by Van Smith
Published by City Paper, June 22, 2011
“We don’t need any negativity about Little Italy,” Giovanna Marie “Gia” Blatterman says over the phone on June 15.
The 64-year-old businesswoman is one of the neighborhood’s most visible and diehard promoters, and she has a long history of political clout and controversy. When Kurt Schmoke was Baltimore’s mayor in the 1980s and 1990s, she was a key fundraiser for his campaigns and served as one of his appointees on the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals. Today, part of her civic involvement is running what she calls the Little Italy Bocce Committee, an all-volunteer, unincorporated outfit that oversees Wednesday night bocce competitions at the city-owned Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr. Park. The park, a tiny space with two bench-lined bocce courts, is tucked off Stiles Street amid Little Italy’s restaurants and rowhouses.
Based on two recent Wednesday night visits, there appears to be nothing negative in the least about the peaceful, placid bocce games being played there. No voices were raised, no tempers flared, and the slow, deliberate pace of the game, which involves two teams strategically rolling balls down a carefully tended court, promotes a calm civility that, even on an evening with temperatures in the high 90s, tends not to make people sweat.
Nonetheless, a ghost of negativity haunts the place. That’s because Blatterman, her bocce committee, and their lawyer have taken a feud from D’Alesandro Park and moved it into the District Court for Howard County, Civil Division. There have been heated bocce disputes in Little Italy before, including one in 2002 that featured Blatterman in a fight with a neighbor over lighting the courts at night, and even one that became a lawsuit, dismissed in 2003, over a neighboring restaurant’s fire escape and an ordinance that would have closed down bocce play at 9:30 p.m. But none of the prior disputes came with accusations as hot as these.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed on March 1, are the Little Italy Bocce Committee, Blatterman, and two other committee members, Salvatore Petti and Francis Blatterman. Petti’s daughter, Lisa Ellis, represents them. They are asking the court to make the defendant—52-year-old Marriottsville resident Thomas John Macchia—pay thousands of dollars in damages and attorney’s fees, and to order him “forever barred” from Little Italy’s bocce courts and from obtaining any bocce permits from the City of Baltimore “for a period of no less than ten (10) years,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, as initially filed, claims defamation and malicious destruction of property and accuses Macchia of writing defamatory graffiti and posting defamatory notices around the neighborhood. It also claims he destroyed lighting, a video camera, a souvenir map, and bocce equipment at D’Alesandro Park. A pretrial conference is scheduled for June 21—the day this article goes to press—and Macchia is proceeding without the benefit of an attorney.
Shortly after it was filed, though, Macchia twice was charged criminally in Baltimore City District Court based on applications for charges filed by Blatterman. In the first criminal case, filed on March 6, Macchia was accused of malicious destruction of property for breaking the bocce court’s lighting, camera, and map “on or about” Aug. 19, 2010, according to court records. But in the second, filed on March 9, Blatterman accused Macchia of serious violence.
As a result of Blatterman’s written statement, court records show Macchia was charged with first- and second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and witness retaliation for driving “his car over the curb onto the sidewalk straight at” Blatterman, who was standing on the corner outside Café Gia, her daughter’s Little Italy restaurant. The complaint also says Macchia “has made prior death threats against me, my daughter, and my grandson” and is “trying to intimidate me so I will not testify about his criminal activity.”
On April 27, the Baltimore City State’s Attorneys Office declined to prosecute all but one of the criminal charges, placing one count of second-degree assault on the inactive docket so, if needed, it could be pursued at a later date. The outcome, Macchia acknowledges, included an oral agreement made in front of a judge that he will not go near Blatterman’s home or business for three years—but he insists, despite Ellis’ contentions otherwise, that he’s free to go to the bocce courts and to Little Italy, as long as he stays away from those two places.
On June 14, Ellis filed a “pre-trial statement” in the Howard County lawsuit, which ratcheted up the accusations, saying Macchia “engaged in a campaign to terrorize” Blatterman “over his anger at the bocce situation.” The statement says the plaintiffs intend to add additional counts, seek higher damages, and name Macchia’s wife, Lisa Macchia, as a defendant because she “knew or should have known that Giovanna Blattermann [sic] was in danger.”
Macchia says that, thanks to the lawsuit and the criminal charges, “in the court of public opinion, I’m already convicted of crimes that never occurred.” Indeed, he calls them “imaginary events in [Blatterman’s] mind. And now they are going to try to bring my wife into this. My wife has no knowledge of something that didn’t happen.”
