The Great Bistro Brawl
The irony of the moment appears to be lost on Fabian Seijas. But here he is, a forlorn customer in a corner booth at Denny's A perhaps the most pedestrian diner in the United States A fondly reminiscing about one of the toniest restaurants on South Beach, a glamorous enterprise that helped launch the resurgence of Washington Avenue, a chichi place whose standing-room-only popularity owed as much to its party atmosphere as to its French cuisine, where female patrons, swept up by the festive ambiance, often clambered atop dinner tables and shed their clothes along with their inhibitions, gyrating to the blaring music as fun-loving European moneymen sprayed them with champagne. Though just a few miles south of this Denny's, the glitzy watering hole is a universe removed. Seijas is talking about Cassis Bistro.
The 33-year-old, Argentina-born Seijas (pronounced say-hoss) is well versed in the florid history of Cassis. He was one of the restaurant's founders. He chose its location and helped with its construction. His wife designed the interior. It was Seijas who, four years ago in New York, first broached with his neighbor and future business partner the idea of opening a South Beach restaurant. And it was Seijas and his wife who ended up owning 28 percent of the business.
But Seijas has not sought this meeting -- the first in a series of interviews that take place in the Miami Beach Denny's at 69th Street and Collins Avenue -- to wax nostalgic about the glory days of a frenetic kitchen, a bustling bar, and champagne-soaked women. Instead he wants to talk about corruption.
He presents credible evidence supporting his claims that thousands of dollars have been skimmed from the Cassis cash register, and that certain employees were regularly paid under the table so the restaurant's owners could reduce local and federal taxes. He charges that as a result of an unusual arrangement between Cassis and former judge Howard Gross, Miami Beach officials tossed out a slew of parking tickets he incurred, and gave preferential treatment to the restaurant in other matters.
Seijas claims that when Cassis first opened, he acquiesced in these practices because he was inexperienced and was assured this was the way restaurants operated. And that later, when he began to protest, he was fired and ostracized by the other partners.
In order to eradicate the cancer he saw corroding the endeavor into which he had invested so much, Seijas has taken some radical steps over the past year, proof of which can be found in his wallet. Between sips of coffee, he pulls out a bundle of business cards, each embossed with the official logo of a different law enforcement agency. "I've been to see all of these people," he says, "but no one seems to be doing anything, and in the meantime I'm losing erything."
Like a youngster thumbing through a stack of baseball cards, Seijas recounts a story about each one he lays on the table. There were the detectives from the Miami Beach Police Department who appeared somewhat nervous that a portion of Seijas's allegations dealt with public corruption. They quickly turned him over to the feds. "That's when I met with these people," Seijas continues, dealing a new round of cards he collected from various federal agencies -- the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's Office -- as well as from the Florida Department of Revenue and the Dade State Attorney's Office. "I've spent hours with all of these people," he sighs.
He voluntarily met with these investigators and prosecutors -- against the advice of his attorneys -- knowing full well he was exposing himself to possible criminal charges. "I've put myself on the line," Seijas says emphatically. "I went to the authorities and I told them everything, and nobody seems to want to do anything."
So he has decided to go public, to tell the tale of Cassis, suffer the consequences, and hope for the best. Of course, by now it is too late to salvage much. The restaurant closed its doors earlier this month. All the partners are eager to bail out and grab whatever money they can from a quick sale. "I'm totally bankrupt now," Seijas says dejectedly, then adds, "but I'm not going to let them get away with this."
By "them" Seijas means the half-dozen other partners in Cassis, investors who dispute his allegations and claim they are the wild fabrications of a bitter individual who has already wrecked his professional life and his marriage, and now, with nothing left to lose, has decided to trash his partners, the very people he once considered to be his friends. The heated charges and countercharges tend to obscure the lines between truth and fiction, right and wrong. But one law enforcement official familiar with the conflict seems to have hit on an unquestionably accurate observation with this comment: "What a truly bizarre cast of characters."
Like so many good stories about Miami Beach, this one began in New York City. Fabian Seijas moved there from Buenos Aires in 1982, shortly after the outbreak of the Falklands War. He was supposed to have spent that year studying in London, but when a couple of countries like Argentina and Great Britain square off, visas, not surprisingly, get canceled.
Seijas liked New York, and prospered quickly by selling high-rise, high-priced Manhattan condominiums to Latins and Europeans. In 1986 he married Pamela Chappel, an interior designer whose father is a partner in a prestigious New York law firm that bears the name of Republican presidential candidate and former New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.
