Ex-town manager says she was used by ‘nefarious individuals’ but didn’t commit fraud

The fallout from former North Bay Village Police Chief Lewis Velken’s apparent scheme to bypass rules regarding Florida’s state-run pension continues, as village commissioners scramble to find someone to blame for signing off on the arrangement.

Former manager Marlen Martell who hired Velken last April, was one of those accused of wrongdoing. In a letter sent to the commission by her attorney late Friday, Martell denied any ethical lapses, and said she was manipulated and used by “nefarious individuals who have operated in that city to serve their own personal agendas.”

Martell blamed Village Attorney Norman Powell for participating in and approving Velken’s plan to have his paychecks routed through a third party in an apparent effort to sidestep Florida Retirement System rules that prevent double-dipping in the first year of retirement. Powell called the accusation that he was involved in the hiring process “a complete fabrication.” Velken declined to comment.

Martell’s letter was addressed specifically to Commissioner Andreana Jackson, who said at a commission meeting last week that Martell had committed several crimes when hiring Velken, including fraud and perjury.

In the letter obtained by the Herald, Martell’s attorney, Michael Pizzi, called Jackson’s statement a “bold-faced” lie and demanded an apology and retraction from Jackson at the next commission meeting. Pizzi pointed out that falsely accusing an individual of a crime is libel, and suggested that both Jackson and the village could be on the hook for damages to Martell’s reputation.

“You [Jackson] have now needlessly, recklessly, maliciously and with full knowledge of the false content of your statements harmed, the reputation of Ms. Martell and caused her irreparable harm to her career,” wrote Pizzi.

Jackson did not respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.

During a commission meeting Feb. 12, Jackson held up a stack of papers related to Velken’s hiring and said that Martell, “admitted to fraudulently signing these documents in the Miami Herald.” Jackson said one of the papers she was holding was an employment affidavit sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announcing Velken’s employment by the North Bay Village Police Department.

Martell has never responded to any of the Miami Herald’s requests for comment. In recent stories, Martell’s comments regarding her involvement in Velken’s hiring were quoted from a deposition that Martell gave in January for an unrelated case. She did not admit to committing fraud.

In her deposition, Martell says she hired Velken under pressure from then-Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps and her administration to fill the vacancy at the top of the police department as quickly as possible.

The position was open after Martell fired former Police Chief Carlos Noriega just six days into her tenure as manager. Noriega later filed a whistleblower lawsuit, claiming he had been investigating the mayor and her friends when he was fired. In her deposition, Martell said Leon-Kreps had met with her and asked her to fire Noriega as an understood condition of her future employment, though Martell maintains she ultimately made the decision to terminate Noriega for her own reasons.

In the deposition, Martell also claimed she raised concerns that Velken would have FRS problems should he take the job with North Bay Village. However, Martell said that both Velken and Powell assured her that there would be no problem, so long as the village paid Velken through a third-party staffing agency.

“It was the job of the city attorney to investigate, vet and approve of any employment arrangement made by Mr. Velken and that is exactly what transpired,” according to the letter.

In her deposition, Martell said she didn’t know the details of the payment arrangement when she hired Velken, and had never heard of the Realtor who received his paychecks, Stephanie Leon. In fact, the first invoice from Leon arrived at village hall only days before Martell was offered a severance package and pushed out of the village administration after she said she upset the mayor. Leon didn’t receive Velken’s first paycheck until after Martell left.

“Marlen Martell is an innocent victim and scapegoat for officials in North Bay Village who do not want to be held accountable for their own behavior,” said Pizzi in a statement. “Marlen was one of the most honest people ever to serve in North Bay Village or any other city and she is not going to allow herself to be smeared by lies.”