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Deal him in

Tony Amico of Clearwater has a hand in many businesses, from real estate to car racing. But he still regrets losing his gamble on a Las Vegas casino.

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


photo
Amico
ST. PETERSBURG -- Last October, Tony Amico drove to Stewart Title of Pinellas, scribbled a personal check for $415,000 and sped away with the keys to downtown St. Petersburg's former YMCA building.

His plan: to transform the decaying, 46,000-square-foot building into his private Eden, complete with two-story ballroom, bocce ball court and 6,000-square-foot master bedroom. It was the sort of flashy gesture you might expect from a showoff professional athlete, not from an unsung Clearwater businessman with a cigar and a pinky ring.

For Amico, it was a rare moment in the spotlight. The majority or sole owner of local businesses including Caddy's Waterfront restaurant in Treasure Island, the Cale Yarborough Executive Racing School in Lakeland and the new Detroit Condominiums in downtown St. Petersburg generally prefers anonymity.

But his YMCA flight of fancy has since come crashing down. The great refurbishing never began. As recently as April, the most visible addition to the interior was a dead pigeon on the entryway floor. This month, he agreed to sell the building to a local developer for $675,000.

Amico's preferred explanation is that he decided he'd rather live on the beach. If pressed, however, he'll tell you that the botched sale of his Clearwater credit card marketing business left him with about $35-million less cash than he expected.

But Amico is nothing if not resourceful. He has quietly assembled a variety of businesses during 15 years in the Tampa Bay area, including direct marketing, manufacturing, mortgage lending, entertainment and real estate.

A 49-year-old Las Vegas native whose heart and roots are in the casino business, Amico has had three wives, several brushes with the law, a mobbed-up uncle and grandfather, and a growing reputation as a race car driver. The former blackjack and craps dealer has made and lost several fortunes.

"Up and down like a frickin' rollercoaster," ex-wife Valorie Jo Amico says.

* * *

It's a wintry day in Chicago in February 1988. Tony Amico is in town to meet a health book publisher whose product he gives away to favorite customers of his vitamin business. Seconds after he steps out of a highrise elevator into the 20th floor lobby, four FBI agents seize, cuff and shackle him. The charge: participating in a scheme to supply New York crime families with slot machines.

Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees later, the charge against Amico is dropped. All of the other 21 co-defendants are convicted.

True to his personal code of honor, Amico returned to the publisher a day after his humiliating arrest and completed his business there. "He paid us every cent," says Stewart Lapham, retired president of Ferguson Publishing Co. "He was a good customer."

Amico seems almost genetically predisposed to the gambling business. His paternal grandfather, Patsy Amico, whom he never knew, was boss of a Rochester, N.Y., crime family that ran slot machines and other illegal gambling operations. His father's brother, Angelo Amico, also was a crime family boss in Rochester and went to prison in the late 1980s for extorting money from illegal gambling operations.

When Tony was 5 years old, his father moved the family from Rochester to Las Vegas in search of casino work. Anthony Sr.'s first job was as a shill at the craps tables, pretending to be a customer so the table wouldn't look cold. He moved up the ranks to dealer and finished his career as a shift boss.

Amico chuckles when told some people suspect that, like his uncle, he might have mob connections. "That's goofy," he says. "They're watching Sopranos too much. They want to find somebody that fits that image."

"If Tony was mob-related, there would be a ton of dead people out there," says St. Petersburg architect Jack Bodziak, who has worked with him on several projects and says he's too trusting for his own good. "I've seen him get s---d so bad by people he considered to be friends."

In fact, Amico says he draws his inspiration from movie characters played by John Wayne, loyal men who live by the handshake and the fist.

When Amico was 14, a neighbor got him a job as a busboy at Vegas' Silver Slipper Gambling Hall and Saloon. Amico says he worked there and elsewhere as a dishwasher, saladmaker, broil cook, fry cook, sous chef, front desk clerk, parking attendant and pool attendant.

Though he finished high school, higher education was not his strength. After just a semester studying hotel management at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, he quit to deal blackjack, roulette, craps and baccarat at night while working days as a laborer building swimming pools.

At 20, he married Laurie Peccole, a high school friend and daughter of one of Las Vegas' most powerful real estate developers. The couple had a son. His wife and mother-in-law pressed him to quit the casinos and join the family business, but he refused. Eventually the couple split up.

