Grand Theft, Church
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 Times reporter 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.
"If this were a scheme to jack up the price of this thing," says one law-enforcement source familiar with the case, "and then to move the money from a charity to private people and split it among themselves, then you've got a problem. Because ultimately at the end of the day this money is taxpayer money."
Federal and state criminal investigators are now trying to find out exactly who ended up with that $252,000. About $109,000 is unaccounted for. In Florida grand theft of over $100,000 is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. People convicted of stealing $5000 to $100,000 can spend a maximum of fifteen years in jail.
Siskind has declined to say how much money from the Divine Mission deal went to him. In August he told the Miami Herald that some of what he did receive was to reimburse him for plumbing, electrical, and carpentry work on the building before it was sold. But there is evidence Siskind received between $20,000 and $30,000 in taxpayer money from the sale, says the law-enforcement source. New Times asked Siskind to explain his payoff from the sale, but at press time he had not responded.
The Divine Mission purchase is a small but revealing fraction of the approximately $20 million in redevelopment spending that Commissioner Teele has orchestrated since taking over as CRA chairman in 1997. A CRA audit due out this week was expected to call about $12 million of that amount into question. Under Florida law a CRA is a way for municipalities to use revenue to revitalize economically depressed urban zones. Miami's CRA dates back to 1981; it now has about seven million dollars to spend in the Overtown area. The CRA's governing board, which consists of Miami's five city commissioners, approves how the money is spent. As chairman, Teele has controlled the agenda and spending with little resistance until recently.
Over two decades of CRA history, the Church of Divine Mission persevered in various stages of dilapidation, like many a ghetto refuge for the destitute. In 2003, under CRA ownership, it is in worse condition than ever. On a recent morning Leo Casino leads a reporter through a large opening someone cut in a new chainlink fence the CRA installed to secure the lot. The plywood intended to block entry via the windows and doors are loose. Casino knocks on the loosened board at the entrance of one ground-floor apartment and peeks in. The slumbering homeless couple inside graciously allows the visitors to enter. The floor is strewn with leaflets, textbooks, and trash a foot deep. Among the debris are copies of King's self-published 1997 pamphlet Black-ology, one of whose various subtitles is: "Human Insanity, Everybody Wants to be White and Nobody is." Casino leans down and picks up a battered tome. "A Bible," he notes, and places it on the sill of one of the boarded-up windows.
Back outside, a thin homeless man carries a plastic milk crate stuffed with more papers and flyers. Casino sifts through the crate, discarding items into a grocery cart. But one typewritten page catches his eye: "Re: Church of the Church of Devine [sic] Mission. Friday, December 1, 2000. Meeting among Martin Siskind, Charles King [Siskind's Advocacy Foundation accountant], and Muriel King. Setting: a restaurant." They discussed changing the articles of incorporation to allow themselves to be "paid for services rendered."
Few would have grasped the meaning of the minutes on this crumpled page. But for Casino they are further proof of what he had known all along: Siskind and Muriel had plotted to steal the Church of the Divine Mission by taking over its board of directors.
Unfortunately church founder Clennon King, who had final say over his corporate officers, is no longer around to rectify the situation. "His Divine Darkness," as he called himself, met the Holy Ghost in February 2000 at age 79, after a rich life of bizarre yet earthly confrontations in the struggle for civil rights. Among his first documented exploits was his attempted enrollment at the University of Mississippi in 1958, when Ol' Miss still did not admit blacks. State authorities responded with one of the most fabled Catch-22s of the civil rights struggle, claiming that only a crazy black man would try that. They enrolled him instead in a mental hospital for two weeks. In 1960 King ran for president of the United States on the Afro-American Unity Liberation Party ticket. He tried for governor of Georgia in 1970. But his most famous maneuver was his 1976 attempt to become a deacon at Jimmy Carter's Baptist church just before election day. The church leaders rebuffed King, citing a policy that barred blacks and civil rights activists, and the ensuing media scandal forced Carter to quit the church.
His arrival in Overtown was the product of a disastrous effort to run simultaneously for several local political offices in Georgia. According to a 1982 Newsweek article, King made "a decidedly illegal campaign promise: that he would give $100 to anyone who voted for him. When he was found guilty of election violations, the judge offered him twelve months' probation, but King insisted on going to jail. He apparently had a quick change of heart, however, because he skipped to Miami -- where he filed for a Congressional seat. His bid ended when his check for the $3000 qualifying fee bounced." King acquired the Divine Mission apartment building in Overtown in 1981.
Lawyer Toby Brigham remembers getting a phone call in 1983 from "a man who said he was a preacher and that the police were knocking down the doors of his church and would I come. And it turned out to be Reverend Clennon King." (Brigham specializes in getting top dollar for people whose properties are acquired by governments for public purposes, a process known as eminent domain.)
After the reverend's call the attorney headed over to 910 NW Second Ct. "Code enforcement officers were there with the police because the building had a lot of violations of the minimum housing code," Brigham recalls. "The Herald had come out with some very sensational stories juxtaposing 'Church of Divine Mission' with the condition of the building, which was less than divine. And I called them and said, 'I don't understand why you're doing this because Reverend King, as best I can determine, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and clothes the naked. And he's doing something good.'"
A judge granted an emergency injunction on the violation fines so that the church could seek a loan to help fix the building. United National Bank (now Mellon United National Bank) extended $87,000. "We got a contractor and they put the building in like-new condition," Brigham says. "Reverend King was a very unusual man, but he was devout to his cause and he felt he was on a divine mission to help out as he could."
