Jailhouse Rock

A prominent lawyer falls into bed with the master of cons.

Paul Monea
The diamond was as big as a walnut, the yellow flames inside dancing like the embers of a campfire.

According to legend, it had come from hell -- slow-roasted at the center of the earth, born into light by some poor slave with a face of black dust, and secreted for over a century in the darkness and blood of the South African diamond trade.

Along the way, it had been cut down from the size of an apple to a flawless, 43-carat jewel known as the Golden Eye. Now here it was, staring up at Jack Morrison from the conference table in his downtown Akron office, ready to curse its next owner.

"When I first looked at it, I thought, 'My God!'" says Morrison, esteemed president of the Amer Cunningham law firm, trustee of the University of Akron, former leader of the Akron Bar Association, and a major mover in the Summit County Republican Party.

He seems the type to stock his wealth in a pile of dusty papers in a safe-deposit box. Not like his client, the diamond's owner, who carried the thing (worth about as much as the very building in which they sat) in his pocket like a set of car keys.

It was Morrison's discretion that made him the perfect lawyer to handle the diamond's sale. Everything had been done by the book. Morrison even required the buyer's representative to bring an independent gemologist to put a lens to the rock. Now the parties sat in suspense around the table, waiting for some bank in Beverly Hills to press a magic button, beaming $19.5 million at the speed of light into Morrison's trust account. The lawyer darted across the hall to grab a notary.

He should have kept running, for this transaction was about to go south -- fast.

Morrison's client was none other than infomercial king Paul Monea, mastermind of Billy Blanks' Tae-Bo, and possibly one of the greatest shysters on the planet ["Pitchman," December 4, 2002]. History's shown that if Monea's part of any deal, there's a good chance someone will eventually go to prison.

His old lawyer did time after Monea decided to sell gas-grill lighters as pain-relief devices. Monea managed to squeak away until he stole from Uncle Sam -- a bit of selective memory on his tax forms -- for which he won a two-and-a-half year federal vacation.

But now he was out and -- so Morrison thought -- trying to put his life back together. As a "pillar of the Akron legal community" (that's how Akron Bar Association President Bill Dowling describes him), Morrison had to believe the deal was legit. A man of his stature can't risk anything that isn't 100 percent aboveboard.

Unfortunately, the FBI's tapes were rolling. And that wasn't the story the transcripts would tell.

Every con man needs a crooked lawyer. It wasn't the career path Ed Davila would have chosen, but working for Monea made him discover talents he didn't know he had.

Today, Davila wears a drab gray sweatshirt, clothing better suited for yard work than a leather office chair. At a coffee shop near his old West 25th Street neighborhood, he whips out a sloppy mess of bills and peels off a couple sweaty singles to pay for his iced tea. All this is what prison does to a lawyer.

Davila never was a ladder-climber. He was Street Kid from the Lakeview Terrace Projects, Esq. He once proudly took up arms for a strip club called Runway 69 that wanted to open up in a former Masonic Temple in Massillon. Just to thumb his nose at the bible-thumpers who opposed it, Davila said on the radio that dancers would be fondling themselves to Christian music.

It took someone who found mirth in the offensive to truly appreciate Monea, a flamboyant playboy whose Beverly Hills-style mansion and exotic cars stood out among the farmhouses and tractors of cow-country Marlboro Township. Screw 'em if they didn't like his taste. If they thought harvesting crops was tough, they should have tried Monea's life -- growing up a crane operator's son, selling overpriced knife sets door-to-door and getting rejection slammed in your face, then striking out on your own with nothing but an idea -- a book of restaurant coupons -- that happened to catch on and make a mint.

But soon, sales for the restaurant coupon book dried up, and every dime he'd made was either sitting on four wheels in his driveway or tinseling some part of his house. The rest he'd poured into a new invention: a toilet-seat spray that supposedly killed the AIDS virus. Needless to say, it hadn't caught on. When Davila met him in the early '90s, Monea was broke, facing foreclosure, and eating macaroni and cheese. "I gave him 20 bucks so he could take his kids to McDonald's," says Davila.

