SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Michael A. Mota leaned back in a black leather chair in his second-floor office, next to a framed poster of him surrounded by actors famed for portraying Hollywood mobsters, and talked confidently about his business plans.
He spun tales about the value of the cryptocurrency he launched, his popular conventions aimed at fans of mob movies and “The Sopranos,” his connections with celebrities and power players, and the successes of his convention and entertainment company, VirtualCons.
In press releases and online, he calls himself “Dr. Mota,” referring to an honorary doctorate he received last fall, and says he was a vice president at Alex and Ani, the once high-flying jewelry company. He says unnamed overseas investors and others want to sink millions into his plans “because I am a smart guy, just so you know.”
And he has emerged as a key player in two of Rhode Island’s most prominent properties where his boasts are no less grand — and the results so far underwhelming at best.
As CEO of Skyline at Waterplace, a shimmering event venue in downtown Providence, Mota once proposed building an amphitheater and ornate Bellagio-style fountains in the mucky tidal river.
And Mota claims his company, Bayport International Holdings, has a $50 million to $90 million redevelopment plan for the former Memorial Hospital property in Pawtucket, which will help solve the state’s housing crisis along the way.
There’s just one problem: Mota’s tales of success are largely fictional, a Globe investigation shows.
Skyline hadn’t paid its rent to the city of Providence for months, city officials say, and there’s no record that Mota made renovations that were promised in exchange for avoiding rent for nearly three years.
Bayport International Holdings is a defunct company. Its stock is worthless, industry analysts say.
Mota’s doctorate comes from a diploma mill that provides honorary degrees for a price, the Globe’s research found. His work at Alex and Ani has been exaggerated — the company’s founder told the Globe he never served as its vice president.
The list goes on.
“Don’t trust him,” said Rhode Island filmmaker David Bettencourt, who worked directly with Mota at a marketing company that was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Alex and Ani. “You can’t listen to anything he says.”
Many people who have dealt with Mota say the same. The Globe investigation found that Mota is being sued by creditors and vendors in 10 lawsuits totaling more than $500,000 and has left furious investors and vendors in multiple states, according to interviews, court documents, and hundreds of other records, including e-mails and text messages.
Mota is being chased for money from Rhode Island to New Jersey. He obsesses over Tony Soprano, yet some fellow fans of the HBO mob series say he overcharged them and promised them perks they could not access, and he has been accused of not compensating vendors and actors from “The Sopranos” who were involved in his conventions. He has also made promises he hasn’t yet kept to the family of an actual mobster, John Gotti, whose “real story” he has promised to tell in a new movie, “Gotti 2.” And he’s angered other people with serious connections.
Mota and his business partners “tend to think ‘The Sopranos’ is a documentary and not a drama,” said New Yorker Bernadette Giacomazzo, whose father, Giuseppe Giacomazzo, was involved with the infamous Marseilles Mafia. “They like to pretend that they’re tough guys.”
Now, after years of fast-talking and whirling from one deal to the next, Mota may finally be facing consequences: A judge in Providence County Superior Court is threatening to throw him in jail for blowing off payment agreements in one case. His own lawyer told the judge on Feb. 21 that Mota should file for bankruptcy.
But Mota remains defiant.
He told the Globe that he doesn’t owe anyone anything — and, if he does, he’ll pay them when he feels like it. At other times, he insists that the accusations against him about nonpayment are not true.
“How did I make it in life so far and I didn’t pay people? It’s just asinine. It’s actually insulting,” Mota said in an interview in October, his voice rising. “They don’t see the hours of work. They don’t see the lost time with my children. They don’t see the struggles.”
People should be grateful for the opportunity to do business with him, he added. “Now, do I have thoughts of grandeur? Absolutely. Am I gonna be successful? One thousand percent.”
Leveraging opportunity at Alex and Ani
Mota, the 42-year-old son of Portuguese immigrants, certainly has the trappings of success. He lives with his wife, a former cheerleader for the New England Patriots, in a $2 million, five-bedroom home in Lincoln with a heated pool and life-sized chess board in the backyard. His second-floor office on Douglas Pike in Smithfield is filled with memorabilia glorifying mobsters.
