Raul Martinez Run Hialeah as a Criminal Enterprise, Reported New York Times (Flashback 1996)
|Who is former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez?
In 1996, these were the news about Raul Martinez. It might have been very difficult for the leftist New York Times to report on its fellow leftist’s criminal behavior.
Another Round in Court For a Charismatic Mayor
April 29, 1996
HIALEAH, Fla., April 28— Sitting among members of the City Council at a night meeting last week, Mayor Raul L. Martinez tangled with residents over zoning variances, presented commendations to police officers, and otherwise presided over Hialeah business as he has for most of the last 15 years.
But these days he spends most of his workdays in another role, that of defendant in a trial in which he is accused of running Florida’s fifth-largest city as a criminal enterprise.
The trial is Mr. Martinez’s third on the same Federal corruption charges. The first, in 1991, ended in a conviction on six counts of extortion and racketeering that was later overturned because of flawed jury instructions and misconduct by jurors. His retrial last month ended in a hung jury.
But indictments and trials have hardly diminished the appeal of the charismatic, pothole-conscious Mayor in Hialeah, a working-class, mostly Hispanic city of about 220,000 people northwest of Miami. Since the early 1980’s, when he first came under criminal investigation, he has been re-elected four times. When his victory in the 1993 election was nullified by a state judge who found widespread fraud in absentee ballots, Mr. Martinez won the special election that followed by a wider margin.
Such Teflon-like qualities are not unusual here. Mayor Henry Milander twice was re-elected by landslides despite a conviction for conspiracy and grand larceny; he died in office in 1974 after a 30-year tenure. Mr. Martinez was suspended in 1990 as a result of his indictment but resumed his duties when he was re-elected in 1993.
Longtime residents and south Florida historians say that although Hialeah has been vastly transformed from the poor Southern white enclave that grew around the well-known race track, its core has remained blue collar. It became the first stop for recent arrivals from Cuba and, increasingly, other Latin American countries because of its affordability and the availability of jobs at the Miami International Airport nearby, as well as at Hialeah’s hospitals, textile companies and other light industries.
They say residents are more interested in low taxes and timely garbage collection than questions of mayoral integrity. Many praise Mr. Martinez, 47, for good administration, for taking the city out of debt, for attracting business and for returning their phone calls.
“I don’t think any politician is honest, and he is no more corrupt than others,” said Lino Hernandez, who has lived in Hialeah for 30 of his 66 years. “Here you see everything clean and neat. He is accessible. If you have a problem, you go see him and he receives you.”
Assistant United States Attorney Richard Gregorie told the latest jury in opening statements last week that Mr. Martinez won office in 1981 at the age of 32 vowing to purge the city of its dirty politics. At the time Mr. Martinez, who came to Florida from Cuba in 1960, was a real estate broker and publisher of a Spanish-language weekly, El Sol de Hialeah, now run by his wife, Angela.
But instead, Mr. Gregorie said, Mr. Martinez became “the biggest knuckle-dragger in Hialeah.” Prosecutors say that from 1981 to 1987 he traded his influence on zoning matters for favorable land deals from developers.
Mr. Martinez’s lawyer, Jose Quinon, told jurors that Mr. Martinez had a right to make business deals and that the deals were private matters among friends that did not involve any promises of special treatment from the Mayor.
Back in his City Hall office, Mr. Martinez painted a tale of political intrigue to explain what he called persecution by the United States Attorney’s office.
A Democrat, Mr. Martinez has always contended that in the late 1980’s Dexter W. Lehtinen, who was then United States Attorney, went after him, seeking to remove him as a possible challenger for a Congressional seat being sought by Mr. Lehtinen’s wife, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican. She won the seat left vacant by the death of Representative Claude Pepper in 1989. Mr. Lehtinen, now in private practice, denies the accusation. He says that a Federal investigation of Mr. Martinez started before he became United States Attorney and that the decision to prosecute was made by the Justice Department in Washington, as is always the case when bribery charges against a public official are involved.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Gregorie indicated that Mr. Martinez had engaged in some intrigue of his own. The Mayor, the prosecutor said, was quick to mediate disagreements over bribes between developers and Council members and to quell opposition to projects he favored.
Once, according to an anecdote cited by Mr. Gregorie, the goings-on took on the flavor of a spy novel when Mr. Martinez sent an associate to quiet down the leader of a homeowners group who was critical of a development. The advocate’s name was Naranjo, drawn from the word for orange in Spanish.
“I’m at the fruit stand and the fruit is ripe,” Mr. Gregorie said the associate reported to Mr. Martinez over the telephone after persuading the advocate to drop his opposition.
The last jury, however, found the proof of criminal behavior lacking; it voted 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal, and the trial ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors, who are asking the judge for a broad interpretation of extortion in his jury instructions, say that despite Mr. Martinez’s successful appeal of the first conviction and the hung jury last month, there is sufficient evidence to convict again.
Mr. Martinez, who says he has spent more than $500,000 fighting the charges (and for the first time has hired a jury consultant), disagrees. “If the conviction were valid I would be in a correctional facility,” he said.
Although many residents are outraged at the persistence of the Federal Government, support for the Mayor is far from unanimous as Mr. Martinez sits in the courtroom again. Some worry that city business is not getting his full attention while he fights the charges. Those who said they had stopped voting for him long ago criticize the city’s blighted look and hodgepodge development, which mixes residential and commercial buildings with no apparent planning.
“It’s overpopulated and overdeveloped,” said Sandra Draper, a 30-year-old native. “It’s ugly. Yeah, people say he’s good. But look at Hialeah. You tell me.”
Another longtime resident, Jose Lorenzo, 66, said he and others he knows had been asked for money by city inspectors and other workers to get permission for construction changes to a home. He blames Mr. Martinez for the presence of corrupt workers in city government.
“City Hall is full of those because the boss is corrupt,” he said.
Nilo Juri, a garment manufacturer and frequent Republican mayoral candidate who has lost to Mr. Martinez four times, says his losing margin has shrunk over the years because “people do want a change.” Not surprisingly, his platform includes a call for term limits.
But Mr. Martinez plans to complete his term, which expires in 1997, and focus on road expansion and traffic enforcement if acquitted. He sees his role mainly as providing city services.
“Our major problem,” the Mayor insisted, “is gridlock on the roads.”
Photo: It was business as usual for Mayor Raul L. Martinez of Hialeah, Fla., at a City Council meeting on Tuesday, but he spent much of the rest of the week in court, on trial for the third time on corruption charges. (Andrew Itkoff for The New York Times)