According to Macchia, the whole dispute erupted because his bocce team—Tutto Bocce, which was sponsored by Caesar’s Den Restaurant—kept winning the annual tournaments that take place each summer among about a dozen teams. So Blatterman “tried to chase us off,” he says, because she and her fellow committee members are “sore-losing types.”
Not so, Ellis says. Macchia and his teammates “didn’t like the [bocce] committee, because they were cheating. They were very disappointed that the prize money was only $400. It wasn’t $1,000 like they wanted. He was trying to cause a lot of trouble because he didn’t get his way.”
Passion over bocce competitions—a traditional Italian game, in some ways similar to shuffleboard, involving teams that roll four balls each on a court, attempting to score points by getting their balls closest to a smaller, target ball—is to be expected, as in any sport. But the back-and-forth allegations in this fight raise bocce passions to eye-popping—or maybe eye-rolling—levels.
Things escalated, Macchia claims, in 2009 and 2010 when he started publicly raising questions about Blatterman’s integrity in managing the affairs of the bocce committee, of which he was a member until last year. This, Ellis says, is where Macchia started to defame the plaintiffs, by publicly calling them “thieves” who “can’t be trusted.” An anonymous flier attached to the lawsuit, which claims it was distributed around the neighborhood and posted at the bocce courts, contends that “Blatterman says she allegedly made a donation” from the bocce committee to St. Leo Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy, but the “authorities of the church deny any gift from our league.”
Macchia denies any part in the flier, but he continues to maintain that $1,500 in committee cash, assembled from fees collected from teams, that was ostensibly donated to the church in 2009 remains unexplained. “I advised [Blatterman] to give a check, not cash, to the church because it doesn’t look good, it’s not the proper thing to do,” Macchia says. After he learned she said she had given cash anyway, he says, “I asked her for proof, and she produced a church bulletin that thanks the Little Italy Bocce Rollers Association, which isn’t even our group. To this day, we don’t know where that money went. But to not have a check is a red flag, in my opinion.”
So this year, disgusted and alienated, Macchia says he decided to break off on his own. In early January, he applied for a permit from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks to have his own Wednesday night bocce games—a move that could have supplanted Blatterman’s night on the bocce court.
At first, in February, he was told in a letter from the city that he would be granted a permit for the Little Italy courts on Tuesday nights, and on Wednesday nights he could use the courts at another city park. But then, Macchia says, the city made an “about-face,” and denied him altogether—after the lawsuit and Blatterman’s felony charges against him were filed.
The denial came in an April letter from the City Department of Recreation and Parks, which states “information from the Law Office of Lisa P. Ellis regarding your activities in and around the Little Italy Bocce Courts . . . provides the background information for the denial of this permit application.”
Macchia contends that the criminal charges were brought simply to undermine his permit application, since people with felony backgrounds cannot be granted a permit. But by that time, Macchia had already drawn first blood in the legal fight, having sued Salvatore Petti for $300.85 in early February over bocce committee finances. Petti countersued for the same amount a few weeks later, and in early May, the case was dismissed. But, as far as Ellis was concerned, the damage was done.
We “didn’t want a lawsuit,” Ellis says, but Macchia “filed a lawsuit against my father” in which “he wanted money that he wasn’t entitled to.” Despite the accusation that Macchia had tried to “kill Gia” and made “death threats” against her and her family, Ellis adds, “We still didn’t want anybody to go to jail or see anybody hurt.” She also contends—despite the fact that the alleged car assault occurred after the lawsuit was filed—that “it was only after he tried to kill her” that she and her clients decided “something needed to be done.”
Macchia’s “harassment occurred over the course of two years,” Ellis continues, and “I was the one who stopped him. He had to be stopped. People quit [playing bocce]. And since he’s not here, I can’t tell you how many people have come up to say how much happier” they are.
For his part, Macchia says the situation is “kind of comical.” But he adds that it is “sad that one person like this could so abuse the system and not have any repercussions. It’s such a shame that a game, bocce ball, could result in false felony charges and bizarre civil charges.” Asked if he plans to visit the bocce courts again, since he contends he’s free to do so, he says: “I had four felony charges, unfounded charges, filed against me. Given that, you tell me if you would go back there.”
Giovanna Blatterman has, in fact, faced repercussions before for abusing the court system. In 2003, court records and news reports show, Blatterman and her mother, Rosa Aquia, together paid a total of nearly $163,000 to Little Italy activist Roberto Marsili, since deceased. The payments were made to satisfy a court judgment Marsili had won against them in 2002, when a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found that the two women had engaged in “abuse of process” by having Marsili arrested on false criminal charges and filing an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against him.