Paul wanted Davila to help him get rich again. Infomercials -- a medium that has little to do with the quality of the product and everything to do with the skill of the huckster -- were just coming into vogue. Monea's scam was the Stimulator, pitched as a miracle pain-relief device for everything from migraines to menstrual cramps, but in reality nothing more than a gas-grill igniter with finger grips.

Monea would provide the illusion -- an endorsement by Evel Knievel and a white-coated chiropractor for authenticity's sake. Davila's job was to keep the Food and Drug Administration from shutting him down.

Davila threw himself into the assignment like an anxious intern, exhausting every slimy lawyer trick in the book to delay the inevitable injunction from the feds. In the 18 months he kept the Stimulator flowing, his client made $64 million. It wasn't exactly something Davila could put on his vitae, but he wasn't a vitae kind of guy anyway.

Davila became like a member of Monea's family. He even went on Caribbean vacations with them, where he and Monea set up offshore bank accounts and shell companies to stash millions in Stimulator profits. On the plane ride home, everyone, including the kids, would carry stacks of cash -- just under $10,000 each, so Daddy wouldn't have to declare it. Once a street kid, Davila was now officially a street lawyer.

But in 1997 a federal judge banned sales of the Stimulator and ordered Monea to offer refunds to customers. That's when Davila discovered he'd been a much better lawyer for Monea than for himself. The feds found more than $100,000 in Stimulator profits that had been deposited in Davila's and his cousin's bank accounts. Today, Davila says he was just about to turn the money over to the feds when he got caught, but he didn't bother trying that excuse on the judge. In 1998, he quietly pleaded guilty to money laundering and took 33 months in federal prison.

That was when he discovered the brief shelf life of crooked lawyers. Monea dropped him quicker than a fuzzy cell-phone call. He even sued Davila for malpractice. (The suit was quickly dropped, says the lawyer, when Monea realized Davila might be inclined to talk about those Caribbean vacations.)

"I was the best lawyer he could have ever asked for," says Davila. "I did three years, and he made $64 million."

Jack Morrison met Paul on the flip side, after he'd burned through that $64 million and then some, been to prison and back, and gotten himself evicted from the biggest home this side of Beverly Hills. Damn, did it make for a good story, though.

Who doesn't know at least one person with a dusty VHS of Billy Blanks' Tae-Bo sitting in the basement? The world karate champion with G.I. Joe abs made himself a pop-culture icon and turned an entire generation of housewives into spandex-wearing masochists, punching and kicking the air in front of their televisions for as little as eight minutes between soccer practice and dinner. Tae-Bo Workout was the best-selling home video of 1999, beating out The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan. But you'd have to read the fine print on the back to know who was raking in the dough from it.

Monea met Blanks in Atlantic City while the martial arts expert was working as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard's trainer. The infomercial Monea created played 2,000 times a day on cable systems across the country. Blanks got world fame and a week-long gig on Oprah, and Monea took the lion's share of the profits from the almost $300 million in sales.

Then he went on a shopping spree like a 14-year-old girl at Express.

Through a South African business associate with connections to the diamond industry, Monea could have his pick of any stone his heart desired, so he ordered the biggest thing on the menu -- the Golden Eye diamond. When former boxer Mike Tyson's country-club-like mansion in Trumbull County went on the market -- complete with tiger cages and a pool to rival Great Wolf Lodge -- Monea picked it up for $1.3 million, just to have. The home sat vacant. Compared to the home he actually lived in, Tyson's was a doghouse.

Nestled on a private lake in the pastoral-chic enclave of Jackson Township, Monea's Stark County home had brick pillars that towered above even the tallest trees, with no clear purpose other than to just tower. You could fit a windmill in the rotunda. The home's as big as a high school, with as many windows as the Queen Mary. It was the kind of house Monea couldn't stand to see anyone else live in. He loved it so much that he'd been paying $25,000 a month . . . to rent. "He believes he belongs there," says the home's owner, Cleveland printing mogul Ken Lanci.

When Scene wrote about Monea in 2002, he and Lanci were happily basking in each other's egos. A year earlier, they'd financed a gangster movie called Turn of Faith, starring former Youngstown boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. For his help on the film, Monea gave Lanci a bit role as a mob goon. He looked almost sinister in the part, with his bleach-white hair groomed as finely as George Washington's. But despite his convincing performance as a gangster, the movie bombed straight to video.

