The Great Pretender
As a group of women and children gather this past September at a New Haven Gardens public housing community meeting in Little River, Martin Siskind bursts into the stuffy room with the flair of a thespian. The aspiring activist and devotee of seminal Twenties lawyer Clarence Darrow speaks in smooth forceful tones, waxing quixotic about battling injustice and the forces that keep Miami's most dispossessed citizens down. Siskind, a hefty white man in a scruffy tweed jacket and gold-tone tie, wears a weightlifter's leather belt around his ample belly just above his slacks. He tells the small group of mostly black women and children that some changes are about to take place in their community, beginning with the meeting room.
"We need to get computers in here, and a new air conditioner," Siskind declares before plunging into a parade of promises. With the help of his nonprofit organization, the Advocacy Foundation, New Haven Gardens soon will have a series of art and dance classes as well as after-school programs, Siskind tells the tenants. His convincing speech and vigorous manner are amplified by his glittering blue eyes and beads of sweat that dampen his brow. Siskind knows most of the women and their families by name from his regular rounds in Liberty City and Overtown neighborhoods. He is known for calling on public housing tenants who face evictions and offering legal help. Many believe he is a lawyer. After his fifteen-minute harangue, resident council president Zoretta Snell breathes a sigh of relief. Perhaps with Siskind's help, she ponders aloud, a real community will begin to take shape.
But what Snell and other residents do not know is that Siskind has a history of making promises he does not keep, under a variety of guises. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he's previously done business as a restaurateur and an antique dealer. He often brags about driving Formula One race cars and boxing in professional bouts. According to his own lore, he sold a villa on Ocean Drive to slain fashion designer Gianni Versace and owns a fabulous yacht and a horse ranch. Public records, however, show no property listed in his name other than a few automobiles.
But a closer look at the man reveals that tall tales about selling villas to Versace have been the least of his problems. Former business associates have unmasked several other less-savory personas. In reality Siskind's Advocacy Foundation has done little to help the poor. While he may talk the talk, Siskind is not a lawyer, nor is he a lot of things he has claimed to be in his past. What he is, in some people's minds, is a scam artist, and his latest incarnation as the downtrodden's advocate appears to be just one more facade.
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New Times has come across Siskind before. A cover story from 1992 detailed a host of Siskind's earlier schemes, such as running rental scams, selling stolen goods, not paying employees, and bilking money from investors for fake enterprises. He ducked a number of legal suits and slipped under the radar, only to resurface in the world of public housing and welfare-to-work programs. "I don't know what's right anymore," Siskind declares. "The only thing I see is what's wrong, and I'm going to try to do as much as I can to do something about wrongs wherever there is unbelievable housing and where there's jails full of poor people who are uneducated for the most part."
But despite his promises to New Haven Gardens, enhanced with teary-eyed tributes to civil-rights leaders, Siskind, the self-proclaimed CEO and director of the Advocacy Foundation, has succeeded in improving little. Months after his speech the community room remains barren, stale air circulates from the old wall unit, and there are no traces of computers or sports equipment. At dusk youngsters play around the unlit basketball court or just hang out on the sidewalks and parking lots of the townhouse-style community. He gains the friendship and trust of Miami's poor by introducing himself as an advocate for change, and many of his clients continue their relationship with him because they feel as though they owe it to him, or because they have nowhere else to turn. Some of the recovering addicts and alcoholics with whom he works at the Advocacy Foundation complain of Siskind's erratic and abusive behavior and his penchant for not paying them for working long hours.
In fact this foundation resembles a Siskind enterprise of old. While he managed to get funding from public agencies to help train and educate the underclass, so far the foundation appears to be a white elephant. Former employees say few people have been educated and that phony paperwork was filled out and trainees were fabricated to meet funding requirements. According to Brian Scott, the Advocacy Foundation's former case manager supervisor: "Everything that comes out of [Siskind's] mouth, 99.9 percent of it, is a lie."
In England, where he lived during the Seventies before moving to Miami, Siskind is considered more than a liar; he's also considered a crook. In 1984 he was convicted by a British court of "obtaining services by deception," "obtaining property by deception," and "evading liability by deception." He was sentenced and recommended for deportation from Britain.
Siskind says the charges stem from a $28 gas bill he refused to pay. He will not comment any further on the situation. "That was twenty years ago; I don't want to discuss that," he says. "I am a product of my experiences. It's a part of my life, and I'm not ashamed of my life."
