1 Fort Lauderdale
News & Reviews
In a sworn statement, former North Bay Village Manager Marlen Martell confirmed what many in the village had always suspected. When Martell was hired last year, she said then-mayor Connie Leon-Kreps expected Martell to use her new position to fire then-police chief Carlos Noriega.
At the time, Noriega was investigating the mayor in conjunction with an open extortion case.
“It wasn’t a condition [of employment]. It was more of an understanding,” said Martell in the deposition. She said the mayor was upset with Noriega and wanted him gone.
Martell was deposed as part of a lawsuit filed by Noriega against the village under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. Noriega claims he was fired in April 2018 as retaliation for his involvement in investigating criminal allegations against Leon-Kreps and several of her friends. Although the extortion case was eventually thrown out by the State Attorney’s Office, a separate investigation by Noriega’s staff into her good friend Ana Watson resulted in Watson’s being charged with defrauding her condo association. The case is pending.
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Leon-Kreps, who hit her term limit in November 2018 and is no longer mayor, denied there was bad blood between her and the chief. She also said she never pushed for Noriega’s termination. “It’s not my decision, it’s the manager’s decision,” Leon-Kreps said. “She [Martell] did consult me. She called me on several occasions expressing the issues she was having with Mr. Noriega.” Leon-Kreps said she didn’t know about Noriega’s whistleblower protections until after he was fired.
Martell was hired in March 2018 by a majority vote of the commission. Various commissioners testified that she had come with a “beautification” plan for the village that impressed them into voting for her.
However, Martell also testified that Leon-Kreps asked her to apply. She said Leon-Kreps knew she had always wanted to be a village manager, and despite Martell’s lack of direct experience, the mayor had called her specifically to encourage her to apply when the position became open in January 2018. Prior to even interviewing for the post, Martell said she had a series of meetings regarding Noriega’s termination — with Leon-Kreps, Village Attorney Norman Powell and lobbyist Mitch Edelstein who she called “instrumental” in bringing her to the village. They even had a replacement option lined up.
After just six days as village manager, Martell fired Noriega.
Martell maintained that she took that action for her own reasons and not due to external pressure. She also told the attorneys questioning her that if she had not fired Noriega, she was sure the mayor would have been mad.
“She had expressed to me that the chief was not acting properly … that he was trying to get her in jail, and therefore, he needed to go,” Martell said. “He was part of the previous administration so it was, like, a cleaning house.”
Finance Director Bert Wrains, who served as interim manager before Martell was hired, said he spoke to Martell about firing Noriega. “She didn’t say who, but she said she was being pressured into it from what I remember.”
Wrains said that Powell had approached him once about firing Noriega, too, when he was interim manager. Powell wrote at the time: “I am of the firm opinion that, at minimum, Mr. Noriega should be placed on paid administrative leave so the village can properly review several troubling matters concerning Mr. Noriega that have come to my attention since my appointment.”
An example of the “troubling matters” mentioned in several depositions: Noriega’s colleagues pitched in to buy him a puppy after he lost two dogs in six months. Noriega had failed to officially declare the puppy as a gift. Powell also told Wrains to fire the chief after he found out Noriega was on family medical leave to take care of his mother, who was ill. Wrains said he refused. Family medical leave is protected by federal employment law.
In his deposition, Powell denied that he had ever pushed Martell to fire Noriega but admitted to the conversation with Wrains, saying that he believed there were problems with Noriega’s performance.
Martell, after firing Noriega, also oversaw the firing of two police officers who had been investigating the mayor. In her deposition she said those firings were due to budget cuts. She said as the only part-time employees on staff, Tom Columbano and Sam Bejar were her only options for cuts. Both maintained they were fired for political reasons.
After just over three months on the job, Martell was also pushed out by the commission, led by Leon-Kreps. She left her post in the village with a $127,000 severance package, more than double what state law would require. In exchange, she waived her rights to sue the village. Martell is currently serving as an assistant clerk in the City of North Miami.
On Feb. 1, the village filed a motion to have Noriega’s case dismissed. The case is pending.