By Michael E. Miller
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He also continued to have close calls with the law. In 1985 the Drug Enforcement Agency had developed an informant in Martinez's organization who tried to set up a sting operation in which the DEA would sell Martinez a load of marijuana. Martinez backed out of the deal.
In July of 1985, U.S. Customs agents seized a boat carrying 20,000 pounds of marijuana off the coast of Louisiana. The boat had belonged to Leonel Martinez, but with the help of Jorge Martinez, president of Hemisphere Bank, he had sold it to a fellow smuggler and used the transaction to launder some of his drug profits. Customs agents were unable to trace ownership of the boat back to Leonel Martinez.
As early as 1984, the Internal Revenue Service in Miami had opened an inquiry into Martinez's finances. The records of his construction company were inspected and subpoenas were issued for his bank records, but IRS agents told other law enforcement officials they didn't have solid proof of wrongdoing and couldn't press charges.
In June of 1986, Martinez himself was stopped by Customs. He had gone to the Bahamas on his yacht to oversee a shipment of 325 kilos of cocaine. Fortunately for Martinez, the deal fell through. As he was returning to Miami, Customs agents boarded his boat. They encountered Martinez, his nephew Julio Rodriguez, his partner in cocaine Pedro Hernandez, and one other man. There were no drugs on board, but there were three new Uzi submachine guns. Martinez's nephew said he had found the guns in a supermarket and that he'd brought them aboard without permission. No one was arrested.
On July 24, 1986, the U.S. State Department grudgingly acknowledged there was some truth to allegations that contra supporters were involved in drug trafficking. "The available evidence," the State Department said, "points to involvement with drug traffickers by a limited number of persons having various kinds of affiliations with, or political sympathies for, the resistance groups." On that same day, Leonel Martinez, enthusiastic contra supporter and energetic drug trafficker, wrote another $5000 check to George Bush's Fund for America's Future.
Less than three months later, on October 9, 1986, Vice President Bush came to town to stump for gubernatorial hopeful Bob Martinez. One thousand people jammed the Omni International Hotel to hear Bush and contribute money to the future governor's political war chest. A record $500,000 was raised, and Leonel Martinez again did his part. According to state campaign finance records, he wrote three checks, for a total of $6000.
Why would Leonel Martinez, an active drug trafficker, give $16,000 to GOP causes in less than a year? Ron Dresnick, defense attorney for the Martinez family, believes his client acted out of sincere conviction. "He has an almost religious belief in Republicanism," Dresnick says. But one law enforcement source who worked on the case is skeptical of Martinez's idealism. "Leonel Martinez didn't give anybody a dime," he says, "unless he thought there was a dollar coming back to Leonel Martinez somewhere down the line."
By the end of 1986, Martinez was the epitome of respectability, at least among Miami Republicans. He received a Christmas card from George and Barbara Bush. He was launching his most ambitious venture in the construction business, a West Dade housing development called Leomar Homes. (He had purchased land for the project, at NW Sixth Street and 132nd Avenue, in a complicated land deal that involved some of the leading bankers in town, including Capital Bank president Abel Holtz.) His long-time real estate lawyer, Victor De Yurre, was preparing to run for a seat on the Miami City Commission. (According to law enforcement sources, De Yurre, who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Martinez probe, remains a subject of an ongoing investigation that grew out of the Martinez case.) In February 1987, Martinez was listed as honorary co-chairman of the Dade County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, whose keynote speaker was Vice President George Bush. As honorary co-chairman, Martinez would have been entitled to attend a private reception for the vice president, according to one former party official. It is not known if Martinez attended the event.
Clearly Martinez had arrived, but among his social circle, there was speculation about the true source of his wealth. These stories reached Martinez's oldest son, Leonel Jr. According to one law enforcement source, the son once asked his father if he were involved in drugs. "Nunca," Martinez answered. Never.
In December 1986, governor-elect Bob Martinez appointed Jeb Bush to the position of state secretary of commerce, which gave Jeb the opportunity to promote Florida in the press and to travel, meeting with foreign investors. It also took him away from Miami, where reporters were asking some uncomfortable questions about his role in the unfolding Iran-contra scandal. In 1985 and 1986, Jeb had been involved in raising money and forging political support for the contras in Miami. In January 1985, he met briefly with Felix Rodriguez, the former CIA operative who served as the chief officer in Lt. Col. Oliver North's illegal operation to supply arms to the contras. The next month, the Miami Herald reported, a Guatemalan politician asked Jeb how he could supply medical help to the contras, and Jeb referred him to North.