Cleared but Still Not Clean

After being indicted Lee Martin went from public servant to public enemy. Then charges were dropped. What would be fair now?

The week before county Manager Merrett Stierheim left office, he picked up the phone in an effort to right a wrong that has festered for nearly three years. He called Lee Martin, who in April 1998, following a scandalous controversy, was suspended without pay from his post as Miami-Dade County's top building official. Even though Martin eventually was cleared of any wrongdoing, he remained suspended without pay, which impelled him to sue the county. Stierheim had hoped to find a way to settle the lawsuit. "I called Lee voluntarily out of compassion," says the ex-manager. "If a settlement could be worked out, I would be supportive."

While the two sides are scheduled to meet this Monday, March 12, it is unlikely any agreement could repair the damage done to Martin's reputation or return him to the position he once held. Tried and convicted in the court of public opinion by the State Attorney's Office, Martin was denounced as a symbol of government corruption and abuse of power; he even faced jail time for his role in the troubled construction of Dadeland Station, a shopping center on county land leased to a private developer. Simultaneously Martin was forced to do battle with state regulators who wanted to strip him of his professional license in an unrelated matter involving construction at the county seaport. In December 1998 an administrative-law judge exonerated him in the seaport matter, but it would take another year for the SAO to drop the criminal charge stemming from Dadeland Station. When the county didn't promptly lift Martin's suspension, he sued.

Martin's lawyer, Gary Goldman, is a builder himself, and that helped him understand the intricacies of both cases, which involved esoteric details of construction and regulations spelled out in the South Florida Building Code. Goldman, who says prosecutors "hung a Boy Scout" when they went after Martin, dismisses the Dadeland Station charge as "sophomoric."

Dadeland Station is solid; would that Lee Martin could say the same about his reputation
Steve Satterwhite
Dadeland Station is solid; would that Lee Martin could say the same about his reputation

Lee Martin's troubles began in 1996. He had come to the county three years earlier as permit-control division chief in the former Department of Building and Zoning. (It since has been divided into two departments: the Building Department and the Department of Planning and Zoning.) When Martin took the job, residents still were struggling to obtain permits for home repairs in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. "It was quite a shock to get out of the elevators on the tenth floor of county hall and see that it was wall-to-wall people penned in like cattle," he recalls.

An architect by trade, Martin had public-administration experience from previous jobs with Palm Beach County and in his native Ohio. He was hired by Miami-Dade to speed up plan processing and to standardize inspections. The building department had long been criticized by homeowners and the construction industry for being a slow-moving bureaucratic morass. Yet the construction flaws revealed in the hurricane's devastation led to a renewed emphasis on safety and accountability. The tension between these two roles -- policeman and facilitator -- haunts the building department to this day, and Martin's efforts to walk the line between them would contribute to his downfall.

In January 1996 Martin was promoted to the county's chief building official, which made him responsible for overseeing all inspectors and plan reviewers. He also inherited major trouble. His predecessor, Carlos Bonzon, had reached an agreement with seaport director Carmen Lunetta to fast-track construction of two cruise-ship terminals at the port, and so the work proceeded without proper permits, a violation of the South Florida Building Code.

Martin says he assumed all appropriate permits were in order because Bonzon had authorized construction. When he discovered that wasn't true, he could have shut down the job. Instead he expedited inspections so the permits could be issued, a move that later was criticized. State regulators investigated and charged him with eleven counts of misconduct and negligence. Bonzon, also charged, forfeited his professional license to settle his case, but Martin, certain he had done nothing wrong, decided to fight. His case finally was resolved in December 1998, when administrative-law Judge Linda Rigot emphatically declared Martin's innocence. She found that most of the alleged wrongdoing had occurred when Martin had neither authority over nor responsibility for the project. Furthermore, she noted, the terminals presented no threat to the public. By that time, however, Martin had bigger worries than the seaport: He already had lost his job and was facing the prospect of jail after being charged in the Dadeland Station case.

This was another project Martin had inherited when he became the county's top building official. Developer Jeffrey Berkowitz had won county approval to build a multilevel shopping center on public land adjacent to the South Dadeland Metrorail station at Kendall Drive and South Dixie Highway. By the time Martin took over, structural plans had been approved, and the complex was under construction.

In the fall of 1996, a county plan reviewer named Mohammed Partovi, while examining Dadeland Station's technical drawings, spotted serious problems with the joists, which already had been installed. Based on his inspection, additional supports were added to the building. Three structural engineers approved the repairs. Pending Partovi's final review, Martin issued a temporary certificate of occupancy for the first floor of Dadeland Station. This would be his alleged crime. By December, with Partovi's blessing, the rest of the retail complex opened to the public.

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