Exclusive: Marlins Construction Group Gave Thousands to Commish Who Approved No-Bid Deal

Joe Martinez seems a forthright and resolute guy. He was the first Hispanic elected by his peers to be county commission chairman. He publicly supported the highly unpopular John McCain for president. And he pushed to strip Jose Canseco's name from a stretch of SW 16th Street after the slugger admitted to juicing.

So it was exceedingly odd when, on March 23, he voted against the new $636 million ballpark for the Florida Marlins and then minutes later cast a ballot to award a no-bid stadium construction contract to a joint venture called Hunt/Moss.

How to explain that flip-flop?

"I was against the stadium funding," Martinez says. "But Hunt/Moss... seemed very qualified to me."

Here's what Martinez doesn't mention: He has accepted thousands of dollars in donations from half of the joint venture -- Fort Lauderdale's Moss & Associates -- a company with a history of violating campaign finance laws and a record of complaints about shoddy work.

Now taxpayers are on the hook for more than $2 billion in long-term debt, tying the local economy into a construction deal with Hunt/Moss that could have dire consequences if the project comes in late, over budget, or poorly built. That reality has plan opponents fuming.

"This whole deal has taught me... how our system really works," says Michael Burnstine, an insurance salesman who founded a grassroots group to fight the stadium plan. "It's not about protecting the taxpayers; it's about getting re-elected."

Bob Moss, president of Moss & Associates, meanwhile, vigorously defends his company's record and says there have been only "tiny tidbits" of problems. His partner -- Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group -- has a long record of success, including stadiums for the Washington Nationals and Arizona Cardinals. "Why don't we focus on the last five years, when we've been one of the best in the business?" he says.

Moss, a Charlotte, North Carolina native with a honeyed Southern drawl, moved to South Florida in 1986 when he was hired by Centex, a national construction company, to be CEO of a local affiliate, Fort Lauderdale-based Frank J. Rooney Construction. Soon the firm became one of the heavyweights in the South Florida construction business, with tens of millions of dollars in contracts for schools, jails, and housing projects.

But there was controversy. In 1994, a $71 million Palm Beach County jail built by Centex-Rooney came in ten months late and cost hundreds of thousands in extra consultants' fees. According to a Sun-Sentinel story at the time, headlined "Shoddy Work, Flawed Plans Delay Building," dozens of minor problems -- from flooring that wasn't installed properly and had to be reworked to a security system that needed extensive retooling -- held up completion for months. Moss today terms it "a very successful job."

In 1997, Centex-Rooney collaborated with Hunt -- the same Indianapolis-based company under contract for the Marlins stadium -- to build the Florida Panthers arena in Sunrise. The management team earned stinging criticism from county leaders, including Broward Commissioner John Rodstrom, for missing deadlines to hire enough women- and minority-owned firms.

Bob Moss points to his firm's performance -- the arena opened on schedule and on budget with few accidents. "It's one of the best-designed and -built arenas in the nation," he says.

Beginning around this same time in 1997, Bob Moss decided to build stronger bridges with Florida politicians, an internal investigation led by Centex-Rooney's corporate parent found.

According to a letter Centex submitted to the Federal Election Commission in 2003, Moss told employees to give money to campaigns "as a means of relationship building."

At the end of each year, employees would hand Moss copies of checks they had sent to candidates, and Moss would pay them back through year-end bonuses.

Moss also reimbursed himself through a similar scheme. Between 1998 and 2002, he personally gave more than $42,000 to Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, the Republican National Committee, Republican Senate candidate Bill McCollum, and others, according to Centex's investigation, and then repaid himself with company funds.

There was only one problem with the plan: It's illegal under federal election guidelines. When Centex honchos got wind of the program several years later, they launched an internal investigation. Moss's "employment [was] terminated," according to a March 24, 2003 letter to the FEC. The firm paid a $212,000 fine. Moss and five other executives also personally repaid $56,000 in illegal bonuses.

Moss says he left Centex voluntarily. He calls the FEC fines the result of a "bookkeeping problem" and contends he never told his employees which candidates to support.

"I resigned from Centex-Rooney, and I voluntarily went to the FEC. Basically, there were some records poorly kept on activities in the company... There was never a check given that matched up to individual donations," he says.

When he left Centex, Moss signed an 18-month noncompete promise. When the agreement ended in 2004, he founded Moss & Associates. Today, the firm claims to be the second-largest in South Florida, with 81 projects worth $1.6 billion completed in the past five years.

One of those projects -- the disastrous Tao Sawgrass Condominiums in Sunrise -- has become a new source of controversy for the builder. The twin 26-story luxury towers sit empty today, victims of the real estate bust and, according to project developer Harry Weitzer, Moss's shoddy construction. Weitzer says Moss's builders caused 29 separate incidents that led to insurance claims -- including a massive flood that ruined electrical systems and dozens of nearly completed units.

Weitzer claims Moss's negligence delayed the building's opening by months -- and led the bank to take over the building this past November. "The whole firm is incompetent," he says.

Moss acknowledges his crews had problems with water leaks, but he disputes Weitzer's claims that his construction was to blame for the project's failure. He says both parties agreed on an October completion date and that "every allegation by Mr. Weitzer is demonstrably false."

Regardless, there is no mention of construction controversies or FEC fines in Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess's March 23 recommendation that the commission appoint Hunt/Moss as the Marlins stadium's construction manager. Nor was there much discussion of these issues before the 10 to 3 vote.

Indeed, Joe Martinez says that before his flip-flop, no one from the county informed him about Moss's past violations. The commissioner also says he had no idea that Moss's top executives sent thousands of dollars into his campaign coffers last spring.

According to disclosure reports, in March 2008, Martinez received $500 checks from both Chad and Scott Moss -- Bob's sons and vice presidents at Moss & Associates. He also garnered $500 each from Ron Dunn, the company's executive vice president, and Bruce Moldow, the firm's chief legal counsel. Records show Martinez is the only county commissioner to take money from Moss execs last year.

Moldow, furthermore, was among the Centex-Rooney employees cited by the FEC in 2003. Chad Moss says he has never met Joe Martinez. "Simply put, a friend of mine asked me to donate," he says, adding he probably passed that recommendation on to his brother, Scott. "I'm sure [Martinez] doesn't even know who my brother and I are."

Chad Moss disputes the idea that his donations might have influenced Martinez to vote for the Hunt/Moss contract. "I doubt a thousand bucks would buy you much." His father, Bob, adds, "I don't know Martinez personally."

Indeed, despite all the acrimony, Martinez supports Hunt/Moss -- which was picked by the Marlins without the normal competition required under county guidelines. "I may question the administration about why this even needs to be a joint venture, but it wouldn't change my vote," he says.

Email the author at tim.elfrink@miaminewtimes.com

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