Lanci says his friend preferred to rent to hide his money trail. At the time, Monea was fighting the court order to refund Stimulator money like a starving villager holding onto a bag of rice.

But if you're going to try to fool Uncle Sam, you'd best not be driving a Rolls Royce or a Lamborghini and appearing in Sports Illustrated as the proud new owner of Mike Tyson's mansion. The feds put two and two together, and in 2003 they hammered Monea with charges of tax evasion and filing false returns.

After decoding his tax returns, the government found he'd played an elaborate game of chess with personal checks and bank accounts, and a good chunk of his change had been getting a nice tan in the tropics. He plead guilty, agreeing to pay back $1.27 million.

Monea might even have slithered out of prison time, had he been able to resist scamming the court. Appealing to U.S. District Judge Peter Economus for leniency, he presented a glowing character reference written by Stark County Judge Lee Sinclair. But when news of the letter hit the papers, Sinclair wrote another letter to Economus. Sinclair had been told the letter was for a business transaction; he had no idea it would be used as a ploy for probation.

"Justice doesn't carry a price tag, Mr. Monea," Economus boomed at his sentencing, before punching back with two-and-a-half years at Elkton Penitentiary.

For Jack Morrison, that was where Monea's tale ended in the summer of 2005. "I was intrigued," says Morrison. Little did he know he'd be a star in the next chapter.

Morrison's role would be helping Paul set up some new businesses to get him back on his feet and clear some liens on the Tyson estate, so Paul could sell it for some quick cash. But another problem wasn't so easily fixed.

While in prison, Monea fell behind on his payments to Lanci, and his teenage son and daughter, who'd been left in the house unsupervised while he was away, had done what you'd expect two kids with the keys to a brick cruise ship to do: They got wasted and trashed the place. Lanci had to bring in dumpsters to haul away all the garbage. The pristine lake behind the house was littered with beer cans.

"It was disgusting," says Lanci. So he evicted the kids and canceled Paul's lease.

Monea wanted the house back, but things weren't that simple. His Tae-Bo company had declared bankruptcy, and the attorney for the corporation was after him for the $650,000 that Paul had siphoned from the company before it flopped. A tanning company Monea had given to his young, bombshell girlfriend, Gina Campisi, had gone into default, leaving Monea on the hook for more than $100,000. He couldn't possibly put home ownership on paper, lest his creditors descend like vultures.

Better -- and cheaper -- would be to have someone else buy the house and let Paul live there. The only problem was finding someone stupid enough to go along.

The Reverend David Moore was surprised to get the call. He hadn't spoken to Monea in five years.

The two first met, Moore claims, through Billy Blanks, an old martial-arts buddy of the clergyman. But now Monea wanted to give back to the world.

"He explained that he wanted to do something better with his life or turn over a new leaf," says Moore. "He needed a chance in life. He needed people who believed in him."

The clergyman was an odd choice for spiritual guidance. No other minister in western New York seems to have heard of his church, Charity Fellowship of Truth, which Moore runs out of his home. Local cops, however, are well acquainted with him.

He's an odd man, they say -- a Jesus figure with long black hair and the athletic ability to climb brick buildings with just his fingertips. On his website, Moore is shown wearing nothing but a loincloth, catching arrows in his hand and breaking bricks.

As for the church's charitable endeavors, Moore claims he assists in "civil litigation" to get justice for sexually abused children. But his methods might be called, at best, unique.

In 2001, Moore was accused of breaking into his elderly father-in-law's house, knocking him out of his chair, and threatening to kill him if he didn't cough up $85,000. His wife had claimed her father had molested her as a child, Moore said. This was justice served cold.

But before he could get the money, he was arrested. Moore pleaded guilty to coercion and got slapped with five years of probation. "He's just a thief and a rotten, violent person," says Wyoming County District Attorney Gerald Stout.

But all that mattered to Monea was that Moore had a church, which entailed access to two wonderful resources: a pool of gullible people and an entity to use in the deed for Lanci's house.

Monea brought Moore to Jackson Township to see the home in all its grandeur -- seven fireplaces, a dozen bathrooms. It would be perfect as the sparkling new headquarters for Charity Fellowship, Moore says Monea told him. And since he had suddenly become a church trustee, Monea would live there as caretaker of the fellowship's charitable operations.

