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 programs fizzled because he invested more money than WAGES was willing to fund. "Some programs were successful; some were not," he admits. "WAGES was too expensive. The bureaucratic thing was too top-heavy."

Another explanation is that the welfare-to-work programs in Miami-Dade have been in flux this year. Since the Advocacy Foundation won its contract, the WAGES Coalition has been folded into the county's Training and Employment Council. The transition has meant that many of the programs are now supervised by different administrators.

Joseph Alfano, TEC's executive director, explains that the process of approving contracts has remained similar, even if its administration has not. To win a contract, a first-time applicant must submit a detailed proposal along with a list of references. The government agency then reviews the application and interviews the applicant's staff, tours the facility, and inspects training materials and curriculums. An organization is approved after a review of financial records.

A thrift shop/art studio may keep the Advocacy Foundation afloat in its new 10,000-square-foot home
Steve Satterwhite
A thrift shop/art studio may keep the Advocacy Foundation afloat in its new 10,000-square-foot home
Liberty Square housing activist Barbara Pierre calls Siskind a wild guy, despite a slew of failed promises
Steve Satterwhite
Liberty Square housing activist Barbara Pierre calls Siskind a wild guy, despite a slew of failed promises

According to an initial review, Siskind failed to provide WAGES inspectors with an operating budget, financial statements, or a letter of insurance, all of which are required, yet his foundation still was approved. While Siskind's group did file supporting documentation confirming participants in his program, the WAGES council did not check the filings thoroughly, confirms a former WAGES administrator who was familiar with the contract but who wishes to remain anonymous. "We funded them but we didn't keep close enough track of their curriculum," the administrator says.

Siskind also managed to slip through the review process because neither WAGES nor TEC had or have policies that examine the backgrounds of individual applicants. Alfano says TEC funds service providers according to their overall proposals. "When we deal with an organization, we deal with the organization, not an individual," he offers. "We try to watch every corner for the problematic. Whether some individual had something from the past, we just didn't come across it."

According to former Advocacy Foundation case manager supervisor Brian Scott's observations, the way Siskind obtained the funds was indeed problematic. He says he often was asked to fill in clients' names on the attendance rosters, though they failed to show up for training. "I wasn't going to do that," Scott says. "That's fraud."

Siskind puts the onus on Scott and other former employees who ran the employment and computer-training programs. He says three supervisors "who had their own agendas" stole thousands of dollars from the foundation and then took off. "If any paperwork was fixed, it was fixed by the people who we hired to do the job," Siskind postulates "I was not directly involved with the programs. They asked me not to get involved with it."

Before working with the agency, Scott had no experience with nonprofits. He met Siskind while he worked renting cars next to the Advocacy Foundation's warehouse. Although Scott was tentative about working with Siskind, he was won over by big talk. Siskind, employing one of his well-honed business tactics, dropped names of politicians, business executives, and community leaders in Overtown and Liberty City, giving the impression that they would be backers.

WAGES records show 29 clients registered for employment training, with just 12 of the enrollees completing the program. The agency received $567 when clients registered for services. It then would get $378 for completing half of the training and $945 for each person who finished the program. Scott, however, explains none of the programs fulfilled the plans that were outlined in the county contract. "There were supposed to be 34 people in the computer classes," Scott says. "But nobody showed up -- just one Cuban lady. The computer training classes were empty." After only two months Scott quit the Advocacy Foundation.

The TEC's Alfano gives a more watered-down version. "The previous contract was not successful," he says. "They did get a sizable amount of money to train 200 people yearly. But they only enrolled 29 or 30 clients." Although the group won a hefty contract, Alfano adds, WAGES would not have paid it in full, because Siskind would not have been able to present the documentation. "In reality it was not a success."

Other former Advocacy Foundation staffers say that instead of a methodical bilking of public funds, Siskind's agency suffers from too many lofty goals and poor management.

David Ziskind joined the staff in the fall of 1999, after a custody battle cost him not only six months in jail but his job at the University of Miami, where he worked as a behavioral psychology researcher. Ziskind recalls Siskind promising a career in an innovative agency that would help combat injustice among Miami's most destitute populations. In September 1999 he signed on as the Advocacy Foundation's director of behavioral research, a position that was titular in nature. In practice he wrote the proposals for funding and outlined the services that the Advocacy Foundation would provide.

But Ziskind soon realized that under Siskind's leadership, few of the programs he proposed would ever be established. Ziskind says that once the county contract was approved, it was glaringly obvious that nothing would get done. The programs were disorganized, he recalls, and few if any of the clients who were registered would show up for training. Still, the paperwork was filed, and the agency was paid.

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