I-Team: Man Caught Pocketing Dough

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WESTLAKE, Ohio -- It was a chilly November day and Anthony Della Vella had a spring in his step.

The 43-year-old Westlake man was busy opening Casa Vella, his family’s pizza shop in Westlake’s Crocker Park, as agents from Ohio’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation watched from a nearby undercover vehicle.

"We conducted surveillances and undercover operations and we found him there working on a regular basis," said Phillip Brickman, Special Agent in Charge of Special Investigations.

Brickman told Fox 8 I-Team Reporter Lorrie Taylor agents received a tip on the agency’s hotline claiming Della Vella was collecting disability benefits while operating Casa Vella.

He did not deny his involvement with the company when questioned by an undercover agent who was posing as a customer.

"Are you the owner?" a female voice can be heard asking.

"Yea," said Della Vella.

Special Agent Brickman told Taylor Della Vella had been collecting disability payments since 2004 when he claimed to have injured his neck while hanging cabinets for a family owned business.

The Bureau opened its fraud investigation in October of 2009 and continued to surveil Della Vella through April of 2010.

Investigators found him preparing food, taking orders and supervising employees while receiving Temporary Total Disability benefits.

"Do you make your crust yourself and everything?" asked the female voice on the undercover video.

"Everything,” responded Della Vella.  “We have a back room, I make it all myself, it’s all handmade," he boasted while describing the quality of his pizza.

Undercover video proved no job was too strenuous or menial for the 43-year-old; he was seen on tape getting a full body workout.

In one shot he was stretching his arms overhead as he lifted metal security shutters on all of his kiosk windows.

In another, he’s seen washing windows, while yet a third clip shows him bending and stretching while stacking pizza boxes on a shelf.

"Most of my business is word of mouth," he told the undercover investigator, while selling her a freshly made dessert.

"How's your tiramisu?" she asked.

"Oh, it's excellent,” said Della Vella.  “Very fresh, probably my favorite dessert here."

"OK," she responded.

The pizza shop owner displayed skills anyone would want to brag about, unless of course, the Bureau of Workers' Comp was cutting them a check at the same time it was conducting their interview.

"How much you think you probably bring in?" pressed the BWC agent just after making a purchase.

"Oh, I probably, at least $300 out of a little place like this," Della Vella told her.

The agent seemed surprised by the information, exclaiming, "Oh, no!"

Investigators watched Della Vella work for a few months before accusing him of stealing more than $56,000 in disability benefits.

"We were able to prove that he was gainfully employed at the family business,” said Brickman. “Whether his neck hurt didn't matter, he was able to hold a job."

Brickman said Della Vella's benefits were conditional on his not being able to work, no matter how light the duty.

"No doubt in your mind he could hold a job?" asked Taylor.

"No doubt," responded the special agent.

Casa Vella Pizza wasn't open when Taylor and her photojournalist stopped to ask Della Vella about his injury, so they paid him a visit at his house in Westlake.

“Hi, Anthony?” Taylor called out as the front door opened.

It closed just as quickly.

Taylor identified herself through the door and asked if Della Vella would like an opportunity to discuss the matter regarding the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

There was no response and she left her business card in the front door.

Although the pizza shop owner plead guilty to theft in November of 2012, Special Agent Brickman said it wasn’t a confession that came easy to the 43-year-old.

Brickman described Della Vella’s dishonesty as “shameless.”

"What was your reaction when he wasn't truthful?" asked Taylor.

"It didn't surprise me that he wasn't truthful,” said Brickman.  “Most of the people we confront with this type of evidence initially deny, but later on, when faced with everything, end up confessing."

That's what Della Vella did.

He was sentenced to 12 months behind bars; however, the judge suspended the sentence in lieu of three years of community control or what most think of as probation.

He was also ordered to pay more than $17,000 in restitution, but that's not the only money he will have to come up with.

Brickman said the Bureau has also demanded Della Vella repay the $56,000 he took in disability checks while wearing many hats at his pizza shop.

If you have a problem you would like I-Team Reporter Lorrie Taylor to investigate, contact her at Lorrie.taylor@fox8.com.  She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.