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
The fate of Miami's brain center is on the line. At a special meeting September 7, city commissioners will decide whether to transform Miami Herald headquarters and surrounding property into three huge condos and a shopping mall.
Along with the midtown Miami juggernaut, it's perhaps the most extravagant development scheme of this wildly extravagant building boom. It's also a testament to the emergence of Greenberg Traurig managing partner and real estate lawyer Pedro Martin as the city's preeminent high-rise condo developer. In addition to remaking the Herald property, Martin's real estate company, Terra Group, plans to erect a 62-story monolith behind the historic Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard.
And that's not all. Terra is constructing 900 Biscayne Bay, a 1.5-million-square-foot condo near the American Airlines Arena; and Quantum on the Bay, a 698-unit high-rise adjacent to Margaret Pace Park. In 2004 Martin's company secured nearly a half-billion dollars in capital financing for both projects.
The tall, dapper Cuban-American is a philanthropist too. After buying the iconic Freedom Tower, where thousands of Cubans (including Martin) stopped after their escape from Fidel Castro's revolution, he donated it to Miami Dade College, which plans to convert the 255-foot-tall Mediterranean-style building into a museum and classrooms.
Martin's business deals even have star power. For the Herald project, he recruited Patricio Kreutzberger, son of Hispanic television star Don Francisco, as an investor.
"I have two, three billion in business going on right now," Martin says. "Ninety-five percent of it is in loans."
Given all of this, it's no surprise Martin was peeved and then angry when New Times confronted him last week with questions about his past involvement with two Lebanese-Colombian families named Saieh and Jaar. According to the newspaper El Pais, two members of each family are in jail in Colombia. They are suspected of laundering money for the Norte Valle Cartel, a crime syndicate accused of exporting more than $10 billion of cocaine.
According to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Armando Jaar, his brother Ricardo, Moises Saieh, and his brother Carlos are "specially designated narcotics traffickers." As a result, between last November and this past June, the office froze the American assets of 22 companies owned by the Saiehs and Jaars. Six of those firms list Martin as either agent or in two cases vice president. Indeed Martin recently spoke with federal drug agents about the families and referred them to a colleague when they needed a lawyer.
Martin is not under criminal investigation in connection with the Jaars and Saiehs.
"I have never done business with the Jaars and Saiehs nor have they invested one penny into my projects," Martin says emphatically. "I only represented them in a couple of real estate transactions a long time ago."
Martin recalls that in 1980 he was introduced to the Saiehs by another prominent Cuban-American real estate developer the late Carlos Salman. Back then Martin was a Greenberg Traurig junior associate. "The Saiehs were investing into one of Salman's shopping centers," Martin remembers. "They seemed like nice people."
In turn the Saiehs referred the Jaars, who were also investing in Miami real estate, to him, Martin says. "They had a supposed legitimate business in Colombia," Martin notes. "It was a men's clothing factory, I believe."
Martin insists he has had minimal interaction with the Lebanese-Colombians for the past 28 years and has had no significant interaction for the past decade. Florida incorporation records list Martin as the registered agent for Jacaria Florida from 1986 to 2005; Villarosa Investments Florida from 1986 to 2001; Karen Overseas Florida Inc. from 1987 to 2001; Granada Associates Inc. from 1992 to 2001; and Sunset & 97th Holdings LLC from 1999 to 2004. The last company owns a percentage of a shopping center at Sunset Drive and 97th Avenue.
According to OFAC spokeswoman Molly Millerwise, these companies were used as fronts to launder the Norte Valle Cartel's illicit proceeds. She declined further comment.
Moreover, Martin and Salman are identified as vice presidents of Elizabeth Overseas, a Panamanian firm owned by the Jaars and Saiehs that was tagged by OFAC. The two are also listed as VPs for ALM Investment Corp., a Miami company owned by the Jaars and Saiehs that operated from 1978 to 1992. The OFAC froze the assets of ALM's successor, ALM Investment Florida Inc. "Back in those days, some of my clients would ask me to be listed as a corporate officer ... in case a minor document had to be signed," Martin explains. "I did this for my clients as a convenience.... I did not perform any duties...."
Regardless, Martin continues, he has not had personal contact with the Jaars and Saiehs other than to refer them to one of his law firm colleagues. "They called me about a year ago and told me about their problems," Martin recollects. "I told them, 'I don't do criminal law, but I could refer you to other lawyers at Greenberg.' I mentioned Mark Schnapp."
Martin admits he began distancing himself from his dealings with the Jaars and Saiehs in the past year, as well as 300 to 400 other companies listed in the public record. He resigned as registered agent for Jacaria Florida 23 days after the company's president, Armando Jaar, was designated a narcotics trafficker by OFAC last November. This past August 15, Martin quit as the registered agent and VP for ALM Investment Corp., which was administratively dissolved fourteen years ago.
"I resigned just in case someone like you would try to make something of it," Martin relates.
This past August 11, investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration met with Martin at his Brickell Avenue office to ask him about the Jaars and Saiehs. "They asked me if I knew any of these other people I have never met before," Martin says. "I spoke to the agents because I had nothing to hide." (A DEA spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the meeting.)
Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor, says since he began representing the brothers, Martin has had zero involvement with the Jaars and Saiehs. "Pedro wouldn't know about any of this stuff going on with OFAC," Schnapp insists. "This sounds like someone is trying to inflict damage on Pedro."
Martin shares the sentiment. "I've formed hundreds of companies over the past 25 years," he says. "To me, [your writing this story] is just a way to hurt me. There is nothing there."