In a poster on the blood-red wall by his desk, Mota is pictured at a casino table amid Hollywood actors famous for portraying gangsters. A well-known image from “The Sopranos” of Tony Soprano with the show’s race horse, Pie-O-My, has Mota instead of the late actor James Gandolfini holding the reins. Gandolfini’s smirk fills a wall in another room, next to a floor-to-ceiling mural of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”
“Mob stories dispel myths and show the truth,” Mota said in July 2021, at a mob-movie convention he hosted in Atlantic City. “The truth about who and what we could be, if only given the opportunity.”
If there’s one person Mota admires as much as Tony Soprano, it’s Giovanni Feroce, Mota’s mentor and former CEO of Alex and Ani. In many ways, Feroce, who now lives in Puerto Rico and is currently the second-biggest tax scofflaw in Rhode Island, gave Mota his start. Feroce did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
Mota met Feroce more than a decade ago when the jewelry company was beginning its stratospheric rise and Mota was working at a small marketing company that had Alex and Ani as a client. When Alex and Ani acquired the marketing firm in 2012, renaming it Seven Swords, Mota suddenly had a new title — vice president of business development at Seven Swords — as well as a mentor in Feroce.
Feroce, Mota once wrote, taught him “that businesses grow in proportion to the intellectual refinement and spiritual development of their principals.”
Mota saw Feroce as a “big believer” in self-promotion, according to court documents, and Mota followed suit, deliberately building his image as a big shot. He tagged along when Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian was invited to meet the Dalai Lama at Brown University in October 2012, and got his own photo with the spiritual leader. It hangs on the wall next to his mob pictures.
In April 2014, Mota announced on social media that his alma mater, Rhode Island College, was naming a room after him in the new Alex and Ani Hall. The “Michael Mota ‘02 Film and Photography Room” is a small darkroom; Mota filmed the dedication and posted it to YouTube.
A month later, Mota was terminated from Seven Swords, and his cellphone and computer were seized. He sued Alex and Ani, Rafaelian, and Seven Swords in 2015, alleging 11 counts including gender discrimination and wrongful termination.
Court records show that Alex and Ani and Rafaelian countered with documents including Mota’s own e-mails, showing that Mota had encouraged a client to break its marketing contract with Seven Swords and to give Mota $30,000 to invest in a business opportunity with him that he claimed would yield $10 million.
The company also alleged in its court filing that Mota falsely claimed to be Alex and Ani’s CEO, took lavish gifts from clients, and racked up $32,000 in dining expenses on the corporate credit card.
Mota denies those allegations. And his case against Alex and Ani ended in November 2020, with both sides agreeing to have their claims and counterclaims dismissed with prejudice, meaning that the case cannot be refiled. Mota refused to say what happened, but told the Globe, “I didn’t lose.”
He now calls himself a former vice president of marketing for Alex and Ani, and sometimes a former vice president of business development for the jewelry company. But court documents show that, while he was a vice president at the marketing subsidiary, he never held that title at Alex and Ani. Those who worked with Mota, including Rafaelian, told the Globe the same.
“I was! I was the vice president of Alex and Ani marketing!” Mota yelled during an interview. “That’s why I use it.”
A series of unpaid debts in Providence
Mota promised a golden age for Skyline at Waterplace when he and a group of investors took over the venue in 2016. The city-owned property with its stunning views of the Providence cityscape had hosted countless weddings, fund-raisers, and high-profile events over the years, but it had changed hands and owners several times and Mota was convinced it was not living up to its potential.
Mota had visions of renewing the glory of the venue: A new $1.6 million amphitheater. Fountains like at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. A gleaming, chrome-and-white “world-class restaurant.” Walls of glass to show off the city views.
“This is a project Skyline will fund and maintain without any liabilities,” he insisted to the city planner.
