The Great Pretender

After years of making a living off rich people's money, Martin Siskind is now portraying himself as a savior to Miami's poor

As a group of women and children gather this past September at a New Haven Gardens public housing community meeting in Little River, Martin Siskind bursts into the stuffy room with the flair of a thespian. The aspiring activist and devotee of seminal Twenties lawyer Clarence Darrow speaks in smooth forceful tones, waxing quixotic about battling injustice and the forces that keep Miami's most dispossessed citizens down. Siskind, a hefty white man in a scruffy tweed jacket and gold-tone tie, wears a weightlifter's leather belt around his ample belly just above his slacks. He tells the small group of mostly black women and children that some changes are about to take place in their community, beginning with the meeting room.

"We need to get computers in here, and a new air conditioner," Siskind declares before plunging into a parade of promises. With the help of his nonprofit organization, the Advocacy Foundation, New Haven Gardens soon will have a series of art and dance classes as well as after-school programs, Siskind tells the tenants. His convincing speech and vigorous manner are amplified by his glittering blue eyes and beads of sweat that dampen his brow. Siskind knows most of the women and their families by name from his regular rounds in Liberty City and Overtown neighborhoods. He is known for calling on public housing tenants who face evictions and offering legal help. Many believe he is a lawyer. After his fifteen-minute harangue, resident council president Zoretta Snell breathes a sigh of relief. Perhaps with Siskind's help, she ponders aloud, a real community will begin to take shape.

But what Snell and other residents do not know is that Siskind has a history of making promises he does not keep, under a variety of guises. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he's previously done business as a restaurateur and an antique dealer. He often brags about driving Formula One race cars and boxing in professional bouts. According to his own lore, he sold a villa on Ocean Drive to slain fashion designer Gianni Versace and owns a fabulous yacht and a horse ranch. Public records, however, show no property listed in his name other than a few automobiles.

Smooth operator: Siskind took over Coconut Grove's La Bread Station promising a bail out, but the venture sank shortly afterward
Smooth operator: Siskind took over Coconut Grove's La Bread Station promising a bail out, but the venture sank shortly afterward

But a closer look at the man reveals that tall tales about selling villas to Versace have been the least of his problems. Former business associates have unmasked several other less-savory personas. In reality Siskind's Advocacy Foundation has done little to help the poor. While he may talk the talk, Siskind is not a lawyer, nor is he a lot of things he has claimed to be in his past. What he is, in some people's minds, is a scam artist, and his latest incarnation as the downtrodden's advocate appears to be just one more facade.

New Times has come across Siskind before. A cover story from 1992 detailed a host of Siskind's earlier schemes, such as running rental scams, selling stolen goods, not paying employees, and bilking money from investors for fake enterprises. He ducked a number of legal suits and slipped under the radar, only to resurface in the world of public housing and welfare-to-work programs. "I don't know what's right anymore," Siskind declares. "The only thing I see is what's wrong, and I'm going to try to do as much as I can to do something about wrongs wherever there is unbelievable housing and where there's jails full of poor people who are uneducated for the most part."

But despite his promises to New Haven Gardens, enhanced with teary-eyed tributes to civil-rights leaders, Siskind, the self-proclaimed CEO and director of the Advocacy Foundation, has succeeded in improving little. Months after his speech the community room remains barren, stale air circulates from the old wall unit, and there are no traces of computers or sports equipment. At dusk youngsters play around the unlit basketball court or just hang out on the sidewalks and parking lots of the townhouse-style community. He gains the friendship and trust of Miami's poor by introducing himself as an advocate for change, and many of his clients continue their relationship with him because they feel as though they owe it to him, or because they have nowhere else to turn. Some of the recovering addicts and alcoholics with whom he works at the Advocacy Foundation complain of Siskind's erratic and abusive behavior and his penchant for not paying them for working long hours.

In fact this foundation resembles a Siskind enterprise of old. While he managed to get funding from public agencies to help train and educate the underclass, so far the foundation appears to be a white elephant. Former employees say few people have been educated and that phony paperwork was filled out and trainees were fabricated to meet funding requirements. According to Brian Scott, the Advocacy Foundation's former case manager supervisor: "Everything that comes out of [Siskind's] mouth, 99.9 percent of it, is a lie."

In England, where he lived during the Seventies before moving to Miami, Siskind is considered more than a liar; he's also considered a crook. In 1984 he was convicted by a British court of "obtaining services by deception," "obtaining property by deception," and "evading liability by deception." He was sentenced and recommended for deportation from Britain.

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