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'll take care of things for us,'" Seijas claims Harris replied. "'We have to pay him $1000 a month. It's insurance. The judge is connected very well politically.'"

(Harris did not return calls seeking comment for this story. His Washington, D.C., attorney, Stuart Gordon, also refused to comment, except to say that Harris and Gross are long-time friends.)

If Howard Gross is still considered to be politically well connected, it says more about how business is done in Miami Beach than it does about Gross's personal qualities. A former circuit court judge, the 54-year-old Gross goes by the nickname of "Mousey" and "Howie the Mouse," both derived from Gross's childhood when playmates teased him about looking like a mouse. His swimming pool is in the shape of a mouse. His wedding cake was decorated with two mice holding hands. As a practical joke a group of attorneys once burst into his courtroom wearing Mickey Mouse attire. Gross loved it, and the incident was written up in the Herald.

But all that good-natured fun ended seven years ago when Gross went from the good-time Mousey to just another reputed rat in a judge's robe. At about eight o'clock in the morning of October 8, 1987, as he got into his Camaro to go to work and preside over a murder trial, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested the judge for allegedly accepting more than $6000 in cash to reduce the bond of a drug suspect.

Gross, once hailed for both his brilliance and his compassion, had been the target of an elaborate sting operation. The drug suspect was actually a police informant who, as part of the sting, hired attorney Harvey Swickle, a long-time friend of Gross's. The "suspect" gave $20,000 to Swickle and asked if he could persuade Gross to lower his bond. Using wiretaps, law enforcement agents then eavesdropped as an unwitting Swickle called Gross and quickly arranged for a lower bond so Swickle's new client could get out of jail. The day after Gross ordered the bond reduced, Swickle drove to the judge's Normandy Isle home and handed over $6300 in marked bills. When agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement drove up minutes later, Gross had already hidden most of the money in his garage.

State prosecutors argued that the transaction was clearly a bribe. Furthermore, they noted that Gross improperly reduced the bond through a late-night phone call to the jail, without so much as a hearing on the merits of the case. Gross didn't even notify the State Attorney's Office that he was considering such a move, as he was required to do.

Shortly after arresting Gross authorities also grabbed attorney Swickle, who immediately began talking to FDLE agents about cooperating with their investigation. Swickle offered the agents information about another case Gross allegedly fixed for him. In a sworn statement one of the agents said Swickle claimed that just a year earlier, in 1986, he had paid Gross $5000 to lower bond for another client. When the agents asked Swickle to go on the record with the information, the attorney reportedly refused because he didn't want to hurt his old friend. None of Swickle's conversations with FDLE agents about Gross were presented to the jury at Gross's subsequent trial.

During the closing arguments of the 1988 bribery and conspiracy trial, a courtroom spectator suddenly stood up and disrupted the proceedings. James Hicks charged that Gross had unsuccessfully solicited a $3000 bribe from him two years earlier in an assault case. Hicks was the alleged victim of the assault, and he claimed Gross demanded the payment or he would find Hicks's attacker not guilty. Hicks said he refused to pay the judge. Court records showed that Gross did indeed preside over the case and that Gross, in a nonjury trial, acquitted the man accused of threatening Hicks with a shotgun. "This man is a thief!" Hicks exclaimed before being ushered out of the courtroom by police.

In the end neither prosecutors' arguments nor Hicks's outburst seemed to matter. After less than four hours of deliberations, jurors found Gross not guilty. That same jury also acquitted attorney Harvey Swickle. In freeing the men, jurors decided to accept Gross's defense -- that the money Swickle gave him wasn't a bribe but rather payback of a loan the judge had made to the attorney. The success of this defense confounded prosecutors, who noted there was no written record of any loan and that Gross had failed to report such a loan on his financial disclosure statements, as required by law. "In my heart, I know he's guilty," one juror told reporters the day after Gross's acquittal. "But according to the law, we had to go the other way."

The Florida Bar was far less charitable with Gross. While his conduct in the eyes of the jury may not have been criminal, it was highly unethical, according to the Bar. And so in May 1993, after more than five years of wrangling, the state Supreme Court disbarred Gross, revoking his license to practice law anywhere in Florida.

In the years between his 1988 acquittal and his 1993 disbarment, Gross went to work as an attorney in the Miami Beach law firm of Rosen & Switkes, a small but politically influential firm headed by former Miami Beach mayor Harold Rosen.

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