By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Leo Casino and David Cohn believe that Martin Siskind and a minister's daughter stole a church in the heart of Overtown and sold it for a quarter of a million dollars. They think Miami Commissioner Art Teele was in on the scheme. The church in question, though, is actually a rundown three-story apartment building three blocks west of the old Miami Arena. It belonged to the Church of the Divine Mission, founded in 1981 by the fiery and feisty Rev. Rabbi Clennon King. "We want possession of the building back because it was fraudulently obtained," alleges Casino, a local musician and a long-time disciple of Reverend King.
There's one big impediment to Casino's dream of repossession: the City of Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Last year, at the behest of Commissioner Teele, who is chairman of the CRA, taxpayers paid $252,000 for the property as part of the CRA's "Ninth Street Mall Expansion." Among the mysteries surrounding the purchase is why Teele was hell-bent on paying that much after the independent appraiser hired by the CRA had pegged the property's value at $142,000.
The Divine Mission deal is only one of the CRA transactions involving millions of taxpayer dollars that federal and state criminal investigators have been scrutinizing for the past several months. But it is by far the screwiest. For example the minister's daughter, Muriel King, identified herself as the "authorized director" of the church when she approved the sale and transferred the deed to the CRA. But under Florida law, she was not authorized. (More on that later.) Strangely, no one at the CRA or the Miami city attorney's office seemed to notice.
Another sinister twist: The man at the center of the mysterious deal is a known con artist with a rap sheet to prove it. Twice has New Times chronicled chapters of Martin Siskind's two-decade run in Miami, during which time people have repeatedly accused him of scamming them of money or goods. ("The Sultan of Scam," January 8, 1992, and "The Great Pretender," December 28, 2000.) In 1989 a Dade judge ordered him to return $33,000 he had received from two people to start a Coconut Grove art gallery that never materialized. In 1990 Broward police arrested Siskind after he had become the manager of the Golden Bagel, a strip-mall restaurant, and then allegedly absconded with kitchen equipment, office furniture, artwork, and several thousand crates of mineral water. In 1991 he moved into the broken-down mansion of two elderly Canadian sisters on Miami's Upper Eastside; he was soon arrested for allegedly removing their furnishings and trying to sell them at an "estate sale." Unwitting laborers he hired to move the goods even complained Siskind never paid them. In 1995 Siskind was arrested again and charged with grand theft. State prosecutors dropped the case. The two who filed the complaint, John and Isolde Petroff, could not be located.
By 1997 Siskind had sharpened his focus. He started a nonprofit corporation called the Advocacy Foundation, with the ironic mission of assisting "deserving and indigent individuals involved in or accused of criminal conduct."
In 1999 Miami-Dade County welfare administrators found Siskind deserving of a contract that might have sent him $375,000 in public money, had he provided adequate documentation of the clients who had supposedly received computer and other job-related training at the Advocacy Foundation. Instead the county paid him only $27,000. By late 2000 Joseph Alfano, then executive director of the Training and Employment Council of South Florida, terminated the contract because Siskind had enrolled only about 30 people. A former Advocacy Foundation employee, Brian Scott, said the organization had submitted fraudulent lists that included names of trainees who never attended classes. Siskind's defense was to blame his employees. "If any paperwork was fixed, it was fixed by the people who we hired to do the job," he assured a New Timesreporter in late 2000.
Meanwhile Siskind had reaped another pile of taxpayer money for Reverend King's homeless and sometimes violent son Earnest. In 1997 Earnest was arrested while living at the Divine Mission building and charged with aggravated assault after attacking his father -- the reverend obtained a restraining order that kept Earnest (who pleaded no contest) from moving back into the building.
But now Earnest had earned the distinction as the CRA's first artist-in-residence. The program enabled the homeless painter to occupy the historic Dorsey House across the street from the Divine Mission and to receive money for food, clothes, rent, and art supplies. He had received about $24,000 by April 2001.
The Advocacy Foundation's 2001 federal tax return states that one of its purposes is to "help the poor by providing rent-free housing and assistance to the accused." Last year, however, Siskind helped evict seven very poor people from the Divine Mission building after he and the reverend's daughter agreed to sell it to the CRA.
Fraudulent takeovers of church boards are normally just messy matters for civil courts to settle. Lucky for Muriel and Siskind no one filed a lawsuit challenging their takeover. (Casino says he could not find a lawyer willing to take the case.) But if a church coup is linked to, say, a grand theft scheme, the plotters could face criminal charges.
"If they weren't lining their pockets, if they weren't stealing from the company, it might just be a civil matter in which somebody might be able to nullify the transaction," hypothesizes Joe Centorino, head of the public corruption unit at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. "If the money is going into somebody's pocket rather than a nonprofit purpose, then I imagine you might be looking at a theft theory." Centorino declined to comment on the state's criminal investigation into CRA spending.