In 1985 Siskind popped up in Miami, where he soon was back in business. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he developed a knack for freeloading from absentee landlords. In one incident reported in New Times, he moved into a North Miami mansion owned by Canadian sisters Madeleine Rodden and Yolande Thibeault, didn't pay rent, and sold the house's wares along with restaurant equipment at a garage sale at the now defunct Playboy Club. Melvin Kacher, a retired medical-supplies salesman who made money buying and reselling foreclosed homes, has similar stories about Siskind. Soon after they met in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, Siskind moved into one of Kacher's North Miami properties but never paid rent. He did, however, rent out the house to other tenants himself, without ever paying Kacher. When a potential buyer offered to purchase the home, Siskind blocked the deal. "Siskind was my worst nightmare," Kacher recalls from his Westchester home. "He got in the way; he lied. He had a million excuses for everything."
When Siskind took control of Coconut Grove's La Bread Station and Hallandale's Golden Bagel, both businesses quickly went under. He approached the heavily indebted owners and bragged about infusing millions into the struggling businesses to save them. Instead of turning a profit, he sank them by draining their assets and not paying bills or the employees. At La Bread Station Siskind convinced out-of-town investors to give him thousands of dollars to open an art gallery above the restaurant. The art never materialized, but that didn't stop him from continuing to bilk thousands of dollars from financiers. He never paid the backers their share of profits. And there were no profits because there was no gallery.
There were other soured deals, lawsuits, and angry creditors. That was more than a decade ago. Today Siskind lowers the tone of his voice and in a sibilant whisper defends himself. "They were lies, lies, bullshit, and lies," he hisses. "I saw how easy it was to be set up."
Siskind has moved on. He's turned his powers of persuasion away from the tonier sides of town to the inner city. His Advocacy Foundation has won federal and county grants from a welfare-to-work program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The foundation's Website describes a noble enterprise, a place for Miami's dispossessed to turn their lives around: "The Advocacy Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded on principles declared by Clarence Darrow to assist and educate individuals who find themselves in a system that has worked neither to their nor society's advantage. Originally dealing mainly with those involved in criminal conduct and drug addiction and those who face a hostile court system, both civil and criminal, the Foundation has grown to include social services as well as social justice."
Siskind says he began the organization about four years ago. In 1999 it got a boost when the Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES Coalition and county commissioners approved a $375,000 contract for the Advocacy Foundation to help people who were making the transition off welfare rolls (the money was not awarded as a lump sum, but would be spread out throughout the year as services were provided). That contract expired in September and has not been renewed. According to the agreement, however, WAGES, now called the Training and Employment Council of South Florida (TEC), paid the Advocacy Foundation hundreds of dollars every time a client enrolled or completed a part of his or her training. WAGES documents show that Siskind applied this year for almost $40,000 to train as many as 30 people. Of that amount $27,000 has been paid. The remaining $13,000 will not be paid, because Siskind has not submitted adequate documentation.
How did Siskind convince a public agency to throw him money?
He did file a well-defined curriculum of workshops that range from computer training to substance abuse counseling in order to win the WAGES contract. Siskind describes himself in the application as having "greater than 35 years experience in creating successful businesses, hiring and training employees, and advocating for opportunities for poor people to become self-sufficient." There is no résumé on file that details his experience, though. According to the proposal, the Advocacy Foundation is supposed to guide its clients to financial independence and security. The program starts with classes that teach welfare recipients how to apply for jobs and how to dress and conduct themselves at interviews. Siskind's proposal goes on to list some of the Advocacy Foundation's goals: "We propose to expand our business incubator program to work with 120 WAGES recipients during the next year. Of the 120, we believe that we will be able to start 50 microbusinesses (some with more than one participant) and place the other participants in employment directly related to future business opportunities."
True to Siskind's form, most of the plans failed to materialize. According to former Advocacy Foundation personnel, training sessions went unattended, and few of the clients existed outside enrollment applications. WAGES administrators apparently dropped the ball in both checking references on potential funding recipients and making sure that public money was being spent appropriately, if at all, on such projects.
Siskind says the programs fizzled because he invested more money than WAGES was willing to fund. "Some programs were successful; some were not," he admits. "WAGES was too expensive. The bureaucratic thing was too top-heavy."
Another explanation is that the welfare-to-work programs in Miami-Dade have been in flux this year. Since the Advocacy Foundation won its contract, the WAGES Coalition has been folded into the county's Training and Employment Council. The transition has meant that many of the programs are now supervised by different administrators.
Joseph Alfano, TEC's executive director, explains that the process of approving contracts has remained similar, even if its administration has not. To win a contract, a first-time applicant must submit a detailed proposal along with a list of references. The government agency then reviews the application and interviews the applicant's staff, tours the facility, and inspects training materials and curriculums. An organization is approved after a review of financial records.