In 1980, after the divorce, Amico moved to Atlantic City, then in its gambling infancy. He spent part of his time putting together junkets in various cities, teaching novices to gamble, transporting them to casinos and billing casino owners for the added traffic. He also put his casino expertise to work, helping Caesar's establish a training program for hundreds of would-be dealers.

"He taught half of Atlantic City how to deal blackjack," says ex-wife Valorie Jo, a former casino cocktail waiter.

In 1984, at 31, Amico saw his first real shot at owning a casino. The Ponderosa Hotel & Casino in Reno had gone bankrupt. With help from Martin Pinnas, a Houston financier who says he put up about $750,000, Amico bought the club, moved to Reno and applied for a Nevada gaming license. It was a bargain compared to the $1-billion and more that corporations spend on a new casino today.

"It should have been a piece of cake," Amico says. "I'd never had a traffic ticket in my life, no scuffles, anything. I had a "key' (casino operators') license in Atlantic City."

But the application dragged on well beyond the normal processing time of 6 to 12 months. Saddled with debt payments and taxes on the hotel, Amico went to Texas to set up more junkets and make some cash playing pool.

The stint ended badly. In April 1986, Dallas police arrested Amico and charged him with running an illegal gambling operation, a third degree felony that could have landed him two to 10 years in prison. Though he says he was teaching students at the time and no real money was being used, Amico eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of gambling promotion, paid a $1,000 fine and served a year of unsupervised probation.

"I just said, "Gaming's not for me. I've got to do something else with my life,' " Amico says. Broke and unemployed, he asked Valorie Jo where they and their two young children could get a fresh start. Like so many hard-luck cases before her, she answered, "Florida."

The Nevada Gaming Control Board was only too happy to approve Amico's request to withdraw his casino application. Members cited several "potential areas of concern" for their decision, including his Texas arrest and veiled references to his family's mob connections. To this day, however, Amico thinks his ex-wife, Laurie Peccole, pulled strings to scuttle the application. She did not return calls seeking comment.

But Amico had one more scrape left with the gambling business. Years earlier, he sold old slot machines he had found in the Ponderosa's basement. The buyer was a licensed Nevada broker referred to him by a friend. Amico says he had no idea the man was the ringleader of a criminal plot.

And that led to his 1998 arrest as he stepped off the highrise elevator in Chicago.

* * *

Tony Amico and his family were better off than many other Florida newcomers. Valorie Jo was a University of Tampa alumnus who knew and liked the area. The couple also had a place to live rent-free: Amico's father owned an empty condominium in Dunedin, where he had briefly retired.

Good jobs were hard to come by, however. Amico fell back on his mechanical skills and strong back. His first assignment was installing air-conditioning ducts for a Largo company. Starting pay was $4.25 an hour. He survived a year of hot Florida attics before calling it quits.

Next came a job clearing land for real estate developers. Mondays before dawn, a crew would pick him up, take him to a remote area and drop him off for the week with heavy equipment. Amico would dig a trench, toss brush and other plants inside, and incinerate them. It was hard work, and Amico missed his family. But it paid well, and he eventually earned enough to trade his blue collar for white.

With no formal schooling, Amico learned about business by studying the way others operated, identifying any flaws, then opening up his own shop.

"He's got some skill sets you're not going to pick up at some Ivy League school," says David Giorgione, his first cousin and business partner.

There was telemarketing. Over the years his call centers hawked magazines, long-distance telephone service, vitamins, discount medical cards, prepaid cellular phone service, travel packages and credit cards.

And there was manufacturing. After a soured partnership with a Fort Lauderdale manufacturer of water filters, Amico formed Paragon Water Systems. He also manufactured jewelry in Clearwater and sold it on the Home Shopping Network as well as on his company's own satellite television program, the H.T. Manufacturing Jewelry Designer Showcase.

By the time he and Valorie Jo divorced in 1999, he was earning $73,000 a month and had a net worth of $2.2-million, according to court papers.

Not every venture succeeded. H.T. Manufacturing Inc. eventually went bankrupt, and Amico spent years paying off its income taxes. Though he loathes borrowing, he took out a $1.2-million line of credit with his home as collateral. But Amico's scattershot business interests continued to grow more diverse.

Real estate is a new passion. Among other projects, Amico and his partners recently purchased beachfront properties adjacent to Caddy's on Treasure Island. He also co-owns several speculative plots of land in Nevada.