City officials quickly determined that his plan wasn’t even remotely feasible. Meanwhile, Skyline was foundering. Mota was trying to run the events business, but he was falling behind on the rent. Under the terms of the original 2016 lease, his company should have paid a total of nearly $700,000 in rent by 2023; by late February, the company had paid just $188,181, according to city records. And, just two years into his tenure, in 2018, Mota sold his ownership in Skyline, though he remained as CEO.
Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Globe show a rocky relationship between Mota and the city, including unaddressed fire code deficiencies. Mota complained that the city was a terrible landlord and the building had ongoing problems, including water leaks.
Mota asked the city for a break on lease payments at least four times, and won approval from then-Mayor Jorge O. Elorza and the parks commissioners three times. The largest abatement was in late 2019, when he argued that the building was in serious disrepair and said that his company’s public adjuster estimated remediation work would cost $476,502.
The parks commissioners unanimously approved the request. In exchange for the promised repairs, the parks commissioners agreed to suspend rent payments for 32 months, but insisted Skyline at Waterplace document all the improvements, maintenance, and repairs, adding that “failure to do so will result in termination of any further abatement.”
Over the succeeding 32 months, Mota tried unsuccessfully to get another break on the rent — this time because of the impact of COVID-19. But the pandemic also brought him a windfall — more than $1.8 million in federal COVID relief funds.
Yet, when Mota’s lease payment came due in August 2022, Mota’s company did not pay the next seven months, city records show. What’s more, Skyline at Waterplace hasn’t provided documentation of the improvements or repair work, as required under Mota’s 2019 abatement, a spokeswoman for Elorza confirmed on Dec. 20, 2022.
Mota kept a hand in city politics while leading Skyline. He and his partners donated $18,000 to Elorza’s campaign, and, before Elorza’s last term ended in December, Mota switched allegiances to Mayor-elect Brett Smiley, offering to throw a fund-raiser for him at Skyline.
“I look forward to bringing the Renaissance City back,” Mota wrote on Instagram just before the event at Skyline on Oct. 12, tagging Smiley. “I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get this project going.”
But as the fall sunlight began to fade, so did expectations for a crowd. The mayor-elect waited inside the cavernous venue with Mota and a handful of others, nibbling on appetizers bought by the campaign.
The fund-raiser brought in a little more than $4,700, according to Smiley’s campaign. By the end of the year, Mota and his wife, Jodi, each donated $1,000 to the incoming mayor.
But the Smiley administration didn’t take the heat off Skyline.
The venue’s management was ordered to appear before the Board of Licenses on Feb. 9 because its general liability insurance had expired. The Fire Department noted “major life safety concerns” at the property that hadn’t been resolved for months — broken emergency lights, expired fire extinguishers, blocked exits, exposed wires, fire alarm system not working properly, and a sprinkler system that hadn’t had a recent inspection.
On Feb. 28, senior assistant city solicitor Jillian Barker wrote to Skyline’s lawyer, saying the company had until March 31 to pay $63,165 in back rent. Skyline had breached its lease agreement in other ways, she noted: holding events after midnight without approval, failing to maintain liability insurance, fire code violations, and numerous complaints about the condition of the premises.
Mota’s company eventually fixed the fire code issues and paid the rent, but as of March 15, the venue’s taxes were still unpaid. Its licenses are suspended, the doors still closed. And Skyline is for sale.
In the meantime, Mota focused his attention on another property: the former Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket.
‘I’m an ally, trust me.’
One day last November, Mota introduced himself to Rhode Island Housing Secretary Joshua Saal as the president of Bayport International Holdings, a publicly traded company based in Florida.
Mota said he was there to help solve the crisis at the former Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. Plans to turn the Brewster Street site into more than 200 apartments for senior veterans had foundered. In the meantime, the state contracted with nonprofit Amos House to run a temporary homeless shelter in the former hospital. Then, last November, a sprinkler leak on the upper floor forced the evacuation of the 87 people living at the temporary shelter.
But Mota had a plan.
