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.

As for money taken from the cash register, Latapie says it was Seijas who had access to and responsibility for keeping track of those funds, not him. "I didn't handle the money," Latapie insists, adding that he would never suggest such a check-switching scheme in the first place; he had worked too hard and invested too much to risk it on something so petty.

Despite his firing Seijas remained a partner, and he still had friends inside Cassis, including cashier Alvaro Isla. Shortly after he was terminated Seijas claims he began hearing reports that nothing had changed at the restaurant. "The cashier told me Franaois was still switching the checks," he recalls. That's when Seijas developed a plan to expose Latapie. With Isla's help, duplicate sets of financial records secretly began to be smuggled out of Cassis. Isla also provided Seijas something else: a sworn statement that under Latapie's direction, the check-switching scheme was continuing in the restaurant. "I believe in honesty," Isla says today. "Fabian is my friend. I wasn't going to let these guys fuck him over."

As cashier Isla would end each night by printing out a cash register tape of all meal transactions for the day. The computerized register recorded exactly what food and drink items were ordered, the prices, date, time, applicable tax, and A most importantly A the check number. From October 1992 through April 1993, Isla printed one tape for the management (which routinely would be destroyed) and surreptitiously a second one for Seijas, who provided New Times with samples from February 27, 1993 to March 5, 1993. They offer an insight into how the alleged check-switching scheme worked.

The smuggled tapes, for example, show that the order for check number 9577 was taken on March 2, 1993, shortly after 8:00 p.m. The table ordered two salads ($6.95 apiece), three entrees ($18.95), two glasses of wine ($5 each), a soda ($3), and bottled water ($6). By the end of the evening, the bill came to $97.38. At about 9:00 p.m. the customers paid in cash.

According to the register tapes, check number 9577 reappeared three days later, on March 5. It was used by a waiter to take an order for a party of four, who arrived just before 10:00 p.m. and ran up a bill of $231.43. The bill was paid with an American Express card.

Such an odd reappearance was not limited to check number 9577. In reviewing the register tapes for that single week, New Times discovered ten other examples in which identical check numbers appeared on separate days. On February 27, for example, the register tape shows that check numbers 7783, 7797, 7799, 9432, and 9954 were used by waiters and paid by customers in cash. The total for those five checks came to $438.90. A few days later, on March 2, check numbers 9524, 9534, 9572, 9579, and 9591 were also used by waiters and paid in cash. Adding check number 9577 from this day, the first time it appeared, the total reached $411.34. The total bill for these eleven checks came to $850.33 A all of it paid in cash.

Having been used, none of these check numbers should have reappeared. Yet on March 5, all eleven show up again as fresh, supposedly new checks.

In his sworn statement to Seijas's attorneys, cashier Alvaro Isla says there is no legitimate reason to purchase sets of duplicate waiters' checks; it would merely be a waste of money, not to mention an accounting nightmare. But, he claims, such checks did exist at Cassis. Every few days, Isla explains, he would be given a small stack of duplicates and told to distribute them to the waiters as if their numbers had never been used.

Franaois Latapie categorically denies that Cassis has used duplicate checks. "It's something we have not done," he asserts. Isla, he ventures, may have deliberately rung duplicate numbers into the cash register knowing it would cause problems. His motivation? A strong friendship with Seijas. "Maybe he wants to frame me," Latapie speculates. "I should have fired Alvaro Isla when I fired Fabian."

New Times contacted the printer responsible for producing waiters' checks for Cassis since the restaurant's opening. A manager at the Sir Speedy Instant Printing Center at 1470 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami says Cassis consistently purchased duplicate sets of all checks.

In July of last year, after Seijas began making allegations about duplicate checks, Cassis's shareholders agreed to a review of the restaurant's finances, and hired Daniel Greenwald, a certified public accountant. When the review was completed Latapie remained in control of the restaurant, a fact he now points to as proof that the other partners maintained faith in him and did not believe he was diverting cash.

Greenwald's review, however, was anything but reassuring. After comparing copies of Seijas's smuggled cash register tapes to the entries in the restaurant's financial ledgers, he calculated that tens of thousands of dollars appeared to be missing. Greenwald found that on 69 of the 162 days he examined, the amount of money recorded in the restaurant's ledgers was far less than the cash register tapes revealed. Total "cash differences" amounted to $39,473.88.

Most of the investors had little or nothing to do with the daily operation of the restaurant, and had neither the time nor the inclination to become involved in the internal bickering that led to Seijas's firing. But a financial discrepancy of the sort outlined by Greenwald was enough to get their attention. Those partners who sat on the corporation's board of directors met with the accountant on September 14, 1993, to discuss his findings. According to the minutes of that meeting, Mel Harris seemed less concerned about missing money than he was that Seijas had brought the matter to light in the first place. "Mr. Harris stated to Mr. Seijas that he was not doing justice to his investment," the minutes state.

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