal indictment alleges that in 1986 and 1987, Vassallo, a former Florida National Bank executive, helped the bank make more than $1-million in loans that were supposedly for his friends and relatives. They never knew about the loans, and he used the proceeds to invest in his own businesses, the indictment says. Vassallo also forged the signatures of purported borrowers on loan documents and checks, authorities said.

Vassallo, who is free on $20,000 bail, said he isn't guilty. The indictment says, among other things, he improperly approved an $85,000 loan to Edward Giancola Jr., of the Giancola family that owns three Piggly Wiggly supermarkets.

"He was a very good customer of the bank," Vassallo said Wednesday. "No one individual can make loans without reporting to other individuals."

This is not Vassallo's first involvement with the law. In January 1988, he was charged with grand theft for approving a loan for $98,715.70 that was never received by the person whose name was on the loan application, according to jail records.

Joseph G. Donahay, Vassallo's attorney, said his client pleaded not guilty and the charges were dismissed by the state attorney's office. The case was sealed in 1989 and later expunged, he said.

"There is no bilking of money," Vassallo said Wednesday. "If there was, they wouldn't have let me out three and a half years ago."

Vassallo has been involved in several city projects. Last year, he helped stage a concert with Bill Haley's Comets and several other groups at Dunedin Stadium. In April, he said, he held a classic car show in downtown Dunedin in conjunction with a rib cook-off.

He said he raised $3,000 at a restaurant fund-raiser for the Tampa Bay Opera Company and is sponsoring a sock hop this Friday at the Clearwater City Hall Annex to raise money for the Pinellas County Schools AAU Girls Basketball team.