Mota explained to Saal that his company, Bayport, had partnered with a Puerto Rican bank that had loaned money to the hospital building’s owner. Mota said the loan was in default, so Bayport was assisting with a “voluntary foreclosure” in which the owner was giving up the building to Bayport in order to get free of the debt.
In e-mails to government officials obtained by the Globe, Mota suggested that he undertake renovations that would restore the shelter. All he needed was the funding.
“I know this is TOP PRIORITY for the Governor and the state. I GET IT,” Mota wrote in a Nov. 24 e-mail to Saal. “If there is a way the state can commit those resources through grants or other sources, we can get things going ASAP.”
Saal arranged to tour the facility on Nov. 28 with Mota and representatives from several state departments, according to text messages obtained by the Globe through a public records request. And after the tour, Mota pressed even harder for funding, name-dropping Rhode Island political leaders, claiming, for instance, that Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien supported his plan. (Grebien hasn’t said one way or another.) Mota e-mailed Saal on Dec. 2, saying it would cost $350,000 to get the former hospital “move-in ready” for homeless families by Jan. 1, 2023.
But Saal and other state officials were questioning the nature of Mota’s connection to the former hospital’s owners. A week after the tour, lawyers for the Housing Department began to seek documents that verified that the hospital’s owner really had agreed to let Mota take over the building.
Mota started work on what he said was a $90 million to $100 million veterans home project at the property anyway, and pushed the state to work with him on financing. He also sent invoices for the repairs to the housing department. “I’m an ally trust me — you’ll be happy when we are done,” Mota texted Saal on Dec. 15, 2022.
“They’re coming to us, begging us, the people in the governor’s office, the people who are trying to fix homelessness,” Mota told the Globe on Jan. 3. He scrolled through his text messages and held up his phone to show a Globe reporter. “He called me direct. Josh Saal, secretary of housing. Many text messages. You think I’m not talking to people?”
The Department of Housing, however, has consistently said Mota has not yet provided proof of his connection to the property owners. Saal resigned in January. A housing spokesman reiterated that stance in a Feb. 22 interview with the Globe, but last week, staff and attorneys who work for new Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor visited Memorial Hospital and discussed having Amos House return.
Mota told the Globe on March 1 that Bayport hadn’t closed on the former Memorial Hospital — although, he said, it had already spent $1 million on renovations, with money coming “from the banks.” Papers filed with the city of Pawtucket on March 7 show that Memorial Real Estate LLC — a company formed by Mota — had taken over the mortgage on the property.
And he insists he is going forward with the project, which he says is “self-funded” and will now include co-working spaces as well as affordable housing.
“It’s going to be AN INSANE space available March 1st in Pawtucket, Rhode Island,” Mota wrote on social media on Feb. 1. “Remember — you’re not alone. Your network is your net worth — BOOM.”
VirtualCons and real-life victims
He may be the president of Bayport, but everything he does goes back to VirtualCons, his convention business.
What started as a small gathering with a handful of actors from “The Sopranos” at the 2011 New England Cigar Expo at the Rhode Island Convention Center grew into a company with mob-themed conventions and its own sketchy cryptocurrency — followed by empty promises that left fans enraged and investors clamoring for payback.
In 2019, Mota and two other superfans of “The Sopranos” hosted SopranosCon at Meadowlands Exposition Centre in New Jersey to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the HBO show’s debut — without authorization from HBO. Still, they secured the attendance of 55 cast members, the British rock band Alabama 3 to perform the show’s theme, “Woke Up This Morning,” and plenty of press for the event, which drew about 10,000 fans and a visit from Gandolfini’s family.
It was disorganized, but some fans who paid $50 or so for general access — and more for autographs — seemed satisfied. However, those who had paid as much as $2,500 for VIP tickets complained that they didn’t get the special access and perks they had been promised.
“It blew up too quickly, and they didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with a supernova,” said Bernadette Giacomazzo, owner of G-Force Marketing & Publicity in New York, who did the publicity for SopranosCon. Though Giacomazzo said she eventually got paid for her work, she said that some cast members and vendors were not. Furious fans lobbed curses at Mota and vented on social media.
