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Unhappy Meal 

Is McDonald's trying to McStiff a worker it McScrewed?

An Akron man with AIDS believes Ronald McDonald is waiting for him to die to avoid paying him a $5 million verdict for McDiscrimination.

Russell Rich considered himself the golden boy of the Golden Arches. He worked 20 years for the chain, starting at age 13, and won a host of awards for being an outstanding manager.

In 1997, the company hired him to manage a Minerva store. Two weeks later, he was hospitalized with an AIDS-related illness, and his meal ticket turned decidedly unhappy. He says he was forced to open his medical file to the corporation and found himself working long shifts that sometimes left him only four hours for sleep.

The final indignity came when he was assigned to work the front counter -- the same job he held as a teenager -- and essentially told that he'd spend the rest of his career asking, "Do you want fries with that?"

He sued, alleging that he was discriminated against because he has AIDS, and in 2001 a jury took less than two hours to decide in his favor. McDonald's was ordered to pay $5 million.

But Ronald has yet to open his baggy yellow pockets. The company appealed, and the case is expected to be heard by the Eighth District Court of Appeals, possibly as soon as next month.

"We don't think that the evidence in this case meets the legal standards that are out there," says McDonald's lawyer Steven Catlett.

Rich, however, sees the appeal as a stall tactic. In the meantime, he has been depending on his partner, Jim Dixon, the general manager of a military defense company, for financial support. "We think they're trying to outlive me," he says. "But I'm staying healthy, exercising, and taking care of myself, so that's not going to happen."

And even if he does die, the money will go to his heirs.

The landlord's wrath

Ensemble Theatre, which has spent the last 18 years in the Civic in Cleveland Heights, will be on the street in a month, its season cut short and its checkbook cut to the bone. Rent hikes in excess of 400 percent have a way of doing that to diminutive arts groups.

Ensemble's tale of woe starts with the sale of the Civic last August to the New Spirit Revival Church, which paid $3 million to take the financial black hole off the hands of the Civic Foundation. The church had spent nine years in the building, along with several dozen other tenants, the largest of which was Ensemble. "But it cleared out in a hurry," says Lucia Colombi, Ensemble's artistic director.

No wonder. Ensemble's meet 'n' greet with the new landlord came with a $600 rent increase at the outset of 2003. "We couldn't move," Colombi says of the midseason announcement. "You don't pack up a theater in a week."

Maybe not, but Ensemble will be out of the Civic soon either way. In a meeting with New Spirit earlier this month, Ensemble learned its rent would take another leap, this time from $1,500 to $4,000 -- a mind-melting 444 percent increase from the theater's rate less than three months earlier.

"It's cheaper to rent an off-Broadway house," says Ensemble's Pat Mazzarino.

New Spirit won't talk about how a supposedly godly group can so comfortably play the role of usurer. But the church did refer us to its website, where it talks of plans for a sexual purity class, a Bible study "that'll give you the power to split the devil's head!" and a women's group that helps virgins be "fly but virtuous."

Ensemble will bid goodbye to the Civic in April, with hopes to land in a new home -- possibly the Cleveland Play House -- in time for the fall season. The group's final show at the Civic is The Credeaux Canvas, a work New York Magazine called "a bittersweet new play about art: its practitioners, purchasers, and parasites."

Ensemble knows this one by heart.

Sharp-dressed mob

Marc's presumably wasn't pleased with our story last week about the drive to unionize its employees ("Deeper Discount Wages," March 19). "This morning, all copies of Scene were thrown out, and the employees were told that we are not allowed to talk about your article," says a Rocky River worker. "Although it wasn't said directly, it was implied that such an offense would result in termination."

The same disappearing act happened at the Garfield store, where management is telling workers that "if a union came in, the store will close," says another employee.

None of which seemed to daunt United Food & Commercial Workers Local 880. With AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in town for a speech at the City Club, union officials flooded Marc's South Euclid store Friday afternoon to hand out literature.

Store managers weren't particularly pleased. One tailed Sweeney, Cleveland AFL-CIO chief John Ryan, and Local 880 organizer Lou Maholic as they approached workers, who were clearly afraid to be seen accepting leaflets. Meanwhile, Marc's was summoning South Euclid's finest.

"We got a call that a big mob of people was coming into the store," said a responding cop, who soon realized the grandfatherly Sweeney and the two dozen or so smartly dressed organizers looked more like manufacturing consultants on lunch break than a riot waiting to happen. The cheerful officer quickly bid them adieu.

