Antico Pizza owner and the Dept. of Labor reach an agreement

Or, insert your own snappy headline here; you won’t be the first
Giovanni Di Palma, antico pizza
Giovanni Di Palma

Cat Max Photography

At 6:38 p.m. on Monday I got an email from Tucker Berta, president of Liz Lapidus PR, which runs publicity (and occasionally interference) for Giovanni Di Palma, the owner of the insanely popular Antico Pizza and a man whose high regard for himself is the stuff of legend.

Berta wanted to know if I had attended the hearing that afternoon in federal court, where the U.S. Department of Labor was seeking a temporary restraining order against Di Palma, who, the feds alleged, had not paid time-and-a-half to his workers who clocked more than 40 hours in a week and had intimidated, threatened, and even, in one case, fired a worker who he thought was talking with DOL investigators.

With the investigation ongoing (wage and hour investigators with the DOL have already interviewed 40 workers at Di Palma’s westside Little Italia complex), the labor department wanted Judge Steve Jones to issue an order that would, essentially, order Di Palma to shut up and leave his workers alone while they wrapped up their investigation.

Indeed I had been at the hearing, but I left before it was over, simply because the courtroom had cleared out while the two sides tried to reach a private agreement and I found myself all alone at around 5 p.m., wondering how late I could wait outside the courtroom before security sent me home from the Richard B. Russell Federal Building.

Berta’s email, which I saw that evening, said it had been a “successful day for Gio” and did I plan to write about it? If so, she informed me, Di Palma was “insistent that he wants a strong headline that communicates success.” Their suggestion? “Giovanni Di Palma Successfully Resolves Department of Labor’s Filing.”

(I’m imagining that back-and-forth now:

Berta: The subject of a story can’t dictate the wording of a headline.

Di Palma: Why not?

Berta: Because the reporter will find it presumptuous. They’re very sensitive.

Di Palma: But what if it’s true?

Berta: It’ll look like we’re telling him how to do his job.

Di Palma: Somebody has to.)

Not knowing precisely what agreement had been struck, I figured it didn’t make much sense to post something last night. This morning, though, the Department of Labor sent me a press release with their own headline (they’d even helpfully included a sub-headline):

US Labor Department obtains an order against Atlanta’s Antico Foods LLC to stop retaliation against workers during investigation
Restaurant owner terminated and threatened employees

The release went on to explain that the DOL had “obtained a consent order” in federal court that enjoined Di Palma from “intimidating or retaliating against any of their employees who are cooperating in a federal investigation.”

To read all this you’d think the verdict was already in on Di Palma and that he had been proven to be firing and threatening employees for talking to the feds. But at this point, the DOL’s public case against Di Palma consists of two things: accusations from unnamed employees that he’s vindictive, and a statement Di Palma made to investigators that he didn’t pay his workers time and a half as required by law. For his part, the judge, whose role yesterday amounted to little more than that of a marriage counselor, declined to take sides. (“The Court expresses no opinion on the merits of the Secretary’s allegations or Respondents’ defenses.”) And so when he saw the DOL press release, Nathan Chapman, Di Palma’s attorney, was as animated as a buttoned-up attorney can get. “A grossly inaccurate characterization,” is how he described the DOL’s release. “He hasn’t been ordered to stop anything,” Chapman told me on the phone today.

So here are the conditions of the court order, agreed to by both sides, for which you can provide your own headline:

  • Di Palma won’t harass or threaten any employee he suspects might be talking to the feds.
  • He won’t order his employees not to talk to investigators, nor will he tell them to lie.
  • He won’t obstruct the investigation.
  • A DOL official will read a statement, in English and Spanish, to employees during work hours that outlines their rights. (An attorney for Di Palma can be present.) The statement will be posted on the wall at Antico.
  • The Department of Labor will notify Di Palma by mail when the investigation has concluded.

Granted, the first three conditions smack a little of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety. But as Chapman pointed out, such conditions are merely assurances Di Palma will follow the law. Which, Chapman argues, he’s been doing all along.

I reached out to the Department of Labor to run Chapman’s objections by them. In an email response, the DOL said, “The order speaks for itself.”

Indeed it does.