Still, two years later, Mota decided to do it again — and do it bigger. He launched VirtualCons, a website and app that Mota promised would offer conventions, crypto investment opportunities, and more.
Mota touted his celebrity connections. Actor Armand Assante, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of New York crime boss John Gotti in the 1996 HBO movie, got involved — Mota called him the chairman of the board. “The Sopranos” actor Federico Castelluccio, who’d connected other actors with Mota for SopranosCon, encouraged people to join VirtualCons. So did Ice-T, who called it “a game-changing app.”
At meetings at a golf course in New Jersey, at Skyline, and over Zoom, Mota pushed people to invest and promised they would make money. Though some thought it sounded like a pyramid scheme, avid fans of “The Sopranos” from all over invested in his vision.
“He speaks very eloquently and very knowledgeably. You get a sense that he has run many businesses and is accomplished. You don’t think he’s crazy,” said an investor from New Jersey, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.
In July 2021, VirtualCons hosted a MobMovieCon and SopranosCon weekend at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, where Mota made national news when he announced that he would “immediately” start filming “Gotti 2,” with Assante in the starring role. Mota said the Gotti family was giving him access to personal archives for a separate documentary and museum.
A few weeks later, Mota launched his own mob-themed cryptocurrency, VirtualCoin, $VCON, with a huge video billboard in New York’s Times Square, celebrity endorsements, and wild claims. He produced a music video in Cancun, Mexico, and flew to Puerto Rico to promote his cryptocurrency. He posted a video of his brother-in-law “making history” by buying a vehicle at Bristol County Auto Exchange in Swansea, Mass., using VirtualCoin.
That VirtualCons was spending so lavishly around the same time that Skyline received more than $1.8 million in federal COVID money was just a coincidence, Mota told the Globe. He had investors, he said.
In late 2021, as the cryptocurrency investors joked about becoming rich, Mota brought in a new partner to lead VirtualCons’ crypto and NFT division: William Benson, a self-described “lifestyle influencer” and owner of the Billionaires Row Champagne brand. Mota called Benson his “ride or die.”
Mota had promised buyers that they could trade and sell their VirtualCoin starting on Jan. 1, 2022. But With Benson in charge, and without warning, VirtualCoin was moved on Dec. 31, 2021 to a different platform, where coin-holders couldn’t see their investment or sell it. In a rambling Facebook post, Mota told investors that Benson had made “amazing progress in such a short time frame” and the migration was “in order to have more governance for our token and technology.”
Mota then told coin-holders that the coin could be used only to buy things through VirtualCons, such as coin-shaped tokens that were engraved with his face and the motto: In Mota We Trust.
“We watched the value go up, but then we couldn’t sell it,” said New Jersey investor Chris Leone, who had also spent more than $3,000 on the cryptocurrency.
“All you need to know about him is that he runs a website with the word ‘con.’ Because that’s what he is,” said Rhode Island filmmaker David Bettencourt, who worked directly with Mota at Seven Swords, the media marketing company that became part of Alex and Ani.
The downward spiral
Many fantasies fall apart once reality sets in.
Mota admitted to the Globe that the video of his brother-in-law “making history” using Virtual Coins to buy a used car was just “what we’re going to do.” In other words, it was staged.
Celebrities connected to VirtualCons have distanced themselves from Mota. In September 2021, Castelluccio announced he was no longer affiliated with VirtualCons. “Ultimately, I did not care for the direction the company was headed in,” he said.
Assante’s spokesman told the Globe that the actor had never been “chairman of the board” of VirtualCons and requested to be removed from the company’s website.
“I withdrew any and all connection with VirtualCons last year as my work for the charity I created in 2012 helpchildrennow.org has taken precedence, over participation in any endeavors that can possibly distract focus from the charity’s urgency,” Assante told the Globe through a spokesman in December 2022. “We are moving families from Ukraine to Afghanistan.”
“Gotti 2″ never went into production.