According to Moore, the deal would go like this: Monea would "gift" half his interest in the Golden Eye diamond to the church, which would either use it as security or sell it to buy Lanci's house. He would also pay Moore $500,000 for assuming the risk. The preacher took the bait.

So the clergyman and his followers opened their pockets to Monea, paying Morrison's retainer, Moore claims, and putting up $50,000 as security to buy Lanci's house. Had they been more savvy investors, some of Monea's other expenses might have raised red flags -- like plane tickets for Monea and his "rapper" friends to fly to Los Angeles. One church member, Rosanne Grammatico, who claims to be the wife of Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm, filed an affidavit in Stark County, saying she'd advanced Monea more than $265,000.

The deal might have actually worked, had it not been for what Davila describes as Monea's "tragic flaw."

"You have a deal with Paul, and he's gonna split the money . . . He's looking at you, and he's looking at the pile, and he's saying, 'Oh, I don't want to give you half this pile,'" says Davila. "He just wants to screw [you]."

In fact, Monea already had a backup plan -- one that allowed him to cut the church out of the deal, keep all the money from the sale of the diamond, and get Lanci's house.

Last November, just two months after aligning with Moore, an excited Monea called Morrison from Vegas.

He'd found a guy who wanted to buy not only the diamond, but the Tyson estate as well. The offer on the table: $19.5 million for both -- by some estimates, double their worth. The buyer was even willing to throw in his cigarette boat in Miami to sweeten the deal.

Be careful, Morrison says he warned Monea. "We have to make sure that, number one, everything is aboveboard. We want to make sure that these are legitimate buyers."

But at the Cleveland offices of the FBI, a years-in-the-making sting had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.

Coming out of prison, Monea had to do something he hadn't done since his teens: get a job. Not to make an honest living, of course, but as a condition of his supervised release. He'd found a willing boss in Mickey Miller, who owned a chain of car dealerships in Stark County.

It's not clear what Monea actually did for Miller, but it's a good bet he wasn't washing cars. Mickey was known around town as a guy willing to do favors, and compared to the majority of his clientele, Monea was a Cub Scout. Mickey used his dealerships to wash money for drug dealers, according to the FBI.

Mickey's best customer was John Rizzo, a guy not afraid to roll with $700,000 in a briefcase. Mickey would put the cash into his car lots, then write checks to Rizzo's "consulting" business, making the money appear to be legitimate income. Now, after two years of building a case, Special Agent "John Rizzo" was getting close to making a bust.

But one day when Rizzo went to meet Mickey for lunch, Paul was sitting there. He wanted in on the action, and he had some inventory that Rizzo had to see. He took Rizzo out to Mike Tyson's mansion, because if you're going to plot criminality, you might as well do it over a tiger-skin rug.

The FBI's tapes were rolling:

"You're looking for things that you can put cash money into," Monea says. "I don't want to use the word legitimize. What's the word I'm looking for?"

"I don't like that word," says Rizzo, laughing.

"I gotta think about that one overnight," says Monea.

Seven months later, Monea pops up again at Rizzo and Mickey's lunch meeting. This time he whips out the diamond. He wants to make this happen -- and quick.

But with the kind of inventory Paul is looking to unload, the FBI needs to invent another character just to keep the play believable. So "Anthony Villareal" is born -- a drug lord from South America and Rizzo's supplier.

On November 2, Rizzo, Monea, and Monea's friend "Scott" -- never identified in the transcripts -- ride in a car to the Venetian Hotel in Vegas to meet Villareal. He wants to inspect the Golden Eye; on the ride over, Rizzo sets the trap.

"I'm really gonna be up front with you," he says to Monea. "I make a lot of money with these guys. They don't sell coffee beans."

Monea cuts him off. "I don't wanna know."

"Well, you gotta know because you gotta know how these guys . . ."

Monea interrupts again, trying to keep Rizzo from vomiting on the deal. "Tobacco or something. They sell in commodity."

"They're drug dealers," Rizzo spits out.

"Now why did you have to make a point to tell me that?" Monea asks angrily.

