While the rest of that nightlife district has cleaned up its act and is ready to reclaim its standing as Kansas City's top entertainment strip, Gusto Lounge's ownership is entangled in competing lawsuits involving Philipp Vitti, the man hired to run the tavern's business.
Last week in this space, The Pitch described how the owners of Gusto Lounge - mostly lawyer Don Saxton and his brother, David Saxton - had sued Vitti in federal court. Their action claims that Vitti pilfered the bar's bank account and ran off to Florida to open a nightclub with a former Kansas City Chiefs player who later faced an attempted-murder charge.
It turns out that Vitti has filed a lawsuit of his own against Don Saxton and the bar's owners in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Vitti's attorney tells The Pitch that Saxton's lawsuit against his client is full of holes.
"We believe many of the allegations are without factual and legal basis," says Richard Rhyne, a Lathrop & Gage lawyer hired by Vitti to beat back Saxton's claims in federal court.
And Vitti has filed a lawsuit against Saxton that alleges, among many things, that the lawyer used Gusto Lounge's former location, at 38th Street and Broadway, as a place to snort cocaine. Reached for comment, Saxton repeated what he told The Pitch before: that he didn't want to try his legal issues with Vitti in the press. (Saxton got back with us after our press deadline with this comment: "Mr. Vitti was fired because he stole from the bar and forged signatures of the owners. I understand he is disgruntled, but the allegations from his petition are false.)
Vitti is the man who tried in vain to make Gusto Lounge thrive on Broadway. But installing a crepe shop in a seedy bar and converting its upstairs into a probably illegal after-hours speakeasy didn't turn out to be a winning business plan.
Gusto Lounge closed its Broadway doors and, in 2011, Vitti teamed up with Sergio Acosta and decided to reopen the concept at 504 Westport Road, the place that used to hold Stanford & Sons Comedy Club. The building was owned at the time by Shawn Nelson, who signed Vitti and Acosta to a three-year lease at 504 Westport Road, starting at $4,750 a month.
What happened next depends on whose story you believe.
According to Vitti's account, he poured $12,000 of his own money - and his mom's furniture - into readying the new Gusto Lounge for an October 27, 2011, opening. Around this time, Don Saxton was trying to buy an ownership stake in the building from Nelson, which he ultimately did.
Then the story gets weird. Vitti claims that Saxton elbowed his way into Gusto's business dealings, demanding higher rent and a larger share of sales for himself. Vitti also claims that Acosta and Saxton started doing cocaine in Gusto's business office and drinking after hours, jeopardizing the bar's liquor license.
According to Vitti, a few days after Gusto opened, Don Saxton told him to sign a new lease-management agreement. Vitti wondered if he needed a lawyer to look it over; he says Saxton told him, "I'm a lawyer." According to Vitti's lawsuit, Saxton went on: "I'll be your lawyer for this document. Take my word everything is OK. This is in your best interests and Gusto's best interests. You should sign it."
Vitti now says the arrangement was self-serving for Saxton because it made Vitti an employee rather than someone leasing property.
That employee designation became important when Vitti got fired, on February 28, 2012.
Saxton had claimed in the lawsuit that Vitti stole money from the Gusto ownership group's bank accounts.
At that time, Gusto's ownership found that the bar's gas bill was overdue by $451. The electric bill was $5,841, and service was scheduled to be turned off the next month.
Paperwork filed with the Kansas City Police Department purports that Vitti forged Shawn Nelson's signature to have Gusto Lounge's credit-card-processing company serve the same role for Vitti's bar in Orlando, Florida.
Vitti is suing Acosta, along with Saxton, for defamation, claiming that his former allies spread the word that Vitti had run the Gusto business poorly.
Acosta, doing himself no favors, was arrested by Kansas City, Kansas, police officers March 2 on charges of illegally discharging a gun and possessing opiates and/or narcotics. He was released on $15,000 bond.
Cocaine, guns, identity theft, forged signatures, claims of cheating lawyers - these are the primary ingredients in Gusto Lounge's shit soup, according to litigators doing battle over the Westport bar.