You might say that Pat Forciea has been to hell and back.
Forciea, once a powerful DFL political operative and sports marketing savant, helped U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone win an improbable election in 1990. For more than a decade, Forciea was the face of local sports teams and a regular on the political news shows.
Then, in 2004, the glowing pictures were replaced with mug shots as Forciea's life came apart in public view. He pleaded guilty to a matrix of fraud, theft and forgery charges for stealing from his partners and friends, most of them prominent and wealthy. Forciea also disclosed numerous personal problems, including bipolar disorder that led to manic, irrational deals and thoughts of suicide.
In November 2004, a federal judge sentenced Forciea to eight years in federal prison and ordered him to repay $5 million to victims of his scams.
Forciea was released earlier this year and seemed to disappear. But this week a fancy marketing package from Minneapolis restaurant Hell's Kitchen quietly listed a new marketing director: Pat Forciea.
I'm not sure if Forciea's landing at Hell's Kitchen is fitting or ironic, but I knew a little about owner/chef Mitch Omer's own background of alcohol abuse and mental illness, and sensed there might be a story of empathy and redemption.
"Absolutely," said Omer, a large, gregarious man who has never shied from his rocky past.
"I had followed his story and his problems with being bipolar and betraying and alienating everyone else," said Omer. "Well, that was me, too."
Omer's wife, Cynthia Gerdes, was reminded of Forciea after watching Charlie Sheen unravel, and wondered what happened to him.
"I never knew Pat, but had been a fan of his since the green bus days with Paul Wellstone," Gerdes said. "I thought he and Mitch would get along, so I invited him to lunch."
Though Forciea seemed suspicious, he and Omer found they had a lot in common. "I'm kind of wild and crazy and jumping off the ceiling, and Pat's very calm and serious," said Omer. "But we hit it off."
Gerdes had been doing the restaurant's marketing and once clocked 124 hours in a week. She asked Forciea if he wanted to do some freelance work, and he had so many good ideas they decided to hire him to help them market the restaurant's 10th anniversary. Forciea will use part of his earnings for restitution payments.
After discussing it with his family (he and ex-wife, Cathy, are divorced) and probation officer, Forciea declined to be interviewed for this column. But he gave Gerdes and Omer permission to talk about their unusual relationship.
"It's turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made," said Omer. "He still has to work on relationship and trust issues, but so do I."
Gerdes was quick to say that Forciea's bipolar diagnosis in no way excuses his crimes, and says he does not use it as one. "But when I saw his behavior, I knew I had seen that to a lesser extent in Mitch," said Gerdes. "Robbing Peter to pay Paul, thinking you can pay it back later."
Gerdes had seen Omer's pattern of "two ex-wives, crushed families and crushed finances," and thought that everyone deserved a second chance. She gave one to Omer when they married 10 years ago, but even he knows that "just because he's the owner, doesn't mean he automatically gets to work here," said Gerdes.
In an anecdote that only feels right in an off-kilter place like Hell's Kitchen, Gerdes described how Omer and Forciea bonded when Omer gave him one of his prized artifacts. Omer has a large collection of fossilized poop, some of it thousands of years old, which he keeps under glass. In a symbolic gesture, Omer presented Forciea with one, saying, "Here, this is good."
"Pat was speechless," she said.
But Forciea knowingly stole from his friends; didn't that give Gerdes pause?
"It gave me very little pause," said Gerdes, known as kind of a den mother to the 100 or so employees. "We have zero tolerance for misbehavior here. But this is absolutely the right place for someone who has taken a look at their life and said, 'I've got to fix this.' We're not a counseling group, but we have empathy."
Isn't it risky to the restaurant's brand to hire someone who still has so many powerful enemies and left so many feeling betrayed?
"I'm not worried about it," said Gerdes. "Those people are so entitled to feel that way. If we lose their business, well, we hate to see them go. I just feel we have a huge responsibility to someone like this."