War teareth apart

The war in Iraq isn't just souring Western allies. It's also tearing apart East Side artists. So sayeth Joan Deveney -- a.k.a. "Joan of Art."

"I feel very strongly about this war thing," she says. So she put a six-foot statue of Jesus in the window of her Little Italy gallery, The Boot, with the Big Man holding a tablet that reads, "Thou shalt not commit war!"

Unfortunately, this whole Jesus thing was not appreciated by her partner, Margo Brown, an artist and wedding photographer, who "just freaked out and threw a tantrum," says Deveney. "She thought this was ruining her business. She said, 'Oh, the priests are going to hate you, they're going to throw bricks through our window.'"

The more crushing blow: Brown also fired Deveney, a single mom, from a project they were working on for a Pennsylvania hospital. "I'm really living on shoestrings right now," says Deveney, "and I'm really broke."

Upon further investigation, however, Brown discovered that neighborhood priests are not warming up their arms. When she attempted to talk to two different priests -- "I'm worried about possibly breaking some doctrine" -- she was thwarted by receptionists. "No one's called me back," she says. "I've decided that wedding photographers are more offensive to priests than a Jesus holding a peace sign."

The PD's Pulitzer curse

For most people, March means springtime and St. Patrick's Day, filing taxes and filling out NCAA tournament brackets. But for reporters, it's the season of Pulitzer speculation.

Officially, the winners of journalism's big prize won't be announced until April 7, but in a business composed entirely of unbridled gossips, the yapping reached peak performance soon after judges gathered to pick finalists three weeks ago.

The Plain Dealer hasn't had a winner since 1953. But newsroom sources confirm that reporter/columnist Connie Schultz is a finalist this year for the award. Her "Burden of Innocence" series -- about Michael Green, a man who spent 13 years in prison for rape before DNA exonerated him -- was a righteous hit. Days after it was published, Rodney Rhines confessed to the crime.

Even if Schultz doesn't win, Cleveland may still have a vicarious score. Former PD columnist Jim Neff is part of two different teams of Seattle Times reporters rumored to be finalists -- one for coverage of snipers John Lee Malvo and John Allen Mohammed, and one for coverage of Ahmed Ressam, the man accused of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 2000.

Friends don't let friends steal $170 million

Jim Capwill looked a bit suspicious, seeing as how the escrow officer lost $170 million he was supposed to be watching, and seeing as how it disappeared around the time Capwill began spending like a crackhead who just robbed a Brinks truck ("Rogue Businessman? Mafia Poseur? Hollywood Playboy?" May 2, 2002).

But last year, Capwill assured Scene that federal agents were mistaken. He didn't steal the money. "I look forward to proving my innocence," Capwill said, as he sat at a marble-top table in the kitchen of his Aurora mansion. "You can quote that."

Capwill further intimated that U.S. Judge Donald Nugent could see the hollowness of the prosecution's case. By virtue of his many court appearances, Capwill believed he and Nugent had developed rapport.

Someone forgot to tell Nugent.

In February, a jury found Capwill guilty of stealing $39 million. Last week, when he returned to court for sentencing, he launched into the same defense he wore out at trial -- I didn't do anything; I'm the victim of a conspiracy -- before Nugent interrupted him. His message: You did do something wrong. And this is the part where we punish you.

Capwill got 12 years -- nearly twice the time received by another famous thief, Frank Gruttadauria. Presumably, Gruttadauria got a better deal by avoiding the conspiracy defense -- that's so '90s -- and blaming his employers instead.

Tug-of-womb

Rocky River has shored up its claim as Northeast Ohio's premier place to unexpectedly get knocked up.

The West Side hamlet, home to Planned Parenthood ever since protesters drummed it out of Lakewood four years ago, now also harbors Among Women, a pro-life pregnancy center that sits within view of Planned Parenthood on Center Ridge Road.

Is a turf war brewing?

"We're not political in any way," says a pleasantly dismissive Linda Luecke, executive director of Among Women. But the group, it would appear, is pro-competition: The company's first center is situated near Family Planning Services, Lorain County's version of Planned Parenthood.

Among Women claims no ties to anti-abortion protesters who have dogged Planned Parenthood since it opened there. "People are going to construe what they want," says Luecke, "but our position is we don't want to do anything that would make a woman uncomfortable about this situation."

Rocky River seems a bit uncomfortable, however. It has forbidden Planned Parenthood from even putting up a sign. "We just tell people to look for the people standing outside with their awful signs, and that's where you'll find us," says CEO Betsey Kaufman.

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