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Restaurant officials say lawyer sought council bribe

The owners of a new Chuck E. Cheese restaurant faced a financial bath two years ago when Hialeahcity 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 someinsight into them," said Michael Strait, then an executive of California-based Pizza Time TheatreInc.

"He made it very clear that $50,000 in small bills deposited in a bank in the Bahamas wouldtake care of everything," said Strait. "I couldn't believe it. It was like something out of an oldmovie."

Strait said the lawyer he met in an Orlando restaurant and who boasted of having four citycouncil 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 sewerboard. Grate had been recommended as an attorney with influence in the city. Strait said he couldn'trecall 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 ahuge video-game room and musical shows featuring mechanized animals.

Hialeah officials refused to issue the restaurant a certificate of occupancy citing a citylaw limiting video games. In December 1982, the Chuck E. Cheese opened without charging for itsvideo games, losing more than $100,000 per month in anticipated revenue.

Strait described his meeting with Grate:

"He was kind of beating around the bushfor a while. I said he was supposed to have connections and could he help us. We'd be happy to payhim 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 whileaccompanying 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. Itwasn't a business meeting."

"They inquired about me representing them. I might have quoted them an hourly fee and did afew things for them on a gratuitous basis," said Grate. "I politicked a little bit and talked withsome 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'twant 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'sallegation.

"Someone in Hialeah saw an opportunity to squeeze them," he said. "It was obvious to mecertain people voted a certain way because they were unhappy that overtures made to my clients hadgone unanswered."

The city law that caused the restaurant's problems allowed only one video arcade per shoppingmall. The Hialeah Chuck E. Cheese restaurant is next to the Palm Springs Mile shopping center, whichalready housed an arcade.

The Hialeah City Council refused to change the city code to allow the restaurant to operateits arcade. Pizza Time sued the city in March 1983. The city finally agreed last month to let therestaurant charge for the games.

Grate, who has done private legal work for Councilman Silvio Cardoso, said he talked tocouncil members Ray Robinson, Cardoso and the late Victor Wilde about easing the video-gamerestrictions.

"I talked to a few people," he said. "Everyone was against it."

Robinson said hecouldn't recall speaking to Grate about the matter.

Cardoso, who used Grate as a character reference in a state banking application two yearsago, said, "He never talked to me. Grate invited me to the opening of Chuck E. Cheese and that wasit."