Marsili proved that Blatterman and Aquia had tried to silence his criticism of their real estate dealings. A company they controlled, Pascal Rose Development LLC, had received a controversial no-payback loan from the city, and Marsili believed it was a “sweetheart deal” due to her City Hall connections, and he published his thoughts on the matter in his Little Italy newsletter, The Guardian. One of the crimes with which Blatterman had Marsili charged—and to which Marsili pleaded guilty, on the advice of his attorney at the time—was vehicular assault, for attempting to drive her down in his car. She’s now, in essence, accusing Macchia of the same conduct.
Blatterman had Ellis handle all questions and comments on her behalf for this article. When reminded of the similarity between the car-assault accusation Blatterman is making now against Macchia and the one she made against Marsili in 1997, Ellis says Blatterman fears that Macchia is “researching her past” and “trying to recreate things” that she had been involved in before. Ellis insists that she has proof of Macchia’s alleged violence and threats, and that, as an attorney, she would never assist in a malicious prosecution of false claims.
“I have independently corroborated everything my clients are saying,” Ellis says. “There are witnesses, affidavits, handwriting experts, a video expert,” all of which will be used in proving the case. “He just needs to be stopped,” she adds. “This is about people’s safety.”
In an effort to convince this writer that Macchia is the one who was captured on videotape destroying property at the bocce courts, Ellis plays two segments of video on her laptop. In one segment, some unidentifiable individuals, quite small and obscure figures on the screen, can be seen at the bocce courts at night, and one of them picks up what appears to be a two-by-four and smashes some of the court’s lights. In the other, in which a man takes a framed object off the wall at the bocce courts, drops it to the ground, and stomps on it, well, that man could be Macchia, a heavy-set, balding, round-faced guy. Prior to breaking the object—Ellis says it is a souvenir map of Little Italy, worth $500—the culprit walks face-first up to the camera, and the individual onscreen resembles Macchia.
“No, that’s not me,” Macchia says over the phone the next day. “There are plenty of other people who look like me. They showed that tape to the prosecutor in the criminal case, and obviously, if it was me, they would have prosecuted me, but they didn’t. The malicious destruction of property charge was thrown out. And the judge looked at it too, and said it was not conclusive. The criminal judge said no. If the civil judge says yes, well, I’ll appeal, because there’s no proof.”
Based on what Ellis wrote in her eight-page pretrial statement, Macchia’s going to have his hands full impeaching witnesses and other evidence, should the case go to trial. Doing so without the aid of an attorney may prove a daunting challenge.
Ellis’ statement says she plans to introduce as evidence a letter sent to Blatterman that reads, “Death to the Gias We Will Kill You Bitches and Luca Too,” and was delivered in an envelope containing white powder. “HAZMAT came, the fire department came, the police department came and took it away,” Ellis recalls. She has handwritten fliers that read, among other things, “Stop Gia Blatterman from Stealing your Money.” She has photos of graffiti on the bocce-court benches and elsewhere in the neighborhood that read, among other things, “Gia sucks,” “Gia is a thief,” and “Café Gia sucks.” And she states that she has two handwriting experts who will testify “that all defamatory fliers, notices, writings, and graffiti” submitted as evidence in the case were written by Macchia.
In all, Ellis stated that she plans to call seven to 15 witnesses, and explained that “many more wanted to testify, but plaintiffs have considerably shortened its number (via affidavits) in the interest of judicial economy.”
Macchia accurately predicted that City Paper would have a hard time finding anyone willing to comment for this story. “They’re afraid they’ll get sued if they do,” he said. But one man—a longtime friend and supporter of Blatterman’s, real estate developer Wayne Gioioso Sr.—stepped up to comment when reached by phone.
“I love Gia,” Gioioso says, explaining that he’d already been called by Blatterman about this in-the-works article because “she’s concerned you’re going to make the neighborhood look bad.” The way Gioioso sees it, the bocce dispute arose because “people who don’t live down there” in Little Italy “are causing trouble. It’s typical Italian stuff. They can’t get along. You have different factions that are combative with each other. That’s all.”
No matter who is right or wrong in this situation, one thing’s for certain: There are rules in bocce, and at least one of them has been broken in this dispute. Attached to the lawsuit are the “Wednesday Night League Bocce Rules,” which, at the very end, state: “BUON DIVERTIMENTO (HAVE FUN).” While the bocce lawsuit appears to be no fun at all, at least the bocce games at D’Alesandro Park still are.