Fabian and Pamela have one daughter, born in January 1990. While Fabian hawked condos, Pamela became friends with some of the neighbors in her apartment building, most notably Susanne Latapie (pronounced lat-ah-pee). The two women got along well, and through them the husbands met. Franaois Latapie and Fabian Seijas also became fast friends. Latapie, who came to the United States from France in 1979, was an accomplished chef but had stepped out of the kitchen and was now the maitre d' at the world-famous New York restaurant Le Cirque. "I had the best job probably in the United States," Latapie recalls. But he was restless to try something new, to have his own business, his own restaurant. "It's one of the world's oldest professions, just like prostitution," he chuckles. "I'm extremely proud to be a part of it."
Seijas was also ready for a change. He had grown weary of New York and had come to believe it was not a safe place to raise a child. In the months after his daughter was born, he visited Miami Beach and was smitten. Before too long, he had convinced Latapie that their future lay in South Florida, and by the end of the year they had struck a pact to open a restaurant together, despite the fact that Seijas had no experience in the field.
Initially Seijas wanted to open an Italian restaurant, having witnessed the popularity and success of Mezzanote on Washington Avenue at Twelfth Street. But after conferring with the unofficial mayor of South Beach, Louis Canales, he decided a French bistro would be a better idea. That settled, Seijas and Latapie began scouting possible locations. They thought seriously about the spot now occupied by WPA at Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, and a couple of locations on Ocean Drive, but all other possibilities paled in comparison to the gutted shell of an old drugstore on the corner of Washington and Eighth Street. "People told us we were crazy to go down to Eighth Street," Seijas remembers. "Besides the Strand, there was nothing there; the Beach ended at Mezzanote. But I was in love with the place and the architecture of the building -- the high ceilings and the concrete columns, the corner location."
Latapie concurred, and they signed a ten-year lease in February 1991. The two men christened their fledgling enterprise Cassis Bistro. The name, which was Latapie's suggestion, carried a certain charm, especially for anyone familiar with the small French fishing village, renowned for its quaint restaurants, that was the inspiration. Then they created a corporation, Cassis Bistro, Inc., with Seijas as president and Latapie as secretary. Together they would be the majority owners as well as equal partners.
After settling on their plans, Seijas and Latapie estimated they would need $300,000 to open the place, and they agreed that each would be responsible for raising half that amount. But problems quickly developed. "Fabian didn't raise his portion and we ended up building the restaurant with my money," Latapie contends. To make his dream come true, Latapie borrowed from family and friends, and he cashed in all his savings and retirement funds, as well as his life insurance. "It was a frightening time for me," says his wife Susanne. "We had a good situation in New York and we came here because we believed Fabian had the money he needed. And he didn't, and we took the risk."
"We carried him to the finish line," Latapie adds. "He couldn't believe his luck."
Seijas counters by arguing that what he didn't contribute in cash and investors, he made up for in other ways A working on the construction of the restaurant, scrounging around to find great deals on kitchen equipment and furniture. And his wife Pamela designed the interior of the dining room.
Besides Seijas and Latapie, who each controlled 28 percent of the company's stock, the other initial investors in Cassis were Bernard Vrod, a waiter from Le Cirque (twelve percent); Allen Grubman, an entertainment attorney who has counted among his clients Billy Joel, Julio Iglesias, and Madonna (six percent); George Allen, a Coconut Grove attorney (one percent); and Daniel Saffe, president of Ravenscroft Shipping in Coral Gables (five percent).
As the renovations progressed and 1991 drew to a close, the partners found they were running desperately short of money. That's when Latapie thought of Mel Harris. President of the North Miami-based International Insurance Group and a well-traveled Miami resident, Harris was a regular customer at Le Cirque during Latapie's tenure. "He was on the restaurant's VIP list," the maitre d' recalls, "and we took extraordinary care of him." When Latapie let Harris know he was leaving Le Cirque to move to Miami Beach to open a restaurant, Harris urged Latapie to call on him if he should ever need anything. With Cassis on the verge of failing before it even opened, Latapie and Seijas met with Harris at Mezzanote around Christmastime. Pamela Seijas had prepared a brief prospectus describing their vision of the restaurant, and Harris was duly impressed.
He was even more impressed when he saw the renovations. Harris agreed to provide about $85,000 immediately. In return he would own twenty percent of Cassis. "He once told me that an investment of $100,000 was chicken feed to him," Seijas remembers, adding that Harris boasted he could bet that much on the Dolphins during the football season. "I didn't know anything else about him," Seijas says. "I only heard things much later, from the FBI."
