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.

According to Seijas, Malatak, instead of accepting the parking tickets and canceling them, picked up the phone and called Howard Gross. After finishing his conversation, Seijas says, Malatak handed back the tickets with the explanation that Gross was upset because Cassis had fallen behind in its payments to the law firm.

Seijas says he related this incident during interviews with agents from the FBI and members of the U.S. Attorney's public corruption unit. Neither agency will confirm or deny meeting with Seijas, but a knowledgeable federal source acknowledges that officials listened to Seijas, considered him credible, and opened an investigation that remains active.

Malatak denies the incident ever took place and says he is unaware of any investigation into his conduct as a public official. "I'm not a hit man," he protests. "If Mousey had a problem with them [Cassis], he had to work that out himself." He insists he never would have delivered such a ridiculous message to Seijas. If he refused to cancel certain of Seijas's parking tickets, it must have had something to do with the citations themselves.

Gross refuses to elaborate. "I do not discuss any clients," he says flatly. His response to Seijas's allegations of ticket-fixing: "That is one of the silliest questions I've heard in a long time. I don't fix anything."

Cassis's star rose quickly on the South Beach scene. While the food often received glowing reviews, it was the clientele A from old-money Europeans to leather-clad bikers A that made Cassis the place to be seen. It became a favorite haunt of part-time developer and full-time bad boy Thomas Kramer. Sting, Stallone, Madonna, even newsman David Brinkley were drawn to the restaurant. "Nobody knew Fabian," Latapie says in taking credit for attracting the celebrities. "They knew me. I brought them there."

The Cassis investors eagerly basked in the restaurant's immediate popularity. Each had a private house account to which he could charge his bills. Mel Harris in particular enjoyed bringing along guests and treating them to an evening of food, drink, and merriment. Financially it was difficult to imagine how Cassis couldn't be a winner.

But success bred imitation -- and competition. In 1992 and 1993, so many new restaurants opened on South Beach, especially along Washington Avenue, it was hard to keep track of them. By the end of last year, according to the company's unaudited financial statement, Cassis showed a net profit of only $69,000, despite revenues of $1.7 million.

The effort to cut costs, Seijas says, led to a policy of cutting corners, which included efforts to dodge taxes by hiding income. Seijas claims that from the outset, many employees would receive part of their salary by check and the rest of it under the table in cash. Valentine Serrano, Cassis's original bookkeeper, confirms the practice. "Some people were being paid on the payroll and some were paid partially in cash," Serrano acknowledges. "They didn't want the payroll to appear too big." Serrano, however, declines to provide more detail. "I'm an old man," he says. "I really don't want to be involved."

In order to pay employees in cash some portion of the restaurant's revenue had to be diverted from the normal flow of bookkeeping. The plan, which Seijas claims was introduced by Latapie, was simple but ingenious. Each day before opening for dinner, every Cassis waiter would receive a stack of numbered checks to use in taking orders. If a customer paid a $50 dinner tab using cash, the waiter's check might later be removed from its numbered sequence, discarded, and $50 would be pulled from the cash register before a bookkeeper recorded daily revenues.

Some days later a new, unused check with the same number would be inserted among those distributed to waiters. (This could be accomplished because Cassis, according to Seijas, always ordered waiters' checks in duplicate.) If the financial books were ever examined, each check could be accounted for, even if some were out of sequence, and there would be no clue that cash was missing.

This practice provided a couple of advantages. First, the money pulled from the register would not face federal business taxes and local resort taxes. And second, by paying people part of their salary off the books in cash, the restaurant would also cut down on the unemployment, workers compensation, and social security contributions it owed the government.

Seijas says he initially went along with the scheme because he thought it was the only way for the restaurant to survive. He also claims he was told this was a common practice in the industry. But after several months, Seijas says, he began protesting these policies because he felt they were wrong (if not illegal). His complaints did lead to action: On September 24, 1992, he was removed as president of the corporation that owned Cassis and was fired from his $1000-per-week position as restaurant manager.

Franaois Latapie counters that Seijas was fired as manager and removed as president because he was a lousy worker who mismanaged Cassis. After his removal, Latapie claims, piles of unopened bills were discovered, bills Seijas had neglected. Seijas, he says, was also delinquent in paying the restaurant's taxes. Furthermore, Latapie says the board of directors felt Seijas had abandoned the restaurant after Hurricane Andrew by taking a three-week vacation despite the fact that Cassis had been damaged by the storm.

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