Dirty Money

When the Iran-contra scandal began to break in October 1986, the CBS Evening News and the Herald quoted unnamed officials as saying that Jeb had served as his father's chief point of contact with the contra rebels. Jeb's denials were narrow. He did not deny being his father's liaison to the contras, only that he had not participated "directly" in the illegal contra resupply effort directed from the White House. And, he added, he didn't think there was anything illegal about Oliver North's operation.

If Jeb Bush was wrong in his judgment of Oliver North, his judgment of Leonel Martinez was at least as misguided. At his moment of greatest respectability, Martinez made the misstep that eventually led to his downfall, an error that had nothing to do with drug smuggling, murder, or international arms deals. In late 1986 Martinez had begun construction at his 162-acre Leomar Homes site in West Dade without having obtained all the required permits from the county. Coincidentally, Metro-Dade cops were conducting a probe of kickbacks to building inspectors at the time. Martinez offered two bribes - of $400 and $500 - to an undercover agent posing as an inspector, in exchange for overlooking a lack of proper building permits at Leomar Homes. In March 1987, Martinez, along with eleven other local builders, was arrested and charged.

"I took one look at the guy," says a Metro-Dade police officer who worked on the bribery probe, "and I said, `This guy is a doper.'"

The lead detective in the bribery sting was Metro-Dade organized crime investigator Anthony Kost, who pulled together the files on Martinez that had been developed by the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Customs. He then persuaded Metro police to open a drug investigation of Martinez. As more evidence developed, the DEA actively joined the probe.

Meanwhile Martinez continued his political philanthropy. In March of 1987, he gave $1000 to Victor De Yurre's campaign for Miami City Commission. In September of that same year he made his first contribution to a Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Gunter, who received $3000. And on October 21 Martinez and his wife donated $2000 to the Bush for President campaign committee.

In September 1987, Martinez pleaded guilty to bribing a building inspector and was fined $2600 and put on probation. He said his generosity had been misinterpreted. "I used to give to the Police Benevolent Association, to the fire department, to the politicians," he told a reporter. "I've stopped all that. If they don't trust my gifts in one way, I won't give to any of them. At least I'm saving a lot of money."

Martinez, however, didn't stop giving entirely. In April 1988, he contributed $1000 to Metro Mayor Steve Clark's re-election campaign. Clark returned the favor several months later by proclaiming December 10, 1988 to be "Leonel Martinez Day," citing Martinez for his "fantastic accomplishments" and for supporting "many worthwhile civic, social, patriotic, and cultural activities." (County commissioners had earlier renamed a portion of 132nd Avenue as Leomar Boulevard.)

By that time, Martinez's name, if not his face, was well known in local Republican circles. "He would always buy a table at our fund raisers," says one former employee of the Dade GOP. "It would be empty but everybody knew of him."

Leonel Martinez's success in presenting himself to the Bush family and the local political elite as a legitimate businessman is not surprising, according to law enforcement officials and political observers. Under current campaign-finance laws, they note, it is not necessary or practical to check the background of contributors. And besides, Martinez certainly bore the appearance of a bona fide businessman: in 1988 he was the eleventh largest builder of homes in Dade County, with $11.2 million in sales.

Thus, in March of 1989, as at least five of his close associates were cooperating with law enforcement authorities and federal prosecutors were preparing a drug indictment aimed at him, the Republican National Senatorial Committee was inviting Martinez to join the "Inner Circle" of major party donors. He received an invitation to attend the committee's annual spring fund-raising dinner in Washington, D.C., and to meet with key senators. He contributed $1000 to the committee but did not attend the event, according to a GOP spokesman.

Three months later, in June, only days after his membership application had been accepted by Miami's Latin Builders Association, Leonel Martinez was arrested after accepting delivery of 300 kilos of cocaine from an undercover agent for the DEA.

The photograph of George Bush and Leonel Martinez is not a subject local Republicans are eager to discuss. President Bush was unavailable for comment. His son Jeb declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to written inquiries about Leonel Martinez. Bob Martinez, the Florida ex-governor who faces Senate confirmation hearings this week as the so-called drug czar, did not respond to questions about the $6000 his campaign was given by Leonel Martinez. Even after Martinez was exposed and convicted of narcotics trafficking, neither the George Bush nor the Bob Martinez political action committees thought it appropriate to return the $20,200 in drug-tainted contributions they had received. On the other hand, the Republican National Senatorial Committee, when informed recently of Leonel Martinez's felony conviction, promised that his $1000 contribution would promptly be returned.

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