The Secondary Education of Shawn Lewis
As revelers inside Krave Nightclub frolicked away a Friday evening two weeks ago, the party was crashed by agents with the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT) and Department of Revenue, who filed in stern-faced and fully uniformed. They weren't there to dance. That same evening they checked in at two other South Beach clubs, the Living Room and Red Lounge -- all properties affiliated with, for lack of a better term, the Beach's enfant terrible, Shawn Lewis.
"They talked to the managers on duty," Lewis says about the raid. "They checked the liquor inventory. They checked all the bottles, and then they left. I wasn't even there. I was at [the restaurant/lounge] Pearl."
There were no arrests. No tickets for court appearances were issued. The agents departed as abruptly as they arrived. Their motive may have gone unspoken, but it was clear. Ever since lawyers fighting Lewis in a breach of contract dispute discovered the tech multimillionaire has a ten-year-old felony conviction in New Jersey, which would prohibit him from owning a liquor license, he has been under intense scrutiny. For his part Lewis maintains his dealings in the clubs is within the letter of the law because the liquor license is not in his name, and he is allowed to manage such places.
But that search did prompt the 32-year-old Lewis to reconsider the business he was in. Now the clubs are for sale. "If there's an ax to grind, I'm not looking to be on the end of it," he explains. "I'm looking to get out. If somebody makes me the right offer, they're gone. But it's not a fire sale. It may take a month or a year."
Thus marks the beginning of the end of Lewis's swift, contentious involvement in South Beach's nightlife industry. And as many see it, Lewis has no one to blame but himself. He disputes this point, asserting that he's simply a hard-nosed businessman who took on the clubbing establishment. But in his short tenure on the Beach, he has burned bridges, squandered goodwill, and generally garnered a reputation as the latest in a long line of wealthy jerks. Most people saw it coming.
Lewis was the subject of a December 7, 2000, New Times cover story ("The Education of Shawn Lewis"), which chronicled his background as an emotionally troubled teen with an aptitude for computers who ran away from home in the ninth grade and then made an improbable rise to become the founder of a technology company.
What New Times failed to discover was Lewis's felony arrest in 1991 for writing a series of bad checks in Morris County, New Jersey, even after the paper checked with that state's authorities. Lewis says he negotiated to have his record sealed, which may explain why the charge went undetected. "It was supposed to be expunged," Lewis fumes. First-time, low-level offenses can be sealed by petitioning the court, a New Jersey Corrections Department spokeswoman says, which would then erase any indication of the conviction. The charge resulted after a computer store he opened in Elizabeth, called Dynamic Technologies, failed in 1990. He was 22 years old. "We closed down, and the business had about 30 checks outstanding; about 10 of them never got paid," he admits. Facing five years for each check, Lewis took a deal and pleaded guilty to one count. He served about a year in jail.
But incarceration didn't slow him down. Afterward he partnered with a Boston businessman and cofounded Xcom Technologies, Inc., which was bought by Level III Communications in a 1998 stock transfer worth between $170 and $240 million.
With his extraordinary new wealth, Lewis moved to South Beach and discovered the good life of parties and nightclubs. He was having so much fun he decided to invest in several clubs, in essence buying half-a-dozen venues. But he also had a series of high-profile debacles, including a felony arrest in 1999 after he drunkenly spit in the face of a Miami Beach police officer who asked him to leave a bar. Lewis pleaded no contest to battery on a law-enforcement officer, and a judge withheld adjudication. Then there was the very public collapse of his marriage to a former bikini model/dental hygienist in 2000. The couple split weeks before their one-million-dollar wedding celebration, reconciled, eloped, and divorced -- all in the space of five months.
The public embarrassment failed to chasten Lewis. He continued to find himself in the middle of scrapes and controversies. On December 21, 2000, shortly after the New Times article was published, a Krave patron named Dave Throckmorton told police he had an argument with Lewis that ended with him telling the club mogul: "Just because you have a lot of money you cannot treat people the way you do." According to a police report, this prompted Lewis and the club's security guards to beat Throckmorton "about the face and head with a hand-held radio." When a police officer tried to locate Lewis to arrest him, "security refused to assist officer, then stated he left with his bodyguards out the rear of the club," the report states. Apparently detectives who did a follow-up investigation couldn't substantiate the incident. An altercation indeed took place, Lewis comments. "But I had nothing to do with that. If you have money in this town, it's very easy for people to point a finger at you."
The owner of the Kit Kat Club, Leo Mena, is pointing a finger at Lewis, accusing him of using illegal tactics to take over that space since last year. A Lewis company is Mena's landlord, and Lewis retorts that Mena hasn't been paying rent. The two currently are in litigation. Who's right and who's wrong have yet to be determined, but it's another business dispute turned vicious.
Such behavior caught up with Lewis shortly before this past New Year's. His companies NSU III and Joe Black Productions were accused of poaching staff from other Beach clubs, offering doormen and VIP hosts such high salaries that he skewed the economics. Lewis denies this. It's clear, however, that he wasn't playing nice with the other kids in the sandbox. In fact his behavior caused such bad blood that when he tried to have a formal sit-down meeting with the owners of 320, crobar, and Level, they unanimously refused.
It all added up to a pretty ugly image, so to soften it, Lewis became a philanthropist. He donated computers to the Police Athletic League, hosted charity fundraisers, and contributed to a variety of causes. "No one seems to care about that," his friend Tommy Pooch says.
Finally a few months ago Lewis embroiled himself in a lawsuit with brothers Eric and Francis Milon, who had sold their nightclub the Living Room to NSU in May 2000. After the sale Joe Black Productions hired the Milons to do promotional work but ended up suing them, claiming that the brothers' restaurant Café Tabac and lounge Opium violated a no-compete clause in their contract with Joe Black. A judge initially found in favor of Lewis -- until the Milons' lawyers, Stephen Zack and Bruce Weil, found out about his bad-check conviction. Suddenly NSU's standing to enforce any contract regarding nightclubs was in question until Lewis's involvement was sorted out. One of Zack's witnesses was Maj. Jorge Herrera from the ABT, who announced his agency was going to take a close look at Lewis and his business dealings in the clubs.
"I would like to review every single information, and probably, you know, an investigation will be started," Herrera said in a recent proceeding, "just to determine if in fact a violation of the law has ... occurred." All of which was duly reported in the Miami Herald.
At his North Bay Road mansion on Miami Beach, Lewis asserts his interest in the clubs is legal. "The statutory code states that five years after a felony conviction, you're allowed to operate and manage a venue," Lewis explains in an exasperated tone. "It's owning the liquor license that takes fifteen years [after a conviction]. What we didn't do is submit the management agreement to the ABT. They feel we should have."
Not only does he manage, he also loans money to the corporation that runs the clubs: NSU III, Inc. He is paid back from the money the club makes -- "like a mortgage," he says. The company's chief operating officer is his half-sister, Vanessa Nevius. Previously the company was headed by Lewis's former partner Paul Caputo and then, briefly, his ex-wife, Elizabeth Romero. The Milons' lawyers are calling this a "shell game," allowing Lewis to control the company through intermediaries.
So Lewis is pulling out. But that doesn't mean he's going away. He's started a construction company and says he's negotiating to buy two hotels. And that doesn't mean the fight with the Milons is going away either. Both sides want damages. What remains to be seen is whether Lewis also can expunge his growing reputation as a bully.
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