"I LOVE WOMEN." The afternoon sun enters Tommy Maggiore's empty restaurant on East Camelback Road. In a few minutes, evening diners will enter, too. Tomaso's isn't out-of-this-world upscale, but it's very nice. The prices are on the high end of reasonable, the service is good. Later, when wine is flowing and waiters begin to hustle plate after plate of aromatic pasta through the kitchen doors, it's easy to see how Maggiore built a mini-empire of similar restaurants around town during the 1980s. But Maggiore's empire has been threatened in recent years. He's spent a small fortune on legal fees fighting the United States government. He's filed for bankruptcy. Most of the restaurants he once operated have been closed or sold off. The reason for his misery? Women. The government says Maggiore did not hire enough of them to wait or bus tables in his restaurants, and the government, specifically the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has made him pay for his mistake. There have been times in the past few years when Maggiore has wanted to drive down to the EEOC's Central Avenue offices and drop off his keys. "Here," he wanted to say to the team of lawyers ruining his life. "You can have it." People who work around Maggiore say this would have been a typical gesture for him. He is, they say, impulsive, ruled by his emotions, quick-to-anger--a charismatic boss who has created an extremely successful business by sheer force of personality. Running a great restaurant--like running a baseball team--is a heart-and-soul calling. Physically and emotionally, Maggiore resembles baseball manager Tony LaRussa. Normally stoic and calculating, LaRussa is capable of great bursts of fury.

Maggiore is, too. On the day he signed his agreement with the EEOC and ended his years-long legal battle over sex discrimination, he flew into a fearsome rage in his Camelback Road restaurant. It is said that pans filled the kitchen air. Tommy Maggiore is calmer now. Weeks have gone by since that day. But as the sun streams through the windows onto his floor, as cooks and dishwashers wander in and out of his steaming kitchen, as another of his cigarettes gets stubbed out, he still doesn't seem to understand what he did wrong. "How can I discriminate against women?" he pleads. "I love women!"

He lights another cigarette. One of Maggiore's attorneys says she's never seen a client so emotionally wounded by a legal battle. "Where I come from you deal with the Mafia," Maggiore says, from the center of a smoke halo. "I could've got better treatment from the Mafia in Sicily." where maggiore comes from, Sicily, there is not a Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that act, governing hiring practices and on-the-job sex discrimination, is administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC receives complaints from victims of discrimination, and has the power to launch investigations on its own. Maggiore's woes were not prompted by an official complaint to the EEOC from an aggrieved food server. His trouble started with a newspaper article.

In August 1985, Elin Jeffords, then restaurant reviewer at the Arizona Republic, wrote a long Sunday feature about the policy of many local restaurants to hire only male food servers. Tomaso's was the very first restaurant cited in the piece. These ominous words, quoted from an EEOC official, concluded the article: "All we need are a few good, well-publicized cases, and there will not be a restaurant in town that won't get the message."

Eventually almost all of the restaurants mentioned in Jeffords' story would come under EEOC investigation, including the Avanti restaurants, Allegro and Trader Vic's. The commission went to work on Tomaso's not long after the story ran. An EEOC investigator interviewed current and former employees of Tomaso's and combed through Maggiore's employment records. Out of 70 table-busing openings filled at Tomaso's from 1985 to 1990, zero were filled by women. And only two female food servers were hired by Tomaso's during that time--both after the EEOC officially filed suit in 1989. In that same period, 52 male food servers were hired by the restaurant.

In cases like this, the government must take a series of carefully scripted steps. Correspondence is exchanged between the accused and the accuser. Conciliation meetings are held in hopes of reaching a settlement. Sometimes the government can get jobs for the people who were discriminated against. The employer can be asked to give back pay to those workers. The government began its legal dialogue with Tommy Maggiore knowing it had, in the words of EEOC attorney Mary Jo O'Neill, a "dead-bang" case. maggiore admits he ignored the EEOC's first letter. "I didn't take it seriously," he says, making a tearing gesture with his hands. "I thought, 'It's got to be a mistake.'"

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Dave Walker