Harrison County

Who’s in charge at Desporte Seafood? Judge rules it won’t be Sean or Artie

The relationship is irretrievably broken between the co-owers of fifth-generation family seafood business Desporte & Sons Seafood in Biloxi, forcing a Chancery Court judge to appoint a custodian who will oversee the business until a lawsuit is resolved.

Judge Jennifer Schloegel decided late Tuesday afternoon that Desporte manager Frank Menna should serve as custodian of the business. Menna’s stewardship begins this week, the last week of a busy Lenten season in a Catholic community Desporte has served for 122 years.

Sean Desporte, the son who inherited half the business after his father died in 2007, will manage both the retail and wholesale operations. Desporte has a retail shop in East Biloxi and provides seafood wholesale to casinos, restaurants and hotels.

Schloegel barred Sean Desporte’s uncle, Artie Desporte, from the business, along with Artie Desporte’s wife, Becky.

A forensic accounting of Desporte’s books should be completed by June, said Artie Desporte’s attorney, Henry Laird of Gulfport. Sean Desporte’s attorney, David Wheeler of Biloxi, said the two sides are not close on an agreement that would allow one party to buy out the other’s interest in the business.

Unless an agreement is reached, a trial set for July will ultimately determine the company’s fate.

Artie Desporte sued nephew Sean Desporte in June 2018, demanding a full accounting of business assets and asking that a temporary custodian be appointed to run the business. Sean Desporte responded that his uncle had not worked at the business since October 2015 but continued to receive the same $1,500 weekly pay and, as president of the company, has access to any financial records he wants to view.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Schloegel has acted as referee in what court records show is a bitter family dispute that has disturbed employees and customers alike.

Judge Jennifer Schloegel Desporte’s.jpg
Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel listens as Henry Laird, Artie Desporte’s attorney, gives closing arguments Tuesday in an emergency hearing to determine if Artie or co-owner Sean Desporte, center, should have control of Desporte & Sons. Schloegel ruled that manager Frank Minna should serve and allowed Sean Desporte back as his role, and ruled that Artie Desporte and his wife, Becky Desporte, should not be on the property until their next court date on the lawsuit, slated for July. Justin Mitchell jmitchell@mcclatchy.com

Tuesday’s emergency hearing was no different. It was held after Sean Desporte filed an emergency request to eject his uncle, who was running the retail side while Sean ran the wholesale side, as provided in a previous court-approved agreement.

Sean Desporte said he simply could not work with his uncle. He claimed his uncle has no idea how to run the business, while Artie Desporte testified that his nephew took all the business records related to the retail side and he had to close so that he and his wife could figure out retail prices and other details.

Then he was closed for eye surgery. The business reopened to the public Tuesday morning. Sean Desporte was determined not to return to work as long as his uncle was there.

“I don’t feel comfortable for my employees or my customers to be there,” Sean Desporte testified. “I’m scared for my life. I’m scared he’s going to pull out a gun and kill someone. He’s always had a hot temper like that.”

Artie Desporte said the retail store and deli on Division Street were “filthy” when he took over the shop March 22. He said that he, his wife, members of her church and others spent several days cleaning.

“It’s a wonder the health department didn’t shut it down,” Artie Desporte testified. “I found a dead rat in the cooler.”

Frank Menna testified that he has been working with Sean Desporte to run the business the way the family always had, in a welcoming and friendly manner. He said that he tried to help Artie and Becky Desporte get situated in the retail shop and deli when they took over, but couldn’t work with them and left after only a day and a half.

“If Sean hadn’t been there after 2007 when Junie (his father) died, it would have been bankrupt,” Menna testified.

“Sean is the face of the business. That’s what keeps it going.”