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.

He was even more impressed when he saw the renovations. Harris agreed to provide about $85,000 immediately. In return he would own twenty percent of Cassis. "He once told me that an investment of $100,000 was chicken feed to him," Seijas remembers, adding that Harris boasted he could bet that much on the Dolphins during the football season. "I didn't know anything else about him," Seijas says. "I only heard things much later, from the FBI."

That Mel Harris might make an offhand comment about betting $100,000 on the Dolphins wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows him or his family. His father, Allie Harris, was "a notorious Miami bookmaker and reputed associate of various organized crime figures," according to a report written by New Jersey's Casino Control Commission in 1986 and released publicly in 1988. And his father-in-law from his first marriage was Lou Chesler, who, the report states, helped bring casino gambling to the Bahamas and developed a hotel there, reportedly on behalf of notorious crime boss Meyer Lansky.

Harris, 54 years old and widely known in South Florida for his philanthropic activities, especially with the National Parkinson's Foundation, entered the casino business in 1984. Although he had no such previous experience, Harris was named a director of the Golden Nugget Corporation in Atlantic City and given the title of vice president of marketing. His starting salary was $400,000 per year plus generous stock options. Harris's appointment, however, could not be finalized until casino regulators completed a thorough background check.

The fact that Harris's father, who died in 1983, was a bookmaker and that his former father-in-law reportedly was associated with Meyer Lansky were apparently of only minor concern to New Jersey authorities, and certainly would not have prevented him from being approved. What they found troubling, according to the report, was that through his father, he had met "a variety of disreputable individuals." The real issue for investigators was this: Did Mel Harris himself have any links to members of organized crime? On that question, Harris's chances for approval faltered.

In 1984, just a few months before he was offered the job at the Golden Nugget, Harris was videotaped by FBI surveillance cameras meeting twice in New York with Fat Tony Salerno, one of the country's most powerful Mafia figures. During each meeting Harris was accompanied by other individuals, the report states, who were also allegedly connected to organized crime. One of the men with Harris was identified by the FBI as Milton Parness, who had been convicted of racketeering and interstate transportation of stolen securities.

When questioned by casino regulators in 1984 about the meetings, Harris said the only thing he could recall was that he and Salerno exchanged pleasantries and talked about the passing of Harris's father. A skeptical Casino Control Commission reported that his testimony "clearly lacks credibility." The commission went on to state that "the prospect of a person having uncontested access to Anthony Salerno sitting as an officer and director of a casino enterprise is, to say the least, frightening."

In December 1984, when it became obvious that his association with Salerno was going to cause trouble for the Golden Nugget, Harris resigned from the casino. Despite his departure, the commission still criticized the Golden Nugget and its chairman, Stephen Wynn, for offering a job to his boyhood friend Harris without a more thorough background check. "It is simply unacceptable for a company functioning in this most highly regulated of all industries to place someone of Harris's known background in its highest operational and policy-making echelons on the basis of hit-or-miss investigations," the commission wrote.

(Wynn is now chairman of Mirage Resorts, Inc., and is one of the major backers of the Proposition for Limited Casinos, the best-financed and most well-known of the initiative campaigns to bring casino gambling to Florida. In Dade County, Wynn has forged an alliance with German investor Thomas Kramer. Their proposal envisions a major hotel-casino complex on Kramer's oceanfront property at the southern tip of Miami Beach.)

With the infusion of Harris's money, Cassis was ready to open on February 14, 1992 A Valentine's Day A though the official opening party would take place a few days later. Harris may have owned only twenty percent of the restaurant but early indications suggested Cassis was going to be his place. For example, most of those invited to the grand opening were on Harris's 157-person guest list, a who's who of Miami's social register and business world: banker Abel Holtz, singer Maurice Gibb, Fontainebleau Hilton owner Stephen Muss, restaurateur Tony Roma, IVAX pharmaceuticals head Phillip Frost, Lennar chairman Leonard Miller, professional golfer Ray Floyd A all were invited to come by Harris's new restaurant.

At one point not long after the opening, Fabian Seijas began to feel lost within his own business. A friend of Harris's pressed a ten-dollar bill into his hand after Seijas showed him to a table. "That's all right, sir," Seijas responded, trying to return the money. "I'm one of the owners."

"You go ahead and keep it," the man replied.
Seijas says he wondered who was really in charge. Harris was far too busy to be involved in the daily operation of the restaurant, but he did press certain demands, including his authority to hire a bookkeeper and an accountant. In addition Harris told Seijas which law firm Cassis should use in handling any difficulties with Miami Beach bureaucrats. "As soon as we opened he sent me to see someone he used to call 'Judge,'" Seijas recalls. "He called him Judge Howard Gross. He said we owed the judge for services that he did. And I said, 'What did he do?'

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