Grand Theft, Church

Ghetto redevelopment Miami style is anything but divine

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 Times contacted 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.

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

Edwards & Carstarphen, the private law firm the city attorney hired as a closing agent, started sending out checks totaling $252,000 in taxpayer money in May of last year. Pellerin got a $10,080 broker's fee. Another $69,000 went to the Mellon United National Bank to pay off the remainder of the loan from 1983. Another chunk went for title insurance and other closing costs. Muriel King received a check for $158,309 payable to Church of Divine Mission, Inc. She deposited it a month later at a San Diego branch of the University and State Employees Credit Union. (The city's closing attorney, Deborah Edwards, did not return calls for comment.)

How much Siskind received remains a mystery. But it is known that he persuaded CRA administrators to pick up the tab for a delinquent $5111 water and sewer bill the church owed Miami-Dade County. City commissioners later voted to eliminate the $123,750 in unpaid fines for code violations that had accumulated on the property.

When reached by phone at her home in Alabama, Valencia King Nelson, Clennon King's 76-year-old sister, insists: "We took all appropriate action." She complains that people are looking for something "scurrilous" where there isn't anything. And yet she does not recall participating in any votes to remove board members.

Reached by phone in San Diego, Muriel King is also reticent. She declines to specify where the money went. She also claims -- contrary to corporate records on file at the Florida Department of State -- that she was a board member at the time of her father's death and that Casino and Cohn were not. "Believe me, I examined those records, the board examined those records immediately after my father's death," she says. "We examined those records and as far as I'm concerned, as far as we're concerned, those individuals who claimed they were on the board did not end up being on the board until after my father's death." She admits that she participated in a meeting in which Casino, Cohn, Antoinette Keaton, and Clifford Bell were removed but would not say where or when it was held. (Bell did not return calls to his Arizona home. Keaton could not be located.)

Muriel declines to say how she became "authorized director" of Church of Divine Mission, Inc., but she does express disdain for Casino and Cohn. "If these people had some concern about what happened, why didn't they contact me or contact one of us?" she asks. "I was there in Miami on the day that my father passed away.... I had to make arrangements to get my father out of Miami, take him home, and not one person came forth to help me.... I also gave a memorial for an evening dinner for the people in the community to memorialize my father. And not one person contributed to that. So it just seems strange to me, this much time has passed and you have these people coming out of the woodworks trying to question what has occurred."

In fact city attorney Alex Vilarello's Divine Mission file shows that Casino came out of the woodwork immediately after the CRA purchase took place. That file contains a memo citing a complaint made by Casino that Teele and Siskind had "conspired to defraud" the church's members by "developing a fake board out of California."

Setting: A beige Wynwood warehouse at 2200 NW Second Ave. The building is headquarters for the Advocacy Foundation, Thriftopia (the nonprofit's secondhand store), and Artopia (an art gallery with studios). A New Times reporter arrives to see if Siskind will respond to Casino and Cohn's allegations that he stole the Church of Divine Mission. Siskind, a bearded, portly 62-year-old, launches into one of his favorite roles: sarcastic, unpredictable blabbermouth. "New Times!" he shouts snidely, then seethes about the newspaper's previous reports detailing some of his past schemes. Nonetheless he agrees to answer a few questions. He leads the reporter into a small room in the building and closes the door. The reporter starts his tape recorder and places it on a long wooden drafting table.

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