In September 2022, Mota announced that Bayport International Holding had acquired Virtual Cons and made him president. He said that everyone who had invested in VirtualCons now had stock in Bayport. Investors said few of the promised payments materialized. Bayport’s stock is currently worth a penny or less per share and can’t be bought or sold in the United States, according to OTC Markets Group.
Mota has “attempted to absolve himself of responsibility to his investors by giving them stock in a public company that should be considered a corpse,” said George Sharp, a former consultant to OTC Markets Group and an antifraud advocate who has advised on federal investigations.
Mota is accused in multiple lawsuits of not paying banks and vendors involved in his various businesses. In Rhode Island, Mota is being chased for money for Skyline at Waterplace and for Lola’s Lounge, a Mexican restaurant in Smithfield that Mota briefly operated during the pandemic.
“The last I heard from him was when he phoned me when I filed the lawsuit,” said Mark Weiser, of Shake Rattle and Roll Pianos in New Jersey, who is suing Mota over unpaid bills at Lola’s. “He made a point of saying I’d never see a dime.”
Russell Morin Catering of Attleboro, Mass., had built out the kitchen at Skyline and paid for the equipment, as the venue’s exclusive caterer, general manager R.J. Morin told the Globe.
Then, Mota told them he was taking the work in-house and refused to return about $40,000 worth of equipment, Morin said. “I would never ever deal with him again,” Morin said.
Nicola Mattiello, the owner of Pranzi Catering of Providence, said he knew Mota’s reputation, so he insisted on getting paid upfront when his company was hired in September 2022. The relationship ended quickly when Mota wrote him two checks for more than $10,000 that didn’t have sufficient funds. Mattiello gave the checks to Providence police.
Some are watching Mota tout his lifestyle on social media and wonder if they paid for his luxuries.
“What got me is, you know you owe people and you are posting pictures of your Range Rover and your new house, and you screwed people to get there,” said William Boettcher, a New Jersey DJ still owed thousands from SopranosCon in 2021. “Where did the money come from?”
A charity to benefit the children of fallen first responders told the Globe that while Mota personally donated $600, the First Responders Children’s Foundation never received the money Mota said he raised through SopranosCon Cares. That’s what prompted Giacomazzo to angrily cut ties with Mota.
“Defrauding charities that help the children of fallen cops — I don’t know, my mind is literally unable to comprehend,” she said. “How has it gone on for so long that no one has ever held this man accountable, no one has ever said, ‘Enough is enough?’”
Anna Rozentsvit, whose New Jersey company, Inspiria Graphix, made the banners, programs, and autograph sheets for the SopranosCon in 2021, said she’s still owed more than $9,500.
After months of begging to be paid, Rozentsvit filed a lawsuit. The debt “put me in a spiral a little bit,” she said. “I felt like I’m trying so hard, and it knocked me down.”
Yet, even as the court summonses are sent to his spacious home in Lincoln, Mota is defiant. His home is in the names of his wife and father-in-law, and all of his companies are LLCs, which could shield him from claims.
“Just imagine if the house was under my name what would happen. They would try to attach my house, my family’s life,” Mota told the Globe. “So, of course I’ve put protectors in place to protect me.”
Legal attempts by his creditors to find out about his finances have failed. Mota has for months ignored a court order to turn over his financial documents in a lawsuit where he owes more than $70,000 to a New Jersey film company contracted to make a documentary of SopranosCon. Attempts to get him to follow a court-ordered payment schedule have also failed. In a hearing on Feb. 21, after he was found in contempt and fined when he didn’t show up, his own lawyer, Michael Lepizzera, told the judge that Mota should file for bankruptcy. Mota told the Globe he did not intend to do so.
To Mota, the lawsuits are proof that he’s a serious businessman, like his idols, former president Donald Trump and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
“I have a target on my back because I’m an entrepreneur doing a lot of things. People are always gonna come after me. People always come after folks that are doing something,” Mota told the Globe back in October. “If you’re doing nothing, then obviously no one’s gonna come after you.”
Many others who have dealt with him wonder if he’ll ever be held accountable.
“He’ll never stop using people he can benefit from,” said one former business associate, “unless he’s stopped.”