A Bird Gets Burned

When the clerk called Tony Martin's name in federal court Monday, the football star, dressed elegantly in a casual brown suit and dark-brown suede shoes, just nodded. "Indicate your presence," Barry Garber, magistrate judge, prodded. "Please raise your hand."

Martin, a Miami native and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver, lifted his hand briefly, revealing shackles that linked him to another defendant. This was the same hand that helped catch five passes in the Falcons' Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos.

This past Friday a grand jury indicted Martin for helping to launder drug money for Rickey Brownlee, his long-time friend and a twice-convicted drug dealer. Martin faces one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of money laundering, and three counts of engaging in monetary transactions in criminally derived property.

On Monday Martin flew from Atlanta to Miami and surrendered to federal marshals. After he paid a $250,000 bond and exited the courthouse, he met with reporters. "I just want to say I'm not guilty of any crime," he said softly. His lawyer Roy Black added: "He was just trying to help a friend. He did not profit in any way." Los Angeles lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who successfully defended O.J. Simpson in a 1995 murder trial, will help Black and his colleague Howard Srebnick defend Martin. Cochran was not in town Monday.

It is no coincidence that Martin was charged a week after his Super Bowl appearance. "This case was ready for indictment two weeks ago," says a federal source close to the case. "But we thought it would be unfair and inappropriate to do this before the biggest game of this guy's life. This could wait." U.S. Attorney Tom Scott helped make the decision, the source confirmed. Scott could not be reached for comment.

The announcement of the charges was muted compared with some recent celebrity indictments. Prosecutors did not hold a press conference and declined comment after Martin's court appearance.

Starting in 1994 Martin leased three cars for Brownlee, prosecutors charge. After Brownlee, a popular 41-year-old Opa-locka businessman, was charged with drug trafficking in January 1998, Martin tried to pay for his friend's legal defense.

Because Martin has no criminal record and did not clearly profit from his alleged crimes, some supporters are howling that the wide receiver's career is being unfairly damaged.

"I think people will still love and receive him here," says DJ Al B. Sylk. "People are going say, 'You can't tell me who my friends are.'" On his show Monday night on 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1), Sylk asked listeners to answer the question, "Are you the company you keep?" a veiled reference to Martin's friendship with Brownlee.

But a federal source, who asked not to be identified, said Martin's actions couldn't be dismissed as mere fraternity. "He took dirty money from a drug dealer to facilitate that drug dealer's lifestyle." Money launderers are crucial to the success of the drug business, the source added.

Martin and Brownlee have long known each other. According to friends, the drug dealer helped Martin through college and routinely loaned him money years ago.

Martin first came under suspicion soon after the arrest of Brownlee and three codefendants. While searching several buildings allegedly used by Brownlee this past year, agents discovered records they believed showed suspicious transactions involving Martin. The DEA handed the information to the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, which opened their own investigations. Using surveillance and wiretaps, the feds built the following case: Martin accepted Brownlee's alleged drug profits, disguised them as his own money, and allowed the drug dealer to benefit.

Brownlee had to disguise the drug profits to avoid suspicion, prosecutors say. In 1994 he officially earned only $2000 per month at an Opa-locka seafood store.

More specifically, according to the indictment:
*On February 7, 1994, Martin leased a $38,924 Acura Legend, writing an initial check for $13,270. On February 9 Martin deposited $12,900 into his bank account. Brownlee, the government claims, drove the Legend, made the lease payments, and kept the car registered in Martin's name.

*On June 20, 1995, Martin paid to lease a new $52,975 Mercedes Benz E420 with a $10,825 personal check. Two days later Martin deposited $10,700 in his checking account, and Brownlee drove off in the Mercedes. Again the drug dealer made the lease payments and kept the vehicle registered in Martin's name.

*On May 14, 1996, Martin leased a $91,495 Mercedes Benz 500 SL; he paid with a $21,186 check. Brownlee took possession of the car, made the lease payments, and kept it registered in Martin's name. Then, seven days after the feds arrested Brownlee on January 22, Martin picked up the Mercedes from Brownlee's mother's home in Opa-locka.

*In February 1998 prosecutors allege Brownlee asked Martin to pay his lawyer's fees. Brownlee's lawyer at the time, Milton Hirsch, was careful about the payment. The contract Brownlee and Martin signed with Hirsch on February 10 read: "Undersigned represent that no portion of any money given for fees or costs [are] the proceeds of a crime." Martin wrote a check to Hirsch for $175,000. The feds say that Brownlee's associates repaid Martin $100,000 on March 5. They vowed to pay the rest later that week. On March 10, after learning that a grand jury had subpoenaed his bank records, Martin stopped payment on the check. Hirsch then sued the football star. Hirsch has resigned from the case.

Since New Times revealed the feds were investigating Martin ("Friends in Low Places," October 1, 1998), his family, friends, and media across the country have awaited the evidence. Indeed many were surprised to see the indictment showed Martin (who makes two million dollars per year) lost money in the transactions --- at least $495 in the difference between the checks he signed for the cars and the money he later deposited. Moreover, if Martin was never reimbursed for the last car lease, he may have lost $21,000.

Rapper Luther Campbell, a friend of Martin, criticized the charges: "He's a decent guy. He didn't turn his back on a friend."

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten

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