Entertainment is another interest. In addition to Caddy's, he owns one-quarter of the Coliseum night club in Clearwater and a minority interest in Ybor City's 8th Avenue Grille, and he recently opened D'Amico Pasta Grill, a St. Petersburg restaurant he hopes to turn into a chain. He is sole owner of Studio V, a Las Vegas recording studio whose clients include Engelbert Humperdinck, and Aeon, a record label. Both are managed by his brother Patrick, a singer who goes by the name Pat Dalton.

Amico says his easiest investment right now is loans, which he purchases second-hand. One company he uses to make the loans is named after his German shepherd, Webster. "I love mortgages," he says. "I'll tell you why: You can buy them at a discount and just hold them and they perform. And if they don't perform, you end up with the property."

It's a lesson right out of the Amico business playbook: Never pay full price. Amico bought his luxurious Clearwater home for $720,000 in a foreclosure sale; the previous owner bought it four years earlier for $1-million. He nabbed the YMCA building at 116 Fifth St. S for half its asking price. He bought a nearly brand new Bentley simply because the price was right, although he sold it a couple of months later because it seemed too ostentatious.

Another Amico project is the Cale Yarborough Executive Racing School, which has a fleet of 20 stock cars and operates out of the U.S.A. International Speedway in Lakeland. As a driver, Amico is ranked second in the FASCAR Goodyear Challenge Series. Late Model Digest recently called him "easily the most improved late-model driver in Florida this year."

"It's a release," he says of racing. "All your problems in business and personal (life) and employees, they all go away."

* * *

Few of Tony Amico's ventures have put more gas in his tank than Key Financial Systems.

Founded in 1998 by Amico and a couple of partners, the Clearwater company's goal was to design a profitable, marketable credit card for people who normally might not qualify for one: immigrants, recent high school graduates, low-income people and those with checkered credit histories.

Under its program, applicants were required to have a checking account, from which an application fee (say, $99) was withdrawn automatically. They had to pay a monthly fee (say, $8). And as with debit cards, they had to deposit funds before charging purchases. Thus, to charge $50 worth of groceries, a cardholder first had to give $50 to Key.

This "credit card with training wheels," as one former Key employee called it, gave customers several privileges: the use of a credit card, which is mandatory today at many car rental agencies and other businesses, and improved credit records as Key Financial reported their on-time monthly payments to national credit reporting agencies.

From January 1998 to August 1999, Key Financial and its affiliate, Nova Financial Systems, received 583,532 applications. In the first seven months of 1999 alone, the companies earned $4.8-million on revenues of $29-million. Amico and other shareholders received most of the earnings directly via monthly distributions.

Consumer advocates, however, were appalled. CardWeb.com, an independent research group, called Key's program "the worst credit card in America." The Better Business Bureau said most customers mistakenly thought they were getting a credit card with immediate access to a $500 balance. Federal bank regulators were unsure whether the card -- and Key's sales tactics -- were legal. In 2000, they ordered Net 1st National Bank of Boca Raton, Key's partner at the time, to stop marketing the cards until they could prove legality. (The bank did so, and marketing efforts resumed a month later.)

"We had the best package going for a guy trying to repair his credit," Amico insists.

Key's profits won the attention of Equitex Inc., a publicly traded Denver company. Amico and his partners signed a preliminary agreement to sell Key in June 2000, and the deal closed in August 2001. The payoff: $5-million in cash and roughly 10-million shares of Equitex stock. Amico would get close to half of both, not bad for two years' work.

Amico made his bid for the YMCA the following month. Although Equitex's stock price had fallen from a high of nearly $8 to about $5 per share during the course of the negotiations, he would still earn more than $20-million on the deal. More than enough to revamp the old building.

But like the casino deal early in Amico's career, the Equitex deal proved not to be a sure thing. He says that although he was told he could sell his shares within 60 days, it turned out not to be the case. In March 2002, federal regulators shut down Net 1st National Bank for operating unsafely. All of its Equitex credit card accounts were ordered closed.

Equitex's stock price swooned. It trades today at around 50 cents per share. Earlier this month, Amico signed a contract to sell the YMCA building.

At a profit.

* * *

Tony Amico still has a number of lucrative businesses and continues to invest in real estate. Possible projects include developing a 30-unit hotel-condominium complex next to Caddy's, turning a 15-year-old Las Vegas singer he's managing into a star and building a new home on the beach.

Still, he's haunted by that failed attempt nearly 20 years ago to become another Donald Trump and fulfill what he calls his "destiny": running his own casino. And he's still angry at the people he thinks stood in his way.

"I know the casino business inside out, upside down," he says, "what makes it tick, how to be successful."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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