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.

At that point Seijas made a dramatic announcement. He informed the other partners, most of whom had come to the meeting accompanied by their private attorneys, that he had been speaking to state and federal investigators. Seijas then offered a motion to remove Latapie from restaurant operations and for all board members to join him in cooperating with any investigation. No one seconded his motion, and it died in a grim silence.

This past April 16 Franaois Latapie's car was parked where it usually is, on Eighth Street in front of Cassis. Inside the restaurant that evening, Latapie was celebrating his 36th birthday when, just before midnight, a car matching the description of Fabian Seijas's Jeep backed into the driver-side door of Latapie's automobile. The Jeep then sped off. "That was a wonderful birthday present," Latapie shrugs.

Seijas doesn't deny he was responsible for the hit-and-run accident. The normally talkative Argentine merely says he doesn't want to discuss it. Latapie, on the other hand, does. He claims the incident was only the latest in a series of increasingly violent actions perpetrated by Seijas. Twice in recent months Latapie claims he has come out of Cassis to find one of his tires slashed. Seijas, he says, has repeatedly tried to provoke a confrontation. "He wants me to get physical," Latapie says. Fearful of what might happen, on April 22 Latapie successfully obtained a restraining order that prohibits Seijas from having any contact with him or his family.

Moreover, Latapie points out that Seijas already has been convicted twice in criminal matters unrelated to Cassis or its partners. In the past two years, he has been arrested and convicted of assault and of resisting arrest. If anyone is facing problems with the law, Latapie says, it is Seijas, not the partners at Cassis. Proof of that, he claims, lies in the fact that nobody has taken Seijas's charges seriously. "We don't have an investigation," Latapie scoffs. "What we have is his big mouth trying to trash us."

But the absence of any active interest by law enforcement agencies may have less to do with Seijas's credibility than with a lack of coordination. For instance, sources familiar with the case say Seijas's allegations have been divided by authorities into two categories. The first, regarding possible public corruption, has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI. The second, dealing with allegations of missing money and unpaid taxes, is being pursued by the Dade State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Revenue, and the Miami Beach Police Department. The Internal Revenue Service has also expressed some interest in the tax issues.

The State Attorney's investigation appears to have floundered for several reasons. At least three assistant state attorneys have been assigned the case at various times over the past year. The file currently sits on the desk of Assistant State Attorney Michael Strozier, a member of the office's economic crimes unit, who describes it as "open but not active." Strozier, who is forced to juggle dozens of cases simultaneously, can't address the issue of Seijas's credibility because, he admits, he doesn't know who Seijas is. He is waiting, he says, for a report from an investigator with the Florida Department of Revenue. That state agent, however, is on maternity leave. The progress of her investigation is unknown, and it is unclear when she will return to work. As for the Miami Beach detectives assigned to the case, they reportedly have been left in limbo while awaiting further direction from superiors.

Though a federal source acknowledges an investigation is under way, Seijas faces trouble in that arena as well. The federal prosecutor with whom he met on several occasions recently transferred to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Rochester, New York.

"This guy Fabian has gone through some kind of hell," says one law enforcement official involved in the case and who asked not to be identified. "He's been to see everyone and everybody is passing the ball. I actually feel sorry for the guy."

The stress of pushing his complaints has taken a toll. Seijas and his wife have separated (she's in New York with their daughter). To earn a living after being fired from Cassis, he has taken a job at a restaurant called Fellini, which is just half a block from Cassis.

For its part, Cassis isn't doing much better than Seijas. Faced with more than $85,000 in debt (including, according to company records, $2000 left unpaid to Howard Gross) and the start of the long, slow summer season, the restaurant closed its doors May 8. Initially Latapie said it was only temporary, until a few repairs could be made to the kitchen. But partner George Allen confirms the restaurant will not open again until new owners are found. The asking price is about $400,000. There have been a few nibbles, but no deal yet.

Seijas says he may try to put together a new group of investors and buy out the others. But regardless of any future business plans, he intends to continue seeking his version of justice. Toward that end, he has hired an attorney. "I wanted someone who I thought would be a fighter," Seijas explains. "I wanted someone who wouldn't be afraid of going against well-connected people. I guess I wanted someone as nasty as they were."

Seijas is now represented by the only lawyer in Miami who fits perfectly with this odd group. Seijas hired Ellis Rubin.

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