Caught Sure-Handed

Under federal scrutiny for alleged money laundering, Falcons receiver Tony Martin lends new meaning to the term "dirty bird"

Amidst the pre-Super Bowl parties, fireworks, and crooning by plastic- surgery goddess Cher this past week, Tony Martin sat down at a table in the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers. A throng of reporters from ESPN, CBS, and NBC, as well as a profusion of daily drones jostled for a shot at the Miami-boy-turned-Atlanta-Falcons-star wide receiver. Martin, who played impressively despite his team's stunning loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday, wore a striped Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and blue jeans. He smiled often, revealing a set of blindingly white teeth.

"Tony, how does it feel to play the Super Bowl in your home town?"
"Tony, is it distracting being in your home town for the big game?"
Then, from the back, a middle-aged guy with gray hair piped up: "Tony, it said something in the clips about money laundering? Some friend of yours? Has that been resolved?"

"That is resolved and over with," Martin replied quickly, the smile gone.
"What happened in that case?" the reporter continued, as the others looked around uncomfortably.

"Miscommunication," Martin stated flatly, and then gave a short laugh.
The reporters, sports hacks who know far more about rushing and passing than grand juries and malfeasance, were grateful to move on.

The 33-year-old Martin, who had the best year of his career in 1998, may have been shading the truth. A grand jury is still hearing evidence about allegations he laundered money for a long-time friend charged with drug trafficking, according to three sources familiar with the case, as well as Miami criminal-defense attorney Milton Hirsch. The National Football League looked into whether Martin violated league rules, but has taken no action, says one source.

After New Times reported this past fall ("Friends in Low Places," October 1, 1998) that the U.S. Attorney's Office was investigating Martin, the national media scooped up the story and ran with it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the probe on October 21 and then released it on the national wire. Papers from Boston and New York to Sacramento and Seattle ran the news. The number of reporters in the locker room tripled, according to the Journal-Constitution, prompting Falcons coach Dan Reeves to warn his players not to become distracted. Martin steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

The government's interest in Martin was piqued after the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested 41-year-old Rickey Brownlee in January 1998, claiming the Opa-locka businessman ran a lucrative drug ring. Martin and Brownlee have known each other for years, ever since Martin played football for Miami Northwestern High School in the early Eighties. Martin has credited Brownlee, a twice-convicted drug trafficker, with helping him finish college. The pair occasionally hung out together at Brownlee-owned restaurants and car washes.

Martin initially footed the bill for Brownlee's defense in the businessman's most recent drug-related arrest. But after the feds subpoenaed Martin's financial records this past spring, the Falcons star canceled his $175,000 check to Brownlee's then-lawyer, Milton Hirsch. In May Hirsch sued the football player for the cash. About the same time a grand jury gathered to hear evidence about several people whom prosecutors suspect laundered Brownlee's drug money; among them is Martin.

"Tony Martin might end up as a witness in Rickey Brownlee's trial, but I'll bet you anything he'll never be charged," says Ed O'Donnell, Brownlee's new lawyer.

Hirsch dropped his suit against Martin in October, after he was forced to withdraw from Brownlee's defense. The government claimed Hirsch had a conflict of interest representing Brownlee and wanted to call him as a witness. "The federal government has successfully frustrated my efforts to defend Mr. Brownlee," Hirsch asserts. "They claimed there was a conflict because I was a witness to an alleged act of money laundering, meaning I got paid by Martin. The government's theory was that it may be that Tony Martin took Rickey Brownlee's alleged drug money, made it appear to be Tony Martin's clean football-player money, and gave it to me for legal services."

Hirsch says he tried at first to continue to represent Brownlee. Then the FBI served subpoenas to his employees and threatened to serve his wife. The government wants to prosecute a big name, he says. "Everybody likes to ring up a high-profile athletic star."

"They want Tony bad," Sam Wilson, a friend of Brownlee, told New Times a month ago. That was just a day or two before the feds locked up Wilson for contempt of court when he refused to testify before the grand jury. The prosecutors did the same to Keith Toledo, who leased a convenience store in a Brownlee-owned building.

Martin, lean and square-jawed, wasn't talking about contempt charges this past week. As he left the Hilton press conference, New Times asked him whether he had heard from Brownlee recently. "Naw," he answered. Questioned about whether he felt bad for his friend, Martin was noncommittal. "That's his life, really."

tris_korten@miaminewtimes.com

 
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