According to an initial review, Siskind failed to provide WAGES inspectors with an operating budget, financial statements, or a letter of insurance, all of which are required, yet his foundation still was approved. While Siskind's group did file supporting documentation confirming participants in his program, the WAGES council did not check the filings thoroughly, confirms a former WAGES administrator who was familiar with the contract but who wishes to remain anonymous. "We funded them but we didn't keep close enough track of their curriculum," the administrator says.
Siskind also managed to slip through the review process because neither WAGES nor TEC had or have policies that examine the backgrounds of individual applicants. Alfano says TEC funds service providers according to their overall proposals. "When we deal with an organization, we deal with the organization, not an individual," he offers. "We try to watch every corner for the problematic. Whether some individual had something from the past, we just didn't come across it."
According to former Advocacy Foundation case manager supervisor Brian Scott's observations, the way Siskind obtained the funds was indeed problematic. He says he often was asked to fill in clients' names on the attendance rosters, though they failed to show up for training. "I wasn't going to do that," Scott says. "That's fraud."
Siskind puts the onus on Scott and other former employees who ran the employment and computer-training programs. He says three supervisors "who had their own agendas" stole thousands of dollars from the foundation and then took off. "If any paperwork was fixed, it was fixed by the people who we hired to do the job," Siskind postulates "I was not directly involved with the programs. They asked me not to get involved with it."
Before working with the agency, Scott had no experience with nonprofits. He met Siskind while he worked renting cars next to the Advocacy Foundation's warehouse. Although Scott was tentative about working with Siskind, he was won over by big talk. Siskind, employing one of his well-honed business tactics, dropped names of politicians, business executives, and community leaders in Overtown and Liberty City, giving the impression that they would be backers.
WAGES records show 29 clients registered for employment training, with just 12 of the enrollees completing the program. The agency received $567 when clients registered for services. It then would get $378 for completing half of the training and $945 for each person who finished the program. Scott, however, explains none of the programs fulfilled the plans that were outlined in the county contract. "There were supposed to be 34 people in the computer classes," Scott says. "But nobody showed up -- just one Cuban lady. The computer training classes were empty." After only two months Scott quit the Advocacy Foundation.
The TEC's Alfano gives a more watered-down version. "The previous contract was not successful," he says. "They did get a sizable amount of money to train 200 people yearly. But they only enrolled 29 or 30 clients." Although the group won a hefty contract, Alfano adds, WAGES would not have paid it in full, because Siskind would not have been able to present the documentation. "In reality it was not a success."
Other former Advocacy Foundation staffers say that instead of a methodical bilking of public funds, Siskind's agency suffers from too many lofty goals and poor management.
David Ziskind joined the staff in the fall of 1999, after a custody battle cost him not only six months in jail but his job at the University of Miami, where he worked as a behavioral psychology researcher. Ziskind recalls Siskind promising a career in an innovative agency that would help combat injustice among Miami's most destitute populations. In September 1999 he signed on as the Advocacy Foundation's director of behavioral research, a position that was titular in nature. In practice he wrote the proposals for funding and outlined the services that the Advocacy Foundation would provide.
But Ziskind soon realized that under Siskind's leadership, few of the programs he proposed would ever be established. Ziskind says that once the county contract was approved, it was glaringly obvious that nothing would get done. The programs were disorganized, he recalls, and few if any of the clients who were registered would show up for training. Still, the paperwork was filed, and the agency was paid.
Ziskind resigned in April after his pet project, a drug rehabilitation and prevention program, failed to materialize. Ziskind remains reluctant to explain the mismanagement of the agency in greater detail and considers the months he worked with Siskind a time he would rather forget. "I don't want any contact with him. Just talking about it is [a form of] contact," he says.
Despite the failed programs and an ongoing rotation of staff members, the Advocacy Foundation continues to operate. The nonprofit recently moved from its Eighteenth Street and NE Second Avenue location into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the Fashion District; the building currently stores piles of used clothes, furniture, and boxes of shoes. A small office tucked in a corner is where an assistant works and will act as a computer training center, according to Siskind. He also plans to use the space as a thrift shop/art studio that would become the primary funder of the organization. Without additional public funds the revenue from the sales along with private donations and loans will keep the agency afloat, Siskind speculates.
In the meantime Siskind continues to try and make inroads with Miami's poor communities. This summer Siskind worked with leaders in public housing projects in Overtown and Liberty City in a drive to gather information about residents. Yvonne Green, director of the Overall Tenants Advisory Committee (OTAC), which represents the county's 45,000 public-housing tenants, helped Siskind devise a survey of all recipients of government assistance in Miami's public housing projects. The survey includes residents' names and social security numbers as well as a listing of all the services they receive.
