Grand Theft, Church

Ghetto redevelopment Miami style is anything but divine

Casino and Cohn say they knew nothing of such a vote, although state records indicated they were still board directors. Cohn laments he was too busy to find a lawyer to challenge the takeover. "I was disappointed when this thing happened," Cohn says. "Clearly what turned out wasn't what Reverend King had in mind."

It is not clear whether Teele, Siskind, or Muriel King first broached the idea of selling the Divine Mission building or when. But on December 5, 2001, the Divine Mission property was the subject of a meeting at the CRA offices. Present were Commissioner Art Teele, executive director Annette Lewis, CRA consultant Dick Judy, two other CRA administrative employees, Siskind, and his real estate agent Michael Pellerin. According to minutes of that meeting its purpose was "to discuss the sale of the Devine [sic] Mission building from the hairs [sic] of said structure." Thus the CRA was preparing to purchase the property from Reverend King's heirs, even though it was not theirs to sell.

Pellerin had brokered Siskind's lease with the owners of the Wynwood warehouse that serves as the Advocacy Foundation headquarters. Siskind asked him to work the Divine Mission deal. The CRA put forth "a low-ball appraisal," Pellerin says. "That's when Martin and Muriel contacted me and they said, 'Hey, what's the building worth?' I did a broker's opinion on it and it was worth more than what the city said it was worth." Pellerin valued the property at $295,000, or $55 per square foot.

Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
Steve Satterwhite
Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's

At the December 5 meeting the parties agreed on a sale price of $225,000, according to a CRA document summarizing the session. By the time the proposal reached the CRA board for a vote on December 11, the price had mysteriously risen another $27,000.

Almost everything about the Divine Mission proposal was shady. The resolution authorizing the agency to buy the property for $252,000 was riddled with deceptive flourishes. First, the measure referred to the reverend's daughter as "Sister Muriel King," implying that she was a member of the clergy. "No, I'm not a nun," Muriel said two weeks ago. "I hope you don't put that in the paper." The resolution described the property as "part of the estate" of Clennon King. Miami-Dade court records indicate there was no Clennon King estate.

The resolution also referred to the church "counsel's asking price" of $295,000. Who was this lawyer? "I can't recall," broker Pellerin told New Times. He did remember that the sellers had no lawyer representing them at the closing, which took place at the Miami City Attorney's office.

When the buy came up for discussion, such details were lost on commissioners Johnny Winton and Joe Sanchez, who were hearing of the idea for the first time. They were preoccupied with figuring out why then-executive director Annette Lewis was so eager to buy the building for $252,000 when the CRA's appraiser had tagged it for much less. Chairman Teele quickly defended her, noting that the seller, Muriel King, had come down from $295,000.

The commissioners then talked about the possibility of acquiring the building through an eminent domain lawsuit. To justify paying $110,000 more than the appraisal, Teele raised the specter of the fees for such a lawsuit, which he insisted would cost the city well over $100,000. "Now the attorney for this church is Toby Brigham, who would prefer that we do eminent domain," Teele cajoled his fellow commissioners.

In an interview last month, Brigham (the eminent domain specialist) politely described Teele's estimated legal costs as "a bit of an exaggeration." Under state law, the legal fees would have been limited by a formula and a jury would have rendered a verdict on a fair market value for the property. And the CRA probably would have saved tens of thousands of dollars. Brigham also says he was notthe church's lawyer, contrary to Teele's claim.

But Teele wasn't letting facts impede his $252,000 deal with Siskind and Muriel King. At the December 11 meeting Teele praised the reverend, noting he "had the distinction of running against me three times for public office and was extremely colorful." The deal called for a bronze marker commemorating the reverend at the Divine Mission site and required the CRA to produce a video on Reverend King (neither has been done). "Let's just try to work through the family's wishes," Teele beseeched his fellow CRA board members. He then teamed up with city attorney Alex Vilarello to persuade Winton and Sanchez the eminent domain strategy was far too costly. The vote to approve the purchase was unanimous.

Why the CRA didn't check into the board and the ownership issues remains a mystery. When New Timescontacted Commissioner Winton, he did not recall the Divine Mission purchase until he realized it was part of the Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall expansion. "The question is, 'Why the hell did you vote for that?'" Winton concedes, adding there are only two possible answers. "Because we were misled or we screwed up." (Teele and Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.)

City attorney Vilarello cannot rule out the possibility that the CRA bought the Divine Mission property from people who were not authorized to sell it. He admits the title search didn't involve a review of the articles of incorporation, bylaws, or the board's history. But the company that insured the city against title fraud and other title problems was satisfied and that was good enough for him, Vilarello reasons. "The city is protected," he assures. Still the investigations give him pause. "The fact that people are asking questions makes me a little nervous," he says.

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