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.

When Fabian Seijas began writing checks to Rosen & Switkes in March 1992 (hand-delivering them to Gross himself), he knew nothing of Gross's history, only that Mel Harris described him as a man of stature and respect, someone who could make problems disappear and ease a new restaurant's journey through the labyrinth of the Miami Beach city bureaucracy.

Seijas says he thought the arrangement odd, given that the restaurant already was represented by the Brickell Avenue law firm of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, but he went along with it anyway. He also says he found Gross to be pleasant, though frequently demanding, especially when his payment was late. Recalls Seijas: "He would call up all the time asking where his check was."

After Cassis opened, disagreements with the landlord forced the restaurant to consider filing a lawsuit. Because Hughes Hubbard & Reed worked on an expensive hourly rate, Seijas naively decided to drop in on Gross and discuss the problems. "I thought since we were paying Judge Gross $1000 a month, I would go to see him and have him do the lawsuit," Seijas says. "I went to see him and he didn't want anything to do with it. We had to go to yet another attorney and have him prepare the suit. And I thought, 'Why am I paying this guy $1000 a month?'"

Gross refuses to discuss the matter, but the primary reason, it seemed, was to have him deal with that most obstinate of South Beach problems: parking. Cassis's owners were concerned with a number of parking issues. A bus stop was located directly in front of the restaurant on Washington Avenue. They wanted it moved. Along their Eighth Street frontage, they wanted several parking meters removed and replaced with a yellow-curbed loading zone. And the complexities of valet parking needed attention.

Mark Malatak was acting director of the Miami Beach Parking Department at the time Cassis opened. "The dealings I had regarding Cassis were very minimal," remembers Malatak, who no longer works for the city. The bus stop was relocated, the parking meters removed, and the restaurant's valet plans approved. Was Howard Gross involved in any of this? Malatak says he doesn't recall speaking with Gross about Cassis. Does Malatak know who Gross is? The former city official laughs: "Everybody in Miami Beach knows Mousey."

After those early problems were solved, Seijas questioned the need to continue paying Gross's law firm $1000 per month. Money was tight at the restaurant, especially during that first summer. Seijas says he asked Mel Harris if he could cut in half the payments to Gross. Harris had a fit, Seijas says, and asserted that anything less than $1000 would be an insult to the former judge.

Franaois Latapie defends the hiring of Rosen & Switkes. "They knew the shortcuts," he says. "They were very helpful on matters."

One shortcut that proved very helpful, according to Seijas, concerned the annoying problem of parking tickets. Many people who visit South Beach (and everyone who lives there) have suffered the inconvenience and sometimes substantial cost of incurring this bureaucratic equivalent of a slap in the face. After Gross became involved in his professional life, Seijas discovered he could simply have his parking tickets canceled. Initially, he recalls, he would consult with Gross, but eventually the former judge told him to take his tickets straight to Malatak and have the parking czar himself cancel them.

According to Dade County records, Seijas's Jaguar received six Miami Beach parking tickets between the time Cassis opened in February 1992 and his dismissal in the fall of that year. Five of those tickets were voided directly by Malatak. "He did get some citations that were issued improperly," Malatak remembers, "and I took care of them."

In fact, none of the citations was issued improperly. The law is straightforward: Only vehicles with commercial plates are permitted to use loading zones, and even then they can stay for only 30 minutes. Seijas's car doesn't have commercial plates and he would often park in the restaurant's loading zone for hours at a time.

Pressed on this point, Malatak corrects himself and agrees the tickets were properly issued. But he says it was common practice for him to cancel the parking tickets of restaurant owners who may be running into their business for just a few minutes. "We have to look at reality," Malatak explains. "We have to use common business sense. They [the owners of Cassis] got no preferential treatment. We gave them professional courtesy."

Latapie says he doesn't recall taking any tickets to Malatak. But even if he did, he claims, it would have been no big deal. "This is a small thing," he says. "It's a common practice."

Common or not, Seijas says he ran into problems with Malatak after he stopped sending the $1000 checks to Rosen & Switkes during the summer of 1992, a cost-saving measure he initiated on his own and without informing any other Cassis partners. Seijas claims he delivered a couple of parking tickets to Malatak in the fall of that year. What transpired during that meeting between Seijas and Malatak is now the subject of a federal investigation.

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