Starlite Hotel in South Beach Under Investigation for Wage Violations

The Starlite Hotel -- better known as that place next to Wet Willie's where you keep waking-up naked on Sunday mornings -- is under investigation for allegedly underpaying its staff.

Ex-employees claim the Starlite Café, a restaurant attached to the hotel on Ocean Drive, stiffed them out of tens of thousands of dollars in wages. Noah Bassham, who worked at the restaurant for more than six months, says he's owed roughly $20,000.

"I feel like I been kicked in the head," he says. "Where I come from, you just don't mess with another man's money like that."

Both the hotel owner and restaurant manager dismiss the accusations. Neither denies, however, that the restaurant was closed after U.S. Department of Labor investigators visited in August.

Bassham, a potbellied Texan with an unsightly soul patch on the back of his bald head, began working at the Starlite Café in January shortly after moving to Miami. Manager Ronnie Raz promptly promoted Bassham after he caught other employees stealing Dom Perignon his first day on the job.

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.

"He got everything that's coming to him," counters Raz. 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.

"I'm not a dumb person," says the 23-year-old mother. "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 DOL's Wage and Hour Division began sniffing around last month.

Not that it helps Bassham. The DOL investigation is still ongoing, which means he's months away from seeing any of the money he says he's due. To add insult to injury, Muhlrad is now kicking Bassham out of his apartment for being late with the rent.

"Even if he is getting money through the Labor Department, he can't just live rent-free until that money is paid," says Muhlrad.

In the meantime, Bassham is screwed. Recently married, he can't afford a new place for his wife and two stepchildren, let alone a honeymoon. The soon-to-be-evicted Bassham spends most of his time in his small apartment, its broken hookahs and South Beach decor a pale imitation of his favorite show: Burn Notice.

"Miami has lost its luster for me," he admits. "This city ain't like it looks on TV. It's uglier."
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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.