Suspended commissioner facing charges enters race to be Miami-Dade’s sheriff

By Charles Rabin, Miami Herald

Joe Martinez, the Miami-Dade commissioner suspended by the governor for his alleged participation in a public corruption scheme that prosecutors say netted him thousands of dollars, took a defiant pose before a bank of television cameras Tuesday morning, announcing his entry into a crowded field vying to become Miami-Dade County’s first elected sheriff in over 50 years.

Less than a half hour earlier, in a courtroom just a few feet from the commissioner and a gaggle of his supporters, Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Lody Jean said jury selection for Martinez’s trial would begin June 24.

“They don’t need a puppet there. They need someone who will represent the people,” Martinez said, admitting the timing for the announcement could have been better. “But I know I’m innocent. I know that for a fact.”

Under Florida law, a felony conviction would bar Martinez, 66, from the August Republican primary or the November general election — if he makes it that far. But a Florida attorney general’s opinion from 1977 leaves the door open for Martinez. That’s because a conviction isn’t considered final until he exhausts what would be an expected appeal should he be found guilty.

In a move out of Republican presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump’s playbook, Martinez, 66, brushed aside his upcoming criminal trial on felony charges of unlawful compensation and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation Tuesday morning, and refused to directly answer whether he’d continue his campaign if he were convicted.

“That’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen,” he said.

Martinez’s official entry into the sheriff’s race as a Republican candidate would make an already crowded field even more jumbled. He has until June 14 to qualify for the August primary. The general election against a Democratic challenger is scheduled for Nov. 5, the same day as the presidential election.

The job is expected to have a base salary of about $255,000.

Martinez was considered one of the early favorites in what will be the first sheriff’s race in Miami-Dade since the 1960s. He’s said repeatedly that he believes the criminal charges he’s facing are politically motivated and that he did no wrong.

“Commissioner Martinez has made it clear since the since the beginning of this matter that he believes the timing of his arrest was intended to interfere with his front-runner status as a candidate,” said Martinez defense attorney, Ben Kuehne.

During a strange time in American politics, when a former U.S. president just convicted of 34 felonies remains the front-runner for the presidential post yet again, it’s not clear how Martinez’s entry in the busy field will play out. Sean Foreman, a professor of political science at Barry University, said in name recognition alone, Martinez will likely jump to a top position in a crowded field.

“I mean he’s damaged goods. But at this point, it’s wide open,” Foreman said. “Joe Martinez probably enters as a front-runner.”

Others, like Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno, aren’t so sure. He said Martinez is probably just another name in a crowded field of mostly unknowns.

“I think the electorate is so split, it probably won’t matter,” said Moreno. “His name recognition is very limited to West Kendall, so it won’t do much.”

State believes money woes led to alleged crimes

Martinez, whose scheduled May trial was pushed back to the end of June after a failed attempt by defense attorneys to have the judge removed, rose to the post of lieutenant with Miami-Dade Police Department during a 17-year law enforcement career. That was followed by two decades of public service at the highest levels of Miami-Dade County government, including a stint as chairman of the powerful 13-member Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners.

All that came tumbling down in August 2022, when at the start of his fifth term in office Martinez was taken into custody and charged with single counts of unlawful compensation and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation. In September 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended him from the County Commission.

Martinez’s alleged crime: sponsoring a law that would have benefited the owner of a shopping plaza in his West Kendall district in exchange for $15,000. The owner had been fined thousands of dollars for using more than the permitted six cargo containers behind the mall. State prosecutors allege that in exchange for compensation, Martinez tried to increase the number of allowable containers holding inventory at the strip mall.

The charges could land Martinez in prison for as many as 20 years.

Though the bill was never considered by the commission, state law only requires proof of intent. The crime was allegedly committed in 2016, just after Martinez was reelected after spending the previous four years as a security consultant.

State prosecutors believe Martinez was financially strapped when he is alleged to have committed the crimes. The former commissioner is believed to have received the first of three $5,000 payments from supermarket owner Jorge Negrin two weeks after Martinez’s Aug. 30, 2016, election victory.

Martinez is alleged to have tried to help the mall’s owner Sergio Delgado, who had been fined repeatedly for having more than the permitted six cargo containers behind the building.

Martinez’s chances in sheriff’s race unclear

In a race that was upended by the attempted suicide last summer of its leading candidate, then-Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez, it is unclear exactly how — or even if — Martinez’s entry into the sheriff’s race would affect the outcome.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade police chief shot himself in the head after fight with wife at Tampa hotel

When Ramirez dropped out, the field expanded almost immediately, with a host of candidates vying for a crack at the newly created top public safety position in the largest county in the state. Currently there are 18 candidates, 13 of them Republican.

Through the end of March, Republican Joe Sanchez, a former Miami commissioner and state trooper, was leading his party in fundraising, with $415,000 in donations to his campaign and political action committee, Law and Order. Democrat James Reyes, the current overseer of public safety in Miami-Dade, was closing in on Sanchez, with $400,000, according to campaign finance reports.

Also given a big boost, certainly in the primary: Miami-Dade Police senior staffer and Republican Rosanna “Rosie” Cordero-Stutz, who secured the endorsement of former president Trump in April.

The election will be the first for a Miami-Dade sheriff since the office was abolished more than a half-century ago. Since then, the office has been under the control of the county mayor. But a 2018 amendment to the Florida Constitution changed that and required Miami-Dade to join other counties in the state with an elected independent sheriff.

Reyes worked in the corrections division for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office before Levine Cava recruited him to run Miami-Dade’s jails in 2022. She promoted him to chief of public safety weeks before he filed for the sheriff’s race in January and shortly after Ramirez dropped out of the race.

Sanchez served several terms as a city of Miami commissioner before taking the helm as chairman of the five-member governmental body. He left more than a decade ago for the Florida Highway Patrol, where he became a chief spokesman.

To University of Miami political science professor and political consultant Fernand Amandi, Martinez’s entry in the race “hardly surprises,” by Miami standards.

“One of the reasons voters continue to have less confidence in elected officials is because of decisions like this one,” he said. “That’s what makes trust in government in Miami-Dade such a major problem.”


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