Dwight Hill, the banker who processed the loan, also remembers King fondly. "He was a character and a half," he says. "You know one day he showed up in my office and he's got this purple sash and he puts it around me and says, 'I'm conferring a doctorate of divinity on you from our church.' It was interesting."
As rare as the reverend were the articles of incorporation he wrote for the Church of the Divine Mission. The church's purpose was "to serve here in Miami, Florida and throughout the world as a pure and perfect manifestation of the living body of Jesus Christ," the articles stated. But the document also accepted such earthly realities as state and federal laws, and through various amendments specified that if sold, all proceeds "must go" to "such organizations as are tax-exempt." In addition the church's original bylaws forbid church officers from receiving any part of the church's "wealth or income," except for "official expenses previously approved." The bylaws also prohibited sale of Divine Mission property "for personal profit." But the bottom line was this: The articles stated that the church could not sell or buy property without "the full approval of The Founding Minister."
So when the reverend transcended this world, things got tricky. Under state law only the Divine Mission board in place at the time of the reverend's death was empowered to determine the corporation's fate. According to state records, Muriel was not on the board then. Leo Casino, however, was, along with David Cohn, a 50-year-old doctor who works at Mount Sinai Hospital on Miami Beach. Cohn visited Clennon King about a dozen times in 1999 after the minister had become bedridden from prostate cancer. "I'm a liberal from New York and I saw this as a great opportunity to help the community," Cohn recounts. "And I said, 'What are you going to do with this when you're gone?' And we talked about that." Cohn says he and the minister both thought the building should become some kind of community center. "That's why he put me on the board of directors. [He thought] some white Jewish doctor from New York, a liberal guy, maybe would be another steadying force for whatever dream he had."
Also on the board at the time of King's departure: his sister Valencia Nelson, who lived in Alabama; Clifford Bell, a doctor in Arizona; and Antoinette Keaton, who lived at the Divine Mission building and helped the reverend aid the destitute.
By February 2001, a year after the reverend's death, the Divine Mission records had morphed. The board had been expanded to include Muriel and a brother named Lee King. Replacing Clennon King's name as registered agent: Martin Siskind. Clennon King's name still appeared as a director. The document was signed by Muriel and Siskind, who wrote the word "manager" next to his signature.
Cohn eventually learned from Casino that a coup d'état had occurred and they were no longer on the board. "Martin Siskind I guess strong-armed or whatever the term is, changed things around, and then we were out," Cohn says. "And you know there was no board meeting [in which] we were taken off. We just one day were out."
Sometime after the reverend's death Siskind gained access to the Divine Mission's bank account at Mellon United National Bank. Dwight Hill, the bank executive, says he met with Siskind several times regarding the account. Under what authority was Siskind able to use it? "He had authorizations from Muriel King," Hill replies. "In what fashion I don't know." Hill declined to comment further about the account, citing the bank's confidentiality rules.
Muriel and Siskind moved ahead on the sale. In September 2001 the Florida Department of State received a new amendment to the Divine Mission's corporate articles. It was signed by Muriel and contained quite different destinations for the church's assets. "Upon a dissolution," the document stated, "all proceeds and assets shall be divided and awarded to a maximum of three nonprofit organizations approved by the board of directors unanimously." It also opened the way for Siskind and Muriel to reap some of the money. Before the corporation was dissolved, the amendment continued, all of its debts needed to be satisfied, including expenses incurred by board members or "management." It also required "reasonable compensation" for them. The document noted that the amendment was adopted on May 26, 2001, and added that "the number of votes cast for the amendment was sufficient for approval." It did not state the number or identity of board directors.
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.
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 not the 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 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.
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.
Siskind begins to recap how his involvement with the church began when he met King's son, Earnest. The Advocacy Foundation president, who refers to the apartment building as a "house," is prone to shouting.
"Everybody knows this," he huffs. "I saw Earnest King. Earnest King was laying on the street! He was evicted out of his house! I saw his paintings, his art. I've been involved in art all my fuckin' life! I don't con nobody! So the fuckin' articles that those two [New Times] scumbags wrote -- they're lyin' bastards."
He lowers his voice. "I never saw him [Earnest] in my life until then. I met him, I said, 'What's an artist like you doing on the street?' We talked. I said, 'What's the problem?' He told me. I said, 'Well look, I'll pay your lawyer's fees and see if I can get you back in if what you told me is true!' ... We went to court, went before a judge."
Working himself into another tantrum, he accuses Casino of forging documents in an effort to take over the church, then retracts the allegation. "This guy, this lyin' bastard Casino.... He forged documents after the man was dead, after the rabbi was dead, and tried to take over the building.... That's how Earnest was on the street and everything else. I'm not saying he [Casino] forged it. Somebody forged [it]. [Because] when you're dead you can't sign anything.... Anyway, to make a long story short, they [the lawyers] said [to Earnest] you go back in the house. So they ordered him back in the house. That was the end of Casino. I never saw him again, except he was going to sue me for $20 million and the Mellon Bank for $20 million. All kinds of crazy bullllllshit. And that was it.
"Is that still recording? [Pointing to tape recorder.] Okay. What are you going to do with that recording now? I'm talking to you. I mean, you can't write? You don't want to write this down? Or you're not literate, or what? I'm asking you a question. Did you tell me you were going to record me? I'd like you then, to start it again." The reporter declines to rewind the tape and start over. "It's been nice talking to you," Siskind huffs, then turns and opens the office door.
Outside he responds to one last question. Did he illegally take over the Divine Mission board? "Me?" he replies. "Sick!" And he disappears into the Advocacy Foundation's warehouse.
According to state records, Church of Divine Mission, Inc. was dissolved this past September 19.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.