Taking Subway for a Ride

Here I am, trying to be a good corporate citizen," huffs Hara Frankel. "And I'm getting screwed!" Before her on a small square table is a clutter of angry letters, arrest reports, and employment applications. Behind the Plexiglas counter of the Subway sandwich shop she owns near Jackson Memorial Hospital, two employees prepare piles of turkey, ham, and roast beef for the lunch rush.

"Although everyone sees that we were wronged, no one is willing to do anything about it," she continues, sipping iced tea from a paper cup. "I'm just an employer trying to do the right thing. Isn't there a moral force?"

Since July of last year Frankel has fruitlessly attempted to collect money from Transition, Inc., a nonprofit agency that helps convicted criminals enter the work force. Transition claims significant success: Job placement and intensive counseling helped ensure that only sixteen percent of hundreds of Transition clients committed a crime in 1995-96, significantly lower than the statewide recidivism rate of 64 percent. The agency has operated in South Florida since 1971, placing clients in more than 470 businesses. Frankel has hired approximately 100 Transition clients for her two Subway stores in the last six years.

"I've been using Transition for a very long time," she explains. "There are successes and failures, as with anything. But the benefit is that with Transition, and the [thorough] screening that they do, we know the employee's background."

Thus Frankel knew the qualifications of Randolf Henriquez. In 1987, while working as a teller at an Opa-locka branch of Florida National Bank, Henriquez took $11,000 without permission, saying he needed the money to bail out his incarcerated brother. Henriquez was arrested and charged with embezzlement; he later returned $6000. In 1994 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation. Two more years on probation were added when he failed to repay the missing money.

Later in 1994, after Henriquez completed Transition's review, Frankel hired him to manage her main store, at 1051 NW Fourteenth St. He appeared to be a good recruit. "Subway always says, 'Hire for attitude.' Well, he had this great attitude," Frankel says, "We knew we could train him to do the work, and everyone liked him a lot. He earned $400 a week, and I gave him a $1000 Christmas bonus. When he needed a ride somewhere, we let him use our Jeep Wrangler. To be perfectly honest with you, we spoiled him."

The only problem, it turned out, was missing cash. A lot of it.
"At first we couldn't figure out why this one store was losing so much money. We thought there might be clerical mistakes with the bookkeeping." After a tip, Frankel began auditing register receipts. The problem, she says, was not hard to find. Almost every day someone had ordered five footlong meatball sandwich deals, five cold-cut trios, five turkey subs, five tunas, and five other sandwiches -- $134 worth of food in all -- and then voided the sale, refunding the money in cash. "I'm going through the receipts and I see there are these charges every day. Always at the same time, between lunch and dinner, when I'm usually working in the back office. The only days there weren't these charges [Henriquez] had off."

After Frankel confronted Henriquez in July 1997, the then 31-year-old employee admitted stealing $4500. His probation was promptly revoked and he was sent to federal prison for six months. Criminal charges related to his alleged Subway misdeeds are pending.

Frankel's most recent audit indicates that Henriquez may have stolen $44,492, or ten times more than he admitted. She's trying to get as much of that money back as she can. "My aims are clear and they are simple," Frankel says. "I want repayment and I want assurances that this sort of thing can't happen to anyone else ever again. So far, I haven't received either one."

A Transition pamphlet distributed by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce claims Transition will pay up to $5000 from federal insurance for each client hired. Yet when Frankel asked Transition director John Andrews for the promised cash, Andrews denied the request. "John told Ms. Frankel [that] Transition regretted her loss," noted minutes of a September 30, 1997, meeting of the Transition board of directors. Andrews couldn't pay Frankel because the insurance had lapsed when Transition placed Henriquez. (Andrews was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment.)

At the same September meeting, Andrews relayed a telephone conversation he'd had with Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer, a member of the Transition board of trustees. Brummer asked whether the agency had a moral obligation to cover all of Frankel's losses. He also suggested that Transition urge the state legislature "to create a fund to reimburse employers for losses incurred when hiring agency clients."

The board of directors rejected Brummer's suggestions. According to minutes of the September 30 meeting: Joe Fisher "expressed concern that the agency could be opening the door to liability by being part of the creation and operation of such a fund, and also wondered if the true liability was not Ms. Frankel's." Dentist Mel Becker "stated that he believed it was incumbent upon the board to examine its conscience on the issue." Dr. Doris Nesbit "contended that the agency couldn't promise indemnification to employers and still be able to operate." And John Andrews "stated that he had serious reservations about the propriety and consequences of operating such a fund."

After considerable discussion the board passed a resolution, 4-0, declining to create or lobby for a fund to protect employers. Frankel fumes at the decision: "If my business goes under, will they find jobs for my 25 employees? Will they find a job for me?"

Brummer, at least, is sympathetic. "If I were in her position I would be upset too," he said last week. "It's really an unfortunate situation."

In an attempt to recover some of the money, Frankel complained in November to the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security. A response arrived in March from Kathleen McLeskey, a department official. McLeskey informed Frankel that her agency could not confirm that Transition had misrepresented its insurance status.

"We understand your disappointment with the unfortunate outcome of your efforts to hire this client," McLeskey added. "However, your past participation in providing employment for high-risk clients is commendable and it is hoped that you continue to participate in the program."

Frankel stares at the letter, which lies before her on a lunch table. "Yeah," she cracks. "Right.

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Robert Andrew Powell