Cleared but Still Not Clean
The week before county Manager Merrett Stierheim left office, he picked up the phone in an effort to right a wrong that has festered for nearly three years. He called Lee Martin, who in April 1998, following a scandalous controversy, was suspended without pay from his post as Miami-Dade County's top building official. Even though Martin eventually was cleared of any wrongdoing, he remained suspended without pay, which impelled him to sue the county. Stierheim had hoped to find a way to settle the lawsuit. "I called Lee voluntarily out of compassion," says the ex-manager. "If a settlement could be worked out, I would be supportive."
While the two sides are scheduled to meet this Monday, March 12, it is unlikely any agreement could repair the damage done to Martin's reputation or return him to the position he once held. Tried and convicted in the court of public opinion by the State Attorney's Office, Martin was denounced as a symbol of government corruption and abuse of power; he even faced jail time for his role in the troubled construction of Dadeland Station, a shopping center on county land leased to a private developer. Simultaneously Martin was forced to do battle with state regulators who wanted to strip him of his professional license in an unrelated matter involving construction at the county seaport. In December 1998 an administrative-law judge exonerated him in the seaport matter, but it would take another year for the SAO to drop the criminal charge stemming from Dadeland Station. When the county didn't promptly lift Martin's suspension, he sued.
Martin's lawyer, Gary Goldman, is a builder himself, and that helped him understand the intricacies of both cases, which involved esoteric details of construction and regulations spelled out in the South Florida Building Code. Goldman, who says prosecutors "hung a Boy Scout" when they went after Martin, dismisses the Dadeland Station charge as "sophomoric."
Lee Martin's troubles began in 1996. He had come to the county three years earlier as permit-control division chief in the former Department of Building and Zoning. (It since has been divided into two departments: the Building Department and the Department of Planning and Zoning.) When Martin took the job, residents still were struggling to obtain permits for home repairs in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. "It was quite a shock to get out of the elevators on the tenth floor of county hall and see that it was wall-to-wall people penned in like cattle," he recalls.
An architect by trade, Martin had public-administration experience from previous jobs with Palm Beach County and in his native Ohio. He was hired by Miami-Dade to speed up plan processing and to standardize inspections. The building department had long been criticized by homeowners and the construction industry for being a slow-moving bureaucratic morass. Yet the construction flaws revealed in the hurricane's devastation led to a renewed emphasis on safety and accountability. The tension between these two roles -- policeman and facilitator -- haunts the building department to this day, and Martin's efforts to walk the line between them would contribute to his downfall.
In January 1996 Martin was promoted to the county's chief building official, which made him responsible for overseeing all inspectors and plan reviewers. He also inherited major trouble. His predecessor, Carlos Bonzon, had reached an agreement with seaport director Carmen Lunetta to fast-track construction of two cruise-ship terminals at the port, and so the work proceeded without proper permits, a violation of the South Florida Building Code.
Martin says he assumed all appropriate permits were in order because Bonzon had authorized construction. When he discovered that wasn't true, he could have shut down the job. Instead he expedited inspections so the permits could be issued, a move that later was criticized. State regulators investigated and charged him with eleven counts of misconduct and negligence. Bonzon, also charged, forfeited his professional license to settle his case, but Martin, certain he had done nothing wrong, decided to fight. His case finally was resolved in December 1998, when administrative-law Judge Linda Rigot emphatically declared Martin's innocence. She found that most of the alleged wrongdoing had occurred when Martin had neither authority over nor responsibility for the project. Furthermore, she noted, the terminals presented no threat to the public. By that time, however, Martin had bigger worries than the seaport: He already had lost his job and was facing the prospect of jail after being charged in the Dadeland Station case.
This was another project Martin had inherited when he became the county's top building official. Developer Jeffrey Berkowitz had won county approval to build a multilevel shopping center on public land adjacent to the South Dadeland Metrorail station at Kendall Drive and South Dixie Highway. By the time Martin took over, structural plans had been approved, and the complex was under construction.
In the fall of 1996, a county plan reviewer named Mohammed Partovi, while examining Dadeland Station's technical drawings, spotted serious problems with the joists, which already had been installed. Based on his inspection, additional supports were added to the building. Three structural engineers approved the repairs. Pending Partovi's final review, Martin issued a temporary certificate of occupancy for the first floor of Dadeland Station. This would be his alleged crime. By December, with Partovi's blessing, the rest of the retail complex opened to the public.
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.
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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