Authorities charge the owner of Safety Harbor's Dance Studio and an associate with racketeering.
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2002
To the elderly widows who came through the doors at the Dance Place studio in Safety Harbor, Michael A. Pasquarelli was a businessman and dance instructor.
To law enforcement authorities, he was a racketeer whose scam fleeced at least 10 clients out of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pasquarelli, 46, of Palm Harbor was arrested Friday night. On Monday, investigators said they were looking to arrest his associate, David B. Andrews, 73, of Spring Hill. Both have been charged with violating the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO.
"It's amazing, absolutely amazing, how much money these guys took from people," said Sheryl Goodman-Lord, director of Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection. "What they did was wrong. They broke the law, and they broke it more than once."
During a multi-agency investigation triggered by a St. Petersburg Times story, investigators reviewed the files belonging to 30 students at Pasquarelli's studios in Safety Harbor, Clearwater and Oldsmar. Those 30 customers had been talked into signing 328 different sales contracts totalling $3.5-million, according to investigators.
"All but two of those contracts were obtained by use of a relay sales team, a practice of subjecting students to two or more sales representatives on the same day, as (is) prohibited by the Dance Studio Act," Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's investigator Robert Clark said in a sworn statement.
A five-page court document summarizing the investigation listed at least five students who spent $100,000 on dance lessons and five who spent $20,000 or more. One was 75-year-old Audrie Jones of Palm Harbor, who told the Times in January that she was pressured into spending $257,000 during three weeks in December.
Along with using coercive sales tactics, Pasquarelli and Andrews also are charged with illegally selling vacation packages and engaging "in a scheme constituting a systematic, ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud" their clients, according to court records.
Pasquarelli's attorney, Lee Atkinson, said it was too soon to comment on the charge.
"I haven't seen any actual information detailing how it is in running a dance studio he is in violation of the RICO act," Atkinson said Monday.
Atkinson also said some of Pasquarelli's clients do not feel he did anything wrong. He said Pasquarelli has instructed him to enter a not guilty plea. Pasquarelli was being held Monday night at the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.
"A lot of students have come forward and inquired as to how to help him get out of jail," Atkinson said. "Obviously, the vast majority of the dance studio's clientele do not complain and do not feel like they have been treated unfairly."
Investigators have found at least 10 former clients who feel the opposite.
Ruth Carlson, 76, a retired New York bookkeeper, maxed out two credit cards and cashed her certificates of deposit to pay for seven dance contracts that cost more than $30,000. When she had her doctor inform the studio that she could not take the dance lessons because of a sprained ankle, Pasquarelli refused to give her a refund, she said.
"They pressure you terrible to sign a contract," Carlson said. "I even asked them to let me think about it and they said, "Oh no, you sign today and everything will be fine."'
Doing so has cost her. She lives on her Social Security and can afford to pay only the minimum monthly charges on her credit cards.
"It's been tough," Carlson said. "I didn't have any money to buy groceries. My daughter had to send me money. I have never been in this situation in my life. It's very depressing. ... It sure would help me if I could get some of my money back."
Audrie Jones also said Pasquarelli should repay what he took. Jones stopped payment on two checks totaling $150,000 to the studio, but she is out more than $100,000.
"It's kind of soured me on Florida," said Jones, a seasonal resident from Illinois. "I'm thinking, "Who else is out there who wants to scam me?"'
Pasquarelli and Andrews are being investigated by a team that includes the State Attorney's Office, the state Attorney General's Office, the county Department of Consumer Protection, the Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. Last month, state officials served a cease-and-desist order and shut down Dance Place. Among other things, authorities then charged that Dance Place sold pricey travel packages without being a registered travel agency.
The latest charge against Pasquarelli alleges that he sold contracts through an unlicensed studio called ChaCha Get Down, that he sold contracts through another studio called Funn & Unique after the corporation had been closed and that he sold contracts that were incomplete or were improperly executed.
The racketeering charge Pasquarelli and Andrews face is a first-degree felony punishable by a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Pasquarelli was scheduled to go to trial today on a misdemeanor charge that he lied to the state about how long he had been in business so he could be exempt from having to post a security bond. That charge was dismissed Monday, Atkinson said.
In 1995, Andrews was convicted of preying on elderly dance club patrons at Aragon World Dance Studio in Port Richey. Investigators then said Andrews and the studio's owner used similar pressure tactics and intimidation to sell expensive packages of dance lessons and trips, mostly to elderly women. His and other cases like it prompted the Legislature to write a new law in 1992 to regulate dance studios.
In 1998, Andrews was released from prison, but his 20-year probation did not ban him from the dance studio business. So he went back to work at Dance Place, where his duties included managing telemarketers and going over contracts with clients.
During an interview in January, Atkinson said Andrews' criminal record meant he "would be vulnerable to accusations from disgruntled customers" no matter what his job. Andrews was studying to become a minister, Atkinson said then, but "in the meantime, he has to eat and this is what he knows how to do."