"I'm not really sure what he's doing with it," says Barbara Pierre, president of the Liberty Square Residents Council, referring to the survey and the information in it. "I don't know everything he does."
Pierre keeps up a working association with Siskind. Among the plans Siskind had for the Liberty Square neighborhood was a bus service that would shuttle residents to the Advocacy Foundation's home further south. He also suggested a slew of children's programs at community centers like the ones he proposed at New Haven Gardens. Pierre and other community leaders are eager for the services, but no one has seen any of Siskind's promises become reality. "He's wild; he talks a lot," Pierre says. "But he's good."
Others remain skeptical.
Sam Mason, an activist in Miami's black communities for more than twenty years, squints and tilts back his head at the mention of Siskind's name. "Siskind is a rattlesnake," Mason declares matter-of-factly. "He's a con man from the old school." Mason sensed Siskind was a smooth talker when he met him this year. With a grandiosity few have matched, Siskind dropped influential names, bragged of deep pockets, and once again quoted liberally from his idol Clarence Darrow. Mason was invited to work with the Advocacy Foundation, but he remained dubious. "I could tell he was reaching out for me, because a lot of people told him I'd make a good recommendation," Mason remembers. "I had a feeling. I could see he's talking a great deal, but he's not showing me anything."
Mason accompanied Siskind to a Miami-Dade Housing Agency meeting to lobby for HUD funds this past July. Siskind blustered on about connections with federal and county judges, as well as state legislators, says Mason. He told Mason he was expecting tens of thousands of dollars for a substance abuse program. After a couple of hours, the MDHA board approved a grant to the Advocacy Foundation. Siskind walked away with little more than $5000.
The meeting showed Mason that despite his talk, Siskind's words were hollow. "I said to him: This is bullshit,'" Mason recalls. "All the people you're supposed to know, and you don't know what kind of funding you're going to get?' He just wanted to grandstand. When we got outside the meeting, I asked him: How could you let them play with you like that?' He don't call me anymore."
Siskind's reputation stretches beyond community leaders. He is well-known on the streets of Miami's inner city. Many of the homeless people who have met him respond like Bowden, a homeless man living in an alley off Third Avenue and NW Ninth Street. "Martin Siskind? Oh, you mean the lawyer." Siskind cruises poor neighborhoods looking for people who have been evicted from apartments and are living on the streets.
One such person is Ernest King, a street painter whose father, Rabbi Clennon King, owned an apartment building on NW Eighth Street and Third Avenue. (Clennon King was one of Overtown's most famous residents, a political activist who made national headlines several times during his life. In the Fifties he was the first black man to apply at the University of Mississippi, after which he was said to have been ordered into a mental institution and then kicked out of the state. Before the 1976 presidential election he attracted attention again when he tried to desegregate Jimmy Carter's church in Plains, Georgia.) The rabbi died in 1999, leaving the property in the name of his nondenominational church, the Church of Divine Mission. Siskind met Ernest King after King had been kicked out of his father's apartment building and was living in the alley next to it. Siskind threatened to sue the church and its board of directors on King's behalf if they did not let him back into the apartments. The board, led by Sister Antoinette Keaton, a tenant of the apartments, relented.
Siskind's help did not end there, according to King. He was instrumental in getting King to be named artist in residence at the D.A. Dorsey House, a historical site across the street from the Clennon King Apartments, where he paints and helps take care of the house. King describes Siskind as a cross between a godfather and sugar daddy. He estimates Siskind has given him about $500 as well as a roundtrip ticket to Georgia so that King could attend his father's funeral. "[Siskind] kept me afloat and didn't let me drown out here," King says. "He comes by and asks me what do I need. He keeps my inspirations up."
King says he feels he owes Siskind for getting him off the street. He often helps at the Advocacy Foundation, moving supplies and furniture and painting without charging Siskind for his time. Since the two met, Siskind has been spending time at the King Apartments, acting as a manager and something like a counselor to the tenants. He has even joined with a local church to organize twice-weekly free dinners in front of the dilapidated building. At the dinners Siskind is approached by the apartment tenants for advice, or they ask him for a couple of dollars or a few cigarettes as church members sing on the lawn. The property sits a few blocks west of the Miami Arena area, where high-rises are rapidly being developed. The building boom is raising speculation that the Clennon King Apartments could become valuable property in the next five years.
"Everyone is starting to say, Watch that Martin -- he's trying to take your building,'" King says. "I get skeptical, but I trust him. I have to trust him."