A Star Is Broke

Football standout Tony Martin may have signed a multimillion-dollar contract, but he's bankrupt

Tony Martin inked a new four-year, $14.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins just in time. The celebrated wide receiver is so broke he's filed for bankruptcy.

New Times has learned that Martin, attempting to dodge debts on both coasts, asked a federal judge for protection from his creditors on March 26. In at least four lawsuits he is accused of everything from fraud to lying in court. Martin contends his financial advisor, a California man named Rick Norton, mishandled his affairs.

The bankruptcy will likely become an issue in the former Atlanta Falcon's August 2 money-laundering trial. The feds accuse him of illegally taking money from childhood friend and suspected Opa-locka drug dealer Rickey Brownlee. Martin's agreement with the Dolphins, announced April 9, depends on his beating that rap.

There's no doubt Martin's career is in jeopardy. After prosecutors charged him in February, the Falcons dumped him. Other teams were wary of touching him. "Tony was cut from the Falcons March 1, depriving him of a roster bonus he was anticipating," says Howard Srebnick, one of Martin's defense lawyers, referring to an an approximately $500,000 he was owed. "He had financial obligations he could no longer meet."

Martin is a comeback kid. After a dismal academic showing at Miami Northwestern High School in the early Eighties, he moved through a series of small colleges until he was signed by the Dolphins in 1990. He struggled for recognition here until 1993, when he was traded to the San Diego Chargers. In 1998 the Chargers swapped him to Atlanta, where he flourished. His speed and agility helped the team reach the Super Bowl this past January in Miami. (The Falcons lost to the Denver Broncos, but Martin played a solid game.) At the relatively advanced age of 33, Martin was playing some of the best ball of his career.

A week after the Super Bowl, the feds indicted Martin, accusing him of using Brownlee's cash to lease luxury cars and pay the accused drug kingpin's attorney's fees. The feds charged Brownlee, who has two previous convictions for drug dealing, in January 1998 with running a large narcotics ring.

Martin's lawyers acknowledge he paid for the cars and legal fees (though he canceled payment on a check to Brownlee's lawyer after learning of the federal probe into his affairs). But they contend Martin was simply helping out a friend and never profited from the transactions. Brownlee owns several businesses, including a car wash and a restaurant in Opa-locka, so Martin "had no reason to believe the monies came from illegal sources," Srebnick says.

One thing is clear: Martin, who doesn't have a criminal record, enjoys living large. He likes his cars fast and his condos big. Even the millions he earned as a pro in San Diego and Atlanta weren't enough to maintain his lifestyle. So he borrowed $1.2 million during the past two years from Gemma Ramsour, a wealthy retired California woman. Martin and Ramsour were clients of financial planner Rick Norton.

His collateral for the loan was a $1.6 million signing bonus the Chargers agreed to pay in 1998. When the money came due, Martin filed papers denying he promised to return the money. "The signature on the promissory note is a forgery," Martin stated in court papers dated November 23, 1998.

The matter went before San Diego Superior Court Judge Jay Bloom in a one-day trial on February 26. Ramsour's San Diego lawyer Daniel Horwitz called in a handwriting expert who said the signature matched Martin's. Horwitz also called Norton as a witness. Norton testified he saw Martin sign the document. That was enough to convince Bloom. On March 2 the judge declared the signature valid and ordered Martin to repay the money. But before Ramsour could collect the outstanding $869,000, Martin filed for bankruptcy.

"Martin's bankruptcy is preventing someone who loaned him a lot of money from collecting," Horwitz says. "I just hope that if his deal with the Dolphins goes through, he'll honor his obligations."

Ramsour will have to get in line. This past year Prestige Imports in Miami accused Martin of selling the company a stolen 1990 Mercedes Benz 500 SL for $52,800. Prestige wants its money back. According to the lawsuit, Martin provided a title he claimed was valid. Only after selling the car to a woman named Sara Rodriguez in 1995 did Prestige learn the Mercedes was hot. In court papers Martin denies knowing it was stolen. The case will probably be put on hold as a result of his bankruptcy.

Also in 1998 an exclusive San Diego stereo store sued Martin for breach of contract and intentional misrepresentation. The owners of La Jolla Audio claimed Martin paid in full for installation of four stereos, worth as much as $10,000 apiece, in a Ferrari, a Jeep, a Range Rover, and a Spyder. But he welshed on a later deal. After requesting a stereo and two televisions for another Range Rover, he never paid the $21,000 bill, the suit alleges. When store workers called him on his cell phone, they said he pretended not to hear them. A judge ordered Martin to pay La Jolla Audio $24,000 on December 18, 1998. To date Martin has not followed through, a spokesman for the store says.

Then there's the 1997 case alleging Martin became enamored with a high-rise at 163rd Street and Collins Avenue and put down a $117,000 deposit on a three-bedroom penthouse. The sale price was $1.17 million. After the football star failed to close on the unit, condo owners claimed the deposit. But Martin refused to release the money from an escrow account and the owners sued. When Martin failed to respond to the lawsuit (he contends the court papers were never delivered), a judge filed a default judgment. Martin's attorneys Gregg Breitbart and Steven Weinstein withdrew from the case in January 1998 citing "irreconcilable differences" with Martin.

Martin's agent Donald Wilson, who was also his lawyer in the Ramsour case, says Norton often signed for Martin or had his client sign without explanation. That's why Martin contested the signature in the Ramsour case. Norton couldn't be reached for comment.

For now the real question is: If Martin ends up earning all that money from the Dolphins, will he be able to hang on to any of it?

Staff writer Jose Luis Jimenez assisted in the reporting of this story.

tris_korten@miaminewtimes.com

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