The owners of a new Chuck E. Cheese restaurant faced a financial bath two years ago when Hialeah city officials refused to let the $750,000 pizza parlor open.
"I met with an attorney involved with the city council members who was supposed to have some insight into them," said Michael Strait, then an executive of California-based Pizza Time Theatre Inc.
"He made it very clear that $50,000 in small bills deposited in a bank in the Bahamas would take care of everything," said Strait. "I couldn't believe it. It was like something out of an old movie."
Strait said the lawyer he met in an Orlando restaurant and who boasted of having four city council members "in his pocket" was D. Jeffrey Grate.
At the time, Grate worked for a Miami law firm that represented the city's water and sewer board. Grate had been recommended as an attorney with influence in the city. Strait said he couldn't recall who made the recommendation.
Now an assistant state attorney in Clearwater, Grate denied Strait's account.
"That's absurd," said Grate. "I prosecute people for things like that."
Pizza Time had already invested $750,000 in the restaurant, which appeals to children with a huge video-game room and musical shows featuring mechanized animals.
Hialeah officials refused to issue the restaurant a certificate of occupancy citing a city law limiting video games. In December 1982, the Chuck E. Cheese opened without charging for its video games, losing more than $100,000 per month in anticipated revenue.
Strait described his meeting with Grate:
"He was kind of beating around the bush for a while. I said he was supposed to have connections and could he help us. We'd be happy to pay him a fee. He started indicating he would do better than that. He said the fee would be high and distributed to the right people. He could guarantee approval."
Grate confirmed that he met with Strait in an Orlando Chuck E. Cheese restaurant while accompanying his wife on a business trip there in late 1982.
"I played machines," Grate said. "Maybe had lunch. We talked about what was going on. It wasn't a business meeting."
"They inquired about me representing them. I might have quoted them an hourly fee and did a few things for them on a gratuitous basis," said Grate. "I politicked a little bit and talked with some council members. I can't tell you I was ever hired."
Strait, now vice president of the Il Fornaio restaurant chain in Torrance, Calif., said he "strung (Grate) along until we decided what to do."
Said Joe Kenan, former president of Pizza Time: "We just declined it out of hand. We didn't want to be involved in paying bribes."
Miami lawyer Joel Hirschhorn, who filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of Pizza Time, said he knew that pressure was applied to the company, but was not familiar with Strait's allegation.
"Someone in Hialeah saw an opportunity to squeeze them," he said. "It was obvious to me certain people voted a certain way because they were unhappy that overtures made to my clients had gone unanswered."
The city law that caused the restaurant's problems allowed only one video arcade per shopping mall. The Hialeah Chuck E. Cheese restaurant is next to the Palm Springs Mile shopping center, which already housed an arcade.
The Hialeah City Council refused to change the city code to allow the restaurant to operate its arcade. Pizza Time sued the city in March 1983. The city finally agreed last month to let the restaurant charge for the games.
Grate, who has done private legal work for Councilman Silvio Cardoso, said he talked to council members Ray Robinson, Cardoso and the late Victor Wilde about easing the video-game restrictions.
"I talked to a few people," he said. "Everyone was against it."
Robinson said he couldn't recall speaking to Grate about the matter.
Cardoso, who used Grate as a character reference in a state banking application two years ago, said, "He never talked to me. Grate invited me to the opening of Chuck E. Cheese and that was it."