Legal Woes Mount For Owner Of Popular Florida Panhandle Tourist Restaurant Under Tax Investigation
The owner of a landmark seafood restaurant in the Florida Panhandle who is the target of a federal tax fraud investigation is facing new felony drunken driving charges and what may become a challenging effort to renew his liquor license later this summer.
The new legal problems also may complicate efforts by David Biegler, 49, co-owner of the Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa Beach, to pay the IRS and Justice Department over what the government said he owes.
The latest arrest means Biegler is simultaneously fighting separate drunken driving cases against him in two states.
Biegler was arrested June 20 by sheriff’s deputies in Walton County after reports he drove his 2019 Dodge pickup into a ditch. Biegler pleaded not guilty Monday, and a pretrial hearing was tentatively set for Sept. 24. Biegler separately faces a pending misdemeanor drunken driving charge in Buncombe County, North Carolina, after his arrest there last year, a court official confirmed.
Biegler and his estranged wife, Kellie, are accused of failing to pay payroll and other taxes on more than $4 million in wages for hundreds of employees and failing to file personal or corporate income tax returns for more than 10 years.
The senior IRS criminal agent on the case, Scott Schneider, said he could not comment because the investigation was continuing. The Bieglers have not been formally charged with any federal crime, Complex tax investigations can take months or even years to unravel.
Kellie Biegler said in an interview Thursday that her estranged husband was making payments to the IRS and “has people working on it.” She said she was not involved in any crimes and said federal officials told her she was not being investigated.
The federal government’s accusations were described in search warrant applications and related legal paperwork filed in federal court and obtained by Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Prosecutors filed the records in November under case numbers and names with no obvious references to the restaurant or its owners.
The restaurant – with nearly three dozen current employees – is a popular spot on Florida’s so-called Emerald Coast.
The U.S. court documents said the Bieglers and their company, Biegcorp Inc., are under investigation on suspicion of tax evasion and willful failure to collect or pay over taxes. Both are federal felony charges that can carry fines up to $500,000 and prison terms of five years.
In his latest legal problems, Biegler is charged with second-offense drunken driving, refusing to submit to an alcohol test after his license was suspended, battery on a jail official and failure to drive within his lane, according to circuit court records. He told a deputy he was on his way home from Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill when he was arrested just after 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning last month, records said.
Biegler was charged with battery — a felony — after he was accused of throwing his shirt at a jail detention officer’s face when he was ordered to change into a jumpsuit, according to arrest records. The other criminal charges in the incident are misdemeanors.
The court records said Biegler denied drinking any alcohol that night but described him as slurring his speech and having difficulty walking as he failed a field sobriety test. The deputy wrote in his report that he smelled alcohol.
Biegler was convicted in 2018 of driving under the influence and narcotics possession in Okaloosa County, and charged last year with misdemeanor drunken driving in North Carolina. The recent Florida arrest report also cited the North Carolina case.
Biegler, who was released on bond, did not respond to phone calls or texts over one week asking to discuss his recent arrest. His lawyer, Rendi Katalinic of Destin, declined Thursday to discuss the case.
The company with Biegler listed on registration paperwork as its president, Biegcorp Inc., holds the state liquor license for Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill. That license is up for renewal Sept. 30 – six days after his tentative pretrial hearing in Walton County.
Florida’s regulations include a “good moral character” clause that bans liquor licenses to felons or anyone convicted of specific crimes, including battery or two violations of alcoholic beverage laws within the past five years.
Under state regulations, a corporation whose owner is implicated under the morals clause can retain its license if it fires the convicted employee and bans that person from the restaurant or bar property.
“An alcoholic beverage license is a key part of many hospitality operations, and the disqualification of a key partner can be extremely disruptive to the business,” said Tony Glover, a Tallahassee-based lawyer and former senior official at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
A spokesman for the licensing agency, Patrick Fargason, said it conducts criminal background checks when licenses are renewed.
“When you come up for renewal, that’s when we review that information,” Fargason said.
It’s unlikely Florida would take any action against Biegler’s liquor license soon because criminal cases can take months to resolve, said Gil Osterloh, vice president of Beverage Law Professionals, a Destin-based consulting group that represents business owners on licensing issues.
“My guess is they’ll have to wait for him to be convicted before they move to sanction his license,” Osterloh said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org