That Mel Harris might make an offhand comment about betting $100,000 on the Dolphins wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows him or his family. His father, Allie Harris, was "a notorious Miami bookmaker and reputed associate of various organized crime figures," according to a report written by New Jersey's Casino Control Commission in 1986 and released publicly in 1988. And his father-in-law from his first marriage was Lou Chesler, who, the report states, helped bring casino gambling to the Bahamas and developed a hotel there, reportedly on behalf of notorious crime boss Meyer Lansky.
Harris, 54 years old and widely known in South Florida for his philanthropic activities, especially with the National Parkinson's Foundation, entered the casino business in 1984. Although he had no such previous experience, Harris was named a director of the Golden Nugget Corporation in Atlantic City and given the title of vice president of marketing. His starting salary was $400,000 per year plus generous stock options. Harris's appointment, however, could not be finalized until casino regulators completed a thorough background check.
The fact that Harris's father, who died in 1983, was a bookmaker and that his former father-in-law reportedly was associated with Meyer Lansky were apparently of only minor concern to New Jersey authorities, and certainly would not have prevented him from being approved. What they found troubling, according to the report, was that through his father, he had met "a variety of disreputable individuals." The real issue for investigators was this: Did Mel Harris himself have any links to members of organized crime? On that question, Harris's chances for approval faltered.
In 1984, just a few months before he was offered the job at the Golden Nugget, Harris was videotaped by FBI surveillance cameras meeting twice in New York with Fat Tony Salerno, one of the country's most powerful Mafia figures. During each meeting Harris was accompanied by other individuals, the report states, who were also allegedly connected to organized crime. One of the men with Harris was identified by the FBI as Milton Parness, who had been convicted of racketeering and interstate transportation of stolen securities.
When questioned by casino regulators in 1984 about the meetings, Harris said the only thing he could recall was that he and Salerno exchanged pleasantries and talked about the passing of Harris's father. A skeptical Casino Control Commission reported that his testimony "clearly lacks credibility." The commission went on to state that "the prospect of a person having uncontested access to Anthony Salerno sitting as an officer and director of a casino enterprise is, to say the least, frightening."
In December 1984, when it became obvious that his association with Salerno was going to cause trouble for the Golden Nugget, Harris resigned from the casino. Despite his departure, the commission still criticized the Golden Nugget and its chairman, Stephen Wynn, for offering a job to his boyhood friend Harris without a more thorough background check. "It is simply unacceptable for a company functioning in this most highly regulated of all industries to place someone of Harris's known background in its highest operational and policy-making echelons on the basis of hit-or-miss investigations," the commission wrote.
(Wynn is now chairman of Mirage Resorts, Inc., and is one of the major backers of the Proposition for Limited Casinos, the best-financed and most well-known of the initiative campaigns to bring casino gambling to Florida. In Dade County, Wynn has forged an alliance with German investor Thomas Kramer. Their proposal envisions a major hotel-casino complex on Kramer's oceanfront property at the southern tip of Miami Beach.)
With the infusion of Harris's money, Cassis was ready to open on February 14, 1992 A Valentine's Day A though the official opening party would take place a few days later. Harris may have owned only twenty percent of the restaurant but early indications suggested Cassis was going to be his place. For example, most of those invited to the grand opening were on Harris's 157-person guest list, a who's who of Miami's social register and business world: banker Abel Holtz, singer Maurice Gibb, Fontainebleau Hilton owner Stephen Muss, restaurateur Tony Roma, IVAX pharmaceuticals head Phillip Frost, Lennar chairman Leonard Miller, professional golfer Ray Floyd A all were invited to come by Harris's new restaurant.
At one point not long after the opening, Fabian Seijas began to feel lost within his own business. A friend of Harris's pressed a ten-dollar bill into his hand after Seijas showed him to a table. "That's all right, sir," Seijas responded, trying to return the money. "I'm one of the owners."
"You go ahead and keep it," the man replied.
Seijas says he wondered who was really in charge. Harris was far too busy to be involved in the daily operation of the restaurant, but he did press certain demands, including his authority to hire a bookkeeper and an accountant. In addition Harris told Seijas which law firm Cassis should use in handling any difficulties with Miami Beach bureaucrats. "As soon as we opened he sent me to see someone he used to call 'Judge,'" Seijas recalls. "He called him Judge Howard Gross. He said we owed the judge for services that he did. And I said, 'What did he do?'
"'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.