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?

Shortly thereafter, at Partovi's suggestion, Berkowitz hired an outside engineer to review plans for the entire project. The engineer, Lawrence Brill, discovered what he believed were serious deficiencies. On July 17 Brill sent a letter to Martin explaining his findings. The building chief immediately assigned a county structural engineer to work exclusively on Dadeland Station. In a later affidavit the engineer stated that 80 hours of review had led him to conclude there was no likelihood that death or great personal injury would result from the county's temporary certificate of occupancy. Still, Berkowitz agreed to shore up the building even more. Because county experts deemed the structure safe, Martin saw no reason to shut it down, especially after Berkowitz undertook repairs. "Nobody was going to be in there during a hurricane anyway," Martin says.

During this time police investigators and the State Attorney's Office also had been busy. In late June and early July 1997, county employee Larry Gay met with police several times to discuss problems at the building department. In his statements, which Gay gave under immunity, he portrayed Martin as a building official who ignored warnings in his haste to open Dadeland Station.

Attorney Goldman believes the SAO -- armed with Partovi's joist review, the Brill letter, and Gay's testimony -- thought there was sufficient evidence to charge Martin with culpable negligence. "It was a tapestry of unrelated facts they wove together," Goldman asserts.

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

Throughout the fall and into the spring, two grand juries looked into the county building department. On April 1, 1998, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle held a press conference to announce indictments in the Dadeland Station case: Lee Martin, structural engineer Richard Klein, and the county's assistant director for permitting and zoning. Martin's charge, a second-degree misdemeanor, was punishable by up to 60 days in jail. "The use and abuse of power and influence in government fosters a deep cynicism in the mind of the citizenry," Rundle declared at her press conference. "The actions of the people indicted have fed that cynicism."

Martin was dumbstruck. "It was not lost on me this was April Fool's Day," he says. "All I could think about was that I was going to jail, and my family was going to live under a bridge." The next day Merrett Stierheim suspended him without pay. A week later the manager sent a letter to commissioners stating that the indictments were "an embarrassment to all of us." He also announced he would reorganize the department and seek to replace Martin permanently.

Martin struggled to find work. He says he lost one lucrative job in the Bahamas because of his indictment. (He currently is employed as a contract consultant by a prominent local firm whose identity he asked not be revealed.) The strain of the ordeal also took a toll on his family. "It was much harder on my wife than it was on me," he admits.

Martin's torment did not end with his suspension and replacement. In April 1999, a year after his suspension began, he received a memo from Charlie Danger, the veteran county administrator who had been hired to fill his position. The memo stated that all building department employees who took outside work needed Danger's approval. Goldman responded that the rule didn't apply to Martin. Danger countered that Martin still was considered a full-time employee, though an unpaid one. "Failure to comply with this directive will jeopardize his continued employment with Miami-Dade County," Danger wrote. Goldman returned fire, insisting that Danger had misread the rule, and the matter died. "He had to ask permission to support himself?" marvels Goldman. "That's pretty nasty."

On November 5, 1999, the SAO dropped the charge against Martin, saying only that conflicting evidence had arisen, creating a reasonable doubt that Martin was guilty. (The original prosecuting attorney had left for a new job, but his successor commissioned another study to determine if Dadeland Station had ever presented a danger to construction workers or the public. When the consultants returned with a negative verdict, the SAO dropped the case.)

Developer Berkowitz never blamed Martin for the problems at Dadeland Station. "What did he do wrong?" he asks. "A reasonable man would have done the same thing." He faults the original engineer, who lost his license because of the fiasco. Berkowitz also blames the county's initial reviews of the plans, which did not catch the problems.

When the county did not quickly reinstate him, Martin filed suit. He did so on November 30, 1999, his wedding anniversary, as a tribute to his wife. The suit asked for damages based on the county having made false and stigmatizing statements against him, and never allowing him an opportunity to clear his name. A judge dismissed the suit in April 2000, ruling that the stigmatizing statements were made by the State Attorney's Office, not the county government. Attorney Goldman argues that the State Attorney and the county were one and the same. An appeal hearing has been scheduled for this May.

The county's initial settlement offer consisted of back pay (minus the amount Martin earned in outside work) up to the date Martin filed his lawsuit. Goldman and Martin rejected it. "What's reasonable?" asks Goldman. "Some kind of acknowledgment in writing from the county that the combination of his indictment, the dropping of charges, and his suspension and replacement were not the fairest of events, [an admission] that he was a true public servant, and a settlement in the six figures somewhere."

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