Dirty Money

I want to be very wealthy, and I'll be glad to tell you when I've accomplished that goal.

John Ellis Bush, son of the president

The photograph is unexceptional, according to those who have inspected it, similar to pictures seen in the homes and offices of self-important people everywhere. An ambitious businessman is shown grasping the hand of a prominent political figure. The businessman is Leonel Martinez, well-known Miami home builder, convicted drug trafficker, and murder suspect. He is shaking hands with George Herbert Walker Bush, at the time vice president of the United States.

The picture of the vice president and the cocaine kingpin was discovered in one of twelve filing cabinets seized from Martinez's construction business in June 1989, when Martinez was arrested on drug charges by Metro-Dade police and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Investigators also found other photographs of Martinez with notable local figures, including one of Martinez with Metro Mayor Steve Clark, and another with State Attorney Janet Reno.

This past March Martinez pleaded guilty to federal narcotics charges. In a statement submitted to the court, he acknowledged his role in drug trafficking, admitting he'd imported more than 5500 pounds of cocaine and hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States between 1977 and 1987. Now serving a 23-year prison sentence, Martinez is cooperating with federal authorities in an ongoing narcotics investigation.

More a cultural artifact than a legal document, the photograph of George Bush and Leonel Martinez is a snapshot of America in the Eighties. The nouveau riche lawbreaker with diamond-encrusted Rolex shakes hands with the paragon of establishment American politics, the very man once charged with leading the fight against drugs in South Florida. The key to understanding that picture lies not in the sweeping tides of national affairs but rather in the backwaters of local politics. For Miami Republicans in the 1980s, those waters were dominated by a tall, boyishly handsome young man named John Ellis Bush. Jeb, as he is commonly known, is the second-oldest son of George Bush and likely a future candidate for national political office. If it weren't for Jeb, it's unlikely that Leonel Martinez would ever have found himself shaking hands with the vice president of the United States.

There is no evidence that George Bush or his son Jeb knew Leonel Martinez dealt in illegal drugs, according to senior law enforcement officials familiar with the Martinez case, and the photographs of Martinez with various political figures are not part of any ongoing investigation. It is not known whether George, Jeb, and Leonel were anything more than passing acquaintances. It is certain, however, that at the time the picture was taken, probably between 1984 and 1987, Leonel Martinez was known to the Bushes' political fund-raising organizations as an important source of support.

Between 1984 and 1987, Martinez and his wife Margarita donated at least $14,200 to political organizations controlled by the Bush family. Martinez gave to other political causes, too, though not as generously as to the Bushes. In 1986, for example, his Miami construction companies contributed $6000 to the successful gubernatorial campaign of Bob Martinez. After losing the governorship to Lawton Chiles this past November, Bob Martinez was appointed to a new job. President Bush, after consulting with his son Jeb, tapped the ex-governor to lead the National Office of Drug Control Policy. Bob Martinez did not respond to inquiries about the donations from Leonel Martinez, but if approved by the Senate during confirmation hearings that begin this week, he will be the first drug czar known to have enjoyed the financial support of a major drug trafficker.

During his years of political philanthropy, Leonel Martinez was a hot criminal suspect. He had been arrested three times; in two cases charges were dropped, the third resulted in a felony conviction for carrying a concealed weapon. He was being watched by the U.S. Customs Service. His finances were being probed by the Internal Revenue Service. The Drug Enforcement Agency mounted two separate investigations of him. A Swiss bank in the Bahamas had rejected him as an undesirable customer. And the Central Intelligence Agency, which was in a position to know about all this scrutiny, had developed ample evidence of drug trafficking by a faction of Nicaraguan contra supporters to which Martinez belonged.

It's safe to say that George Bush and his son Jeb were unaware of these inquiries. And in Miami, socially at least, Jeb certainly would not have been familiar with Martinez. Aside from their entrepreneurial ambition, the two men had little in common. Jeb is Ivy League, the tennis-playing son of the president of the United States, a young man described by one reporter as having been "born to lead." Martinez is a high school dropout, an exile from a small town in Cuba, a man who is, in the words of one cop who has spent many hours interviewing him, "a peasant who wanted to be high class."

If nothing else, Leonel Martinez's celebrity photo gallery illustrates that drug money speaks as loudly and clearly to ambitious American politicians as any other kind of money. With or without Jeb Bush's knowledge, what brought the two men together - financially if not photographically - was the political economy of cocaine in particular, and the fast money of democratic capitalism in general. Drugs mean money and money means success in politics. Money, in the form of campaign contributions, buys access. Access to elected officials more than occasionally facilitates the schemes of respectable criminals to defraud the government and evade the law. Political entrepreneurs like Jeb Bush sell access.

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