Nifty Fifty's co-owner heads to prison

Posted: November 20, 2013

TO PROSECUTORS, Robert Mattei was a man who built and grew his Nifty Fifty's restaurant "empire" through greed by never paying taxes and by misreporting income.

To his friends and family, he was a blue-collar guy who had the warmest of hearts, a guy who would help anybody.

Yesterday, Mattei, 75, co-owner of the 1950s-style milkshake-and-burgers chain with an eatery in Northeast Philly, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin to 15 months in a federal lockup, followed by three years' supervised release, including a year of home confinement with electronic monitoring.

The judge granted a defense request for Mattei - who lives in Delray Beach, Fla., with his wife, Denise - to report to the Bureau of Prisons after Christmas. She gave him until Jan. 3 and said she would recommend that he be incarcerated near his home.

Mattei pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy, tax evasion and bank fraud. He is one of five defendants in the case.

Co-owner Leo McGlynn is to be sentenced today. The other defendants, who were managers - Joseph Donnelly, Elena Ruiz (Mattei's daughter) and Brian Welsh - will be sentenced tomorrow and Thursday in separate hearings.

According to prosecutors, Mattei and McGlynn evaded paying taxes by partly paying their workers and suppliers in cash and filing false tax returns that underreported income.

The scheme dated to the company's start in 1986, but documents were not available to calculate a total sum of lost revenue to the IRS, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Shapiro said after the hearing.

Prosecutors said that between 2006 and 2010, the defendants deliberately failed to properly account for $15.6 million in gross receipts, evading $2.2 million in federal employment and personal taxes.

Before sentencing, Mattei told the judge: "It's been a long, long three years, the very, very wrong things I have done, and the shame and embarrassment and disgrace and dishonor that I created along the way."

He apologized to relatives, friends, co-workers and taxpayers. At least 24 family members and friends were in the nearly packed courtroom to show support.

Peter Hardy, one of Mattei's lawyers, said afterward that he and his client were pleased that the judge gave a sentence far below the guideline range of 46 to 57 months, but noted that "nobody's ever happy about going to prison."

The defendants have paid the IRS more than $4.3 million in taxes, penalties and interest.

Nifty Fifty's also has eateries in Ridley Township, Delaware County, and in Clementon and Turnersville in South Jersey. A restaurant in Bensalem was destroyed by a fire in July.

On Twitter: @julieshawphilly

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