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

Siskind says the charges stem from a $28 gas bill he refused to pay. He will not comment any further on the situation. "That was twenty years ago; I don't want to discuss that," he says. "I am a product of my experiences. It's a part of my life, and I'm not ashamed of my life."

In 1985 Siskind popped up in Miami, where he soon was back in business. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he developed a knack for freeloading from absentee landlords. In one incident reported in New Times, he moved into a North Miami mansion owned by Canadian sisters Madeleine Rodden and Yolande Thibeault, didn't pay rent, and sold the house's wares along with restaurant equipment at a garage sale at the now defunct Playboy Club. Melvin Kacher, a retired medical-supplies salesman who made money buying and reselling foreclosed homes, has similar stories about Siskind. Soon after they met in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, Siskind moved into one of Kacher's North Miami properties but never paid rent. He did, however, rent out the house to other tenants himself, without ever paying Kacher. When a potential buyer offered to purchase the home, Siskind blocked the deal. "Siskind was my worst nightmare," Kacher recalls from his Westchester home. "He got in the way; he lied. He had a million excuses for everything."

When Siskind took control of Coconut Grove's La Bread Station and Hallandale's Golden Bagel, both businesses quickly went under. He approached the heavily indebted owners and bragged about infusing millions into the struggling businesses to save them. Instead of turning a profit, he sank them by draining their assets and not paying bills or the employees. At La Bread Station Siskind convinced out-of-town investors to give him thousands of dollars to open an art gallery above the restaurant. The art never materialized, but that didn't stop him from continuing to bilk thousands of dollars from financiers. He never paid the backers their share of profits. And there were no profits because there was no gallery.

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
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

There were other soured deals, lawsuits, and angry creditors. That was more than a decade ago. Today Siskind lowers the tone of his voice and in a sibilant whisper defends himself. "They were lies, lies, bullshit, and lies," he hisses. "I saw how easy it was to be set up."

Siskind has moved on. He's turned his powers of persuasion away from the tonier sides of town to the inner city. His Advocacy Foundation has won federal and county grants from a welfare-to-work program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The foundation's Website describes a noble enterprise, a place for Miami's dispossessed to turn their lives around: "The Advocacy Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded on principles declared by Clarence Darrow to assist and educate individuals who find themselves in a system that has worked neither to their nor society's advantage. Originally dealing mainly with those involved in criminal conduct and drug addiction and those who face a hostile court system, both civil and criminal, the Foundation has grown to include social services as well as social justice."

Siskind says he began the organization about four years ago. In 1999 it got a boost when the Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES Coalition and county commissioners approved a $375,000 contract for the Advocacy Foundation to help people who were making the transition off welfare rolls (the money was not awarded as a lump sum, but would be spread out throughout the year as services were provided). That contract expired in September and has not been renewed. According to the agreement, however, WAGES, now called the Training and Employment Council of South Florida (TEC), paid the Advocacy Foundation hundreds of dollars every time a client enrolled or completed a part of his or her training. WAGES documents show that Siskind applied this year for almost $40,000 to train as many as 30 people. Of that amount $27,000 has been paid. The remaining $13,000 will not be paid, because Siskind has not submitted adequate documentation.

How did Siskind convince a public agency to throw him money?

He did file a well-defined curriculum of workshops that range from computer training to substance abuse counseling in order to win the WAGES contract. Siskind describes himself in the application as having "greater than 35 years experience in creating successful businesses, hiring and training employees, and advocating for opportunities for poor people to become self-sufficient." There is no résumé on file that details his experience, though. According to the proposal, the Advocacy Foundation is supposed to guide its clients to financial independence and security. The program starts with classes that teach welfare recipients how to apply for jobs and how to dress and conduct themselves at interviews. Siskind's proposal goes on to list some of the Advocacy Foundation's goals: "We propose to expand our business incubator program to work with 120 WAGES recipients during the next year. Of the 120, we believe that we will be able to start 50 microbusinesses (some with more than one participant) and place the other participants in employment directly related to future business opportunities."

True to Siskind's form, most of the plans failed to materialize. According to former Advocacy Foundation personnel, training sessions went unattended, and few of the clients existed outside enrollment applications. WAGES administrators apparently dropped the ball in both checking references on potential funding recipients and making sure that public money was being spent appropriately, if at all, on such projects.

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