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How a Philly restaurant owner landed a top State Department job

Michael Karloutsos ran a posh Philadelphia restaurant. Then he hosted a New York City radio show. Now he's in a top job in President Trump's State Department.

Michael Karloutsos (left) with former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus  on Inauguration Day.
Michael Karloutsos (left) with former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on Inauguration Day.Read moreTwitter / @Makarloutsos

First, Michael Karloutsos ran a posh Philadelphia restaurant that got tangled in controversy. Then he hosted a New York City radio show. Now, he's in a top job in President Trump's State Department.

Karloutsos, a politically connected consultant and former owner of the Water Works restaurant at the foot of the Art Museum, became deputy chief of protocol in the State Department in late July. The top job in the Office of Protocol remains unfilled, leaving Karloutsos as acting chief.

In that role, the former restaurateur is responsible for planning foreign trips for the president and vice president, and setting up protocol between the United States and other governments across the globe.

Karloutsos, 46, is a registered Republican, but his political connections stretch across the aisle. He donated a nominal amount to Trump's campaign; has given to Pennsylvania senators from both parties; has hosted fund-raisers and events for Democrats at Water Works, including a primary-night party for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama; and was a major bundler for former President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign.

In Philadelphia, he is primarily known for his involvement in the troubled Water Works restaurant, which turned to private-dining and events-only in 2015. The restaurant along the Schuylkill was the site of numerous political fund-raisers, and a source of controversy when it was disclosed that taxpayers had mistakenly been paying its utilities.

He is an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and his connections in the Orthodox community appear to have put him on the radar for the State Department position, according to a source and to reports in Greek American news outlets.

For the last 25 years, Karloutsos has been involved in the planning and execution of trips on behalf of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, regarded as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.

Karloutsos' work planning and directing Bartholomew's trips garnered the attention of George Gigicos, a fellow member of the Greek Orthodox Church and self-described "advance man" who has worked for various Republican politicians over the last 17 years, including Trump.

A source confirmed news reports that Gigicos and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who is also a member of the church, recommended Karloutsos for the prominent State Department job after Trump won the presidency.

"I thank God I that have good friends within the administration who saw the work that I have done and they felt I was ready to assume that job," Karloutsos told the National Herald, a weekly Greek American newspaper in the New York metropolitan area, which first reported his position.

Karloutsos and the State Department denied requests for an interview, though the department confirmed Karloutsos started July 23.

Priebus and Gigicos were out of the Trump White House before Karloutsos got a good start in his new role. Priebus was famously fired due to the influence of former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, while Gigicos left the administration to return to his consulting business.

Karloutsos donated $348 to Trump's campaign in December, after he had already won the presidency, according to Federal Election Commission records.

His Water Works restaurant, which he purchased and reopened in 2006, came under scrutiny in 2012, when a Daily News and WHYY investigation discovered that the city had been mistakenly paying the restaurant's utilities.

A follow-up investigation found that taxpayers also paid utilities for Boathouse Row Café, also owned by Karloutsos in a space leased in city-owned Lloyd Hall.

At the time, Karloutsos denied that his political connections were tied to taxpayers' footing the bill for the restaurant's utilities.

"There is no inside job. There is no preferential treatment," he said. "I don't think any taxpayer in Philadelphia would pay an invoice that they haven't seen."

The restaurant has hosted political fund-raisers for Democrats like former Mayor Michael Nutter and current Sen. Bob Casey, and events held by the Obama campaign and former Vice President Joe Biden.

"He may be a Republican, but he's always been about the person," said Anastasia Karloutsos, his wife. " He has friends on both side of the aisle, and knows how to get people in the middle."

Karloutsos also ran the 2002 Illinois gubernatorial campaign for former Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas, who came in second in the Democratic primary to Rod Blagojevich.

In 2015, Karloutsos sold Water Works to Cescaphe Event Group's Joe Volpe and returned to his business, MAK Consulting. He also hosted a radio show on WNYE in New York City, where he opined on politics, sports, and pop culture.

Now, he is settling into his new life in Washington, which is likely to be busy, given the nearly 200 positions open in the State Department.

"My entire life, I wanted to serve our country, the United States of America," Karloutsos told the National Herald, "and to be able to do it right now under the current administration, under these circumstances in which the world finds itself, is an incredible honor, but also a great challenge."