Suddenly, Monea's "hearing problem" starts acting up. He turns to his friend in the car. "Hey, Scott, you know how I am deaf in my left ear and my hearing-aid battery comes and goes?"

"Yeah," Scott replies.

"I don't have a problem doing any business with rug dealers, do you?"

"Rug dealers? No, I love rug dealers," says Scott.

Crisis averted.

Minutes later, Monea's in a satin-draped room, eating brunch with Scarface himself. They talk price, finally agreeing that Monea will sell Villareal the diamond and the Tyson home for $19.5 million and the boat. But logistics are another thing. Monea can't just have a truckload of cash dumped on his lawn while he's still on probation.

Not to worry -- Morrison will take care of it.

Monea explains that Morrison told him to have the money wired. As long as it comes from a legitimate bank account, Monea has no legal responsibility to explain where it was before that. He seems surprisingly confident negotiating with a drug lord.

After the meeting, he tells Rizzo to "lean on" Villareal for $500,000 in "good faith" funds up-front. But the two argue about where to send it. Rizzo wants to set up a joint checking account with Monea. Paul says it's safer to use the lawyer's client escrow account.

A few days after the Vegas meeting, Rizzo calls Monea at home to press him on the checking account idea. Monea rejects it: "My attorney said, 'Paul, I can guarantee you that if we go in the bank and open a new checking account with your friend's name on it and mine, and we wire $500,000 to it, the FBI is going to be all over that like stink on shit.' And I'm quoting him."

A better idea, Paul says Morrison suggested, would be to wire the money to his law firm's trust account. It would be less likely to raise any brows at the Department of Homeland Security, which monitors money wires for criminal activity.

Later that day, Rizzo calls Mickey, urging him to convince Monea to forget about the wire and just take the cash. Villareal will even pay a premium. But Mickey, too, has a message from Morrison. "According to Paul's attorney, if the money is being wired in, where it came from is none of our freakin' business."

Three days later, $50,000 of the good-faith money is beamed to Morrison's trust account. A week later, another $45,000. Another five grand soon arrives as well.

Then, on December 13, with Monea, Miller, Rizzo, and the gemologist crowded into his conference room, Morrison gets ready to complete the last bit of paperwork. The gemologist lifts his head up from the stone -- it's real. Rizzo picks up a phone and dials Villareal, telling him to complete the wire. It's the signal. While Morrison runs across the hall, an elevator full of FBI agents bursts into the lobby. On his way back to the conference room, Morrison is yanked back into the side office by an agent. "We need to talk to you for a minute."

Back on house arrest, Monea doesn't have many friends left, save for his three buddies parked out front: Hummer, Land Rover, and Benz. (At first, he promised to talk to Scene just as soon as his criminal lawyer could be present, but he never called back; nor did he even respond to a written list of questions.) He and Mickey Miller will go to trial for conspiracy to commit money laundering in April. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Monea's former friends stay away from him like poison now. Lanci, who once told Scene that he vouched for the Stimulator and insisted Monea hadn't gotten a fair shake, has little to say these days, save for a prepared statement he reads to a reporter:

"No matter how much effort one person places into attempting to rehabilitate Mr. Monea's ways, they will ultimately fail. Mr. Monea's sociopathic personality has forever condemned himself to his present plight."

The Reverend Moore prefers to illustrate his disgust with the fable of the fox and the scorpion:

The scorpion asks the fox for a ride across a river, guaranteeing that he won't sting him. If he did, they'd both drown. But on the way across, he stings him anyway. As they're both slipping under the water, the fox asks the scorpion why he did it.

"I couldn't help it," the clergyman says, finishing the story. "It's my nature."

Strangely, Morrison seems to be the only one without anger. The lawyer believes Monea will be found innocent.

Yet Morrison has a horse in that race. He hasn't been charged with any crime, though Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Bulford gets cryptic when asked whether the lawyer will be indicted. "Some of the statements made by [Paul and Mickey] to the undercover raise some interest in some subjects," he says.

Morrison claims the tapes are being taken out of context. He was merely advising Monea that the feds might place a hold on the money after it was wired, keeping him from withdrawing it immediately.

Davila, meanwhile, just sits back and chuckles. "He's leaving a trail of, like, us lawyers behind," he says of Monea. "You cross the line, and you can't come back."

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