Dozens of TV cameras pack into the front lobby of the Miami Police Department. Mayor Tomás Regalado leans over a podium and glares tough guy-style into the crowd. "This is not another scandal. This is not another black eye for the city," he proclaims. "This is something we promised the people of Miami, to look into wrongdoing in all departments."
Then he unveils his anti-corruption bounty: eight people, including four city employees, under arrest for defrauding and stealing from taxpayers.
Now, two months later, the sweep has fallen to embarrassing pieces. Charges against five of the suspects have been dropped. Those cases were so deeply flawed they earned public reprimands from both the State Attorney's Office and the FBI.
Even worse, New Times has learned the most ballyhooed bust — of former General Services Administration (GSA) deputy director Alex J. Martinez — looks like petty political payback. Martinez played a key role ten years ago in investigating Regalado for abuse of a city-issued gas card, the biggest scandal of the mayor's career.
Confirming the case: Three central witnesses against Martinez all had records that should have given the mayor's minions pause. "This all goes back to the gas card investigation, because it was a huge embarrassment for Regalado and he never forgot it," says Victor Morales, who worked with Martinez on the investigation. "Regalado went after Martinez as retribution."
If that's true, the mayor could face political censure or a judgment for misusing his position. "It would certainly give anyone pause that a politician appears to be directing a law enforcement agency," says Michael Band, a former top lieutenant in the Miami-Dade prosecutor's office. "That should not be allowed to happen. The potential exposure to the city is clear."
Regalado denies there was any connection between the corruption sweep and the GSA official's role in the gas card probe. "The mayor was not aware that Alex Martinez was involved in that investigation," says Pat Santangelo, the mayor's spokesman.
The Miami mayor was a well-known Spanish-language radio host before winning his first city commission race in 1996. He was famous for a quick wit, friendly manner, and outsider appeal. Three years later, prosecutors began investigating his use of a taxpayer-funded credit card.
Records showed Regalado was filling his Jeep's tank three times daily with twice its capacity. On a single day in August 1998, the Miami Herald found, he charged 65.7 gallons for his 23-gallon vehicle.
In early 1999, prosecutors began studying the situation and quickly turned to the GSA — in charge of city cars and fuel — for help, several sources claim. Martinez, then the department's assistant director, headed the effort.
Martinez was born in Cuba, moved to Miami at age 12 with his parents, graduated from Christopher Columbus High School, and earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Miami. In 1985, he took a job with the city; 12 years later, he was promoted to GSA assistant director. Co-workers say he was well respected.
"He was a good manager," says Richard Brioso, who spent five years as assistant to the GSA director but was later fired. "He worked his way into a good position there."
Martinez tapped his employee, Morales, who maintained the city's cars and gas cards, to assist in the probe. Morales says they delivered a damning report to investigators.
Though the future mayor was clearly caught in a lie about where and when he used the card, prosecutors ruled there was "insufficient evidence" to pursue criminal charges. The case was dropped in October 1999.
There's no direct evidence Regalado targeted Martinez for his involvement in the corruption probe. Yet there was whispering around the GSA almost from the April day that Regalado and his handpicked police chief, Miguel Exposito, accused the assistant director of grand theft for using city materials and workers to improve his house. It was payback, the employees said.
To those who had been involved, the news conference announcing the charges implied the mayor's intent for revenge. Exposito told reporters the GSA head was "missing," and Regalado told the Herald "he's, like, gone." Indeed, he had immediately resigned from the $130,000-per-year job.
But Martinez's son, Alex, says his dad was home suffering from a bad case of Montezuma's revenge. "All they had to do was knock on the door," he comments.
From the beginning, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle criticized the case. An FBI spokeswoman said the agency lost "credibility" by attending the news conference announcing the arrests.
Within weeks, charges were dropped against four of those charged. Last Thursday, prosecutors also dumped the Martinez case.
A New Times review of the case shows why. It was based on flimsy accusations by three GSA employees with questionable records and/or an ax to grind: Osmel Martinez, Domingo Jimenez, and Guillermo Fernandez. Here's how they break down:
• Osmel Martinez claimed he had built a $150 handicapped ramp for the GSA chief's mother-in-law. But he had been fired this past February. He had also compiled scores of complaints for verbal abuse and shoddy work. He told an evaluator that his bosses — including Alex Martinez — were trying to kill him in a "conspiracy."
• Jimenez claimed he'd made the boss a large wooden cross for Easter using city materials. But in 2008, Martinez had caught the GSA worker selling city scrap metal and keeping the profits. Jimenez wrote the city a $400 check in November 2008 and admitted in a signed affidavit that he had kept the money in his "personal bank account" for 40 days.
• Fernandez claimed to prosecutors he had done handiwork around Martinez's house in exchange for a promised promotion. He had been accused by a co-worker of stealing cast-iron fencing from the city and using it at his home. No criminal charges were ever filed.
"Any investigator could have seen that these were not credible witnesses from the outset," says Ed Martinez, a former prosecutor who represented the GSA assistant director in the case.
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Perhaps that's why police didn't include the State Attorney's Office in their early investigation. In dismissing the case against Martinez, prosecutors wrote that "the lack of documentation [and] conflict in testimony" made criminal charges impossible.
Last week, City Manager Carlos Migoya reportedly offered Martinez his job back. The former GSA assistant chief hasn't decided whether to return. His lawyer contends he's considering a lawsuit against the city: "Inside the police department, they're calling this whole thing Operation Fiasco. They had no basis for pursuing a case, and they rushed to arrest these guys for political gains only."
Exposito released a statement defending his department's handling of the probe, noting that prosecutors said they had "probable cause" to arrest Martinez. "This decision will not deter the Miami Police Department from its ongoing mission to root out corruption," he said.
If that's true, the mayor could face political censure or a judgment for misusing his position.