A Port Allen man pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges he tried to hire a hit man in mid-December to kill the former owners of Camile’s Cajun Cafe over a bitter business dispute involving the restaurant.

The would-be hit man, who has not been identified, instead told West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s investigators about the murder plot after Tommy Joe Gioele, 37, approached him and then helped implicate him, deputies have said.

Gioele entered the initial plea Thursday at his arraignment before Judge J. Robin Free, of the 18th Judicial District Court, at the West Baton Rouge Parish Courthouse in Port Allen. Free set Gioele’s bail at $750,000. A grand jury indicted Gioele on Feb. 13 on two counts of solicitation for murder.

Gioele was locked in a business dispute with Manuel A. Persica that goes back to a 2008 lawsuit filed by Gioele, court records show.

The suit accuses Persica of fraud and of violating terms of a contract related to the 2007 sale of a Port Allen restaurant to Gioele by Persica and his wife, Camellia.

The breach, the suit claims, led to Gioele’s losing the business at a sheriff’s sale.

Gioele’s would-be hit man told West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s investigators that Gioele paid him $300 to buy a pistol to kill Persica and his wife in their Pointe Coupee home, according to the arrest warrant for Gioele.

The following day, State Police, along with investigating officers from the Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge sheriff’s offices, met with the hit man. He agreed to meet Gioele again while wearing a recording device, the affidavit states.

The informant met with Gioele and secretly recorded their conversation while police stood watch nearby in a hidden location, the affidavit says.

The affidavit says Gioele was heard on the recording asking the gunman whether he bought the gun to kill the Persicas. Gioele could be heard advising him on escape routes and telling him how he would be paid after the couple was killed, the affidavits says.