The Great Bistro Brawl

At first Cassis restaurant looked like a South Beach gold mine for its owners. Then the bottom fell out. Now come the investigators and allegations of corruption.

The irony of the moment appears to be lost on Fabian Seijas. But here he is, a forlorn customer in a corner booth at Denny's A perhaps the most pedestrian diner in the United States A fondly reminiscing about one of the toniest restaurants on South Beach, a glamorous enterprise that helped launch the resurgence of Washington Avenue, a chichi place whose standing-room-only popularity owed as much to its party atmosphere as to its French cuisine, where female patrons, swept up by the festive ambiance, often clambered atop dinner tables and shed their clothes along with their inhibitions, gyrating to the blaring music as fun-loving European moneymen sprayed them with champagne. Though just a few miles south of this Denny's, the glitzy watering hole is a universe removed. Seijas is talking about Cassis Bistro.

The 33-year-old, Argentina-born Seijas (pronounced say-hoss) is well versed in the florid history of Cassis. He was one of the restaurant's founders. He chose its location and helped with its construction. His wife designed the interior. It was Seijas who, four years ago in New York, first broached with his neighbor and future business partner the idea of opening a South Beach restaurant. And it was Seijas and his wife who ended up owning 28 percent of the business.

But Seijas has not sought this meeting -- the first in a series of interviews that take place in the Miami Beach Denny's at 69th Street and Collins Avenue -- to wax nostalgic about the glory days of a frenetic kitchen, a bustling bar, and champagne-soaked women. Instead he wants to talk about corruption.

He presents credible evidence supporting his claims that thousands of dollars have been skimmed from the Cassis cash register, and that certain employees were regularly paid under the table so the restaurant's owners could reduce local and federal taxes. He charges that as a result of an unusual arrangement between Cassis and former judge Howard Gross, Miami Beach officials tossed out a slew of parking tickets he incurred, and gave preferential treatment to the restaurant in other matters.

Seijas claims that when Cassis first opened, he acquiesced in these practices because he was inexperienced and was assured this was the way restaurants operated. And that later, when he began to protest, he was fired and ostracized by the other partners.

In order to eradicate the cancer he saw corroding the endeavor into which he had invested so much, Seijas has taken some radical steps over the past year, proof of which can be found in his wallet. Between sips of coffee, he pulls out a bundle of business cards, each embossed with the official logo of a different law enforcement agency. "I've been to see all of these people," he says, "but no one seems to be doing anything, and in the meantime I'm losing erything."

Like a youngster thumbing through a stack of baseball cards, Seijas recounts a story about each one he lays on the table. There were the detectives from the Miami Beach Police Department who appeared somewhat nervous that a portion of Seijas's allegations dealt with public corruption. They quickly turned him over to the feds. "That's when I met with these people," Seijas continues, dealing a new round of cards he collected from various federal agencies -- the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's Office -- as well as from the Florida Department of Revenue and the Dade State Attorney's Office. "I've spent hours with all of these people," he sighs.

He voluntarily met with these investigators and prosecutors -- against the advice of his attorneys -- knowing full well he was exposing himself to possible criminal charges. "I've put myself on the line," Seijas says emphatically. "I went to the authorities and I told them everything, and nobody seems to want to do anything."

So he has decided to go public, to tell the tale of Cassis, suffer the consequences, and hope for the best. Of course, by now it is too late to salvage much. The restaurant closed its doors earlier this month. All the partners are eager to bail out and grab whatever money they can from a quick sale. "I'm totally bankrupt now," Seijas says dejectedly, then adds, "but I'm not going to let them get away with this."

By "them" Seijas means the half-dozen other partners in Cassis, investors who dispute his allegations and claim they are the wild fabrications of a bitter individual who has already wrecked his professional life and his marriage, and now, with nothing left to lose, has decided to trash his partners, the very people he once considered to be his friends. The heated charges and countercharges tend to obscure the lines between truth and fiction, right and wrong. But one law enforcement official familiar with the conflict seems to have hit on an unquestionably accurate observation with this comment: "What a truly bizarre cast of characters."

Like so many good stories about Miami Beach, this one began in New York City. Fabian Seijas moved there from Buenos Aires in 1982, shortly after the outbreak of the Falklands War. He was supposed to have spent that year studying in London, but when a couple of countries like Argentina and Great Britain square off, visas, not surprisingly, get canceled.

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