When self-described country boy Noah Bassham moved to Miami in January, he was expecting easy money and loose morals, just like on his favorite television show, Burn Notice. He got it half-right.
Bassham, a potbellied Texan with an unsightly soul patch on the back of his bald head, quickly found a job at the Starlite Café on Ocean Drive. After Bassham caught other employees stealing Dom Perignon his first day, manager Ronnie Raz promptly promoted him. And when Bassham began renting an apartment from Starlite owner and South Beach real estate mogul Mark Muhlrad, his move to Miami seemed complete. There was just one thing missing: money.
"Ronnie kept promising me a paycheck," Bassham says. "But he just plain wasn't paying people." He says he worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, but received less than $5,000 during his six months at Starlite. When he was paid, it was in cash and half of that went straight back to Muhlrad for rent. "Ronnie treated me like a dog," he says. "Where I come from, you just don't mess with another man's money like that."
"He got everything that's coming to him," counters Raz, who denies the allegations. But Bassham and another ex-employee claim Raz not only underpaid them but also stole from them. Chandra Franklin, a pretty former waitress with mocha skin and freckles, says she was fired after refusing to hand over her tips to Raz.
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"I'm not a dumb person," she says. "He wanted us to get people to pay with credit cards so any money put on there would go straight to him. So I started letting customers know that if they wanted to tip me, they had to leave cash. That's when I was fired."
Both ex-employees say Starlite's owner, Muhlrad, did nothing about their complaints. But he did shut down the restaurant when the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division began sniffing around in August.
Not that it helps Bassham. He says either Raz or Muhlrad owes him $20,000 for all the hours he put into the café. But the DOL investigation is still ongoing, and to add insult to injury, Muhlrad is now kicking him out of his apartment for being late with the rent.
"Miami has lost its luster for me," Bassham admits. "This city ain't like it looks on TV. It's uglier."