Miami-Dade County

Homestead-exemption violation prompts Miami-Dade property appraiser manager to resign

A manager for the Miami-Dade County property appraiser’s office resigned earlier this month after investigators found he had an illegal homestead exemption.

Jaime R. Martinez received a $25,000 annual exemption from 2010-12 for a South Miami home — even though Martinez lived in Panama the first year and rented out the property the following two years, according to investigation records obtained by the Miami Herald. Homestead exemptions are supposed to apply only to an owner’s primary residence.

“Although the facts of the investigation revealed a violation had occurred prior to his joining the office, there was no evidence of intent to defraud,” Acting Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis said in a statement Thursday.

The timing of the resignation, a month before the Nov. 4 property appraiser election, prompted County Hall speculation about potential political motives behind it.

Solis is not on the ballot. But his former boss, Florida Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, is. And with a new appraiser coming in, Solis’ future employment is on the line.

Solis declined an interview request through a spokesman, who answered follow-up questions via email. Martinez did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Martinez, 41, who at the time of his Oct. 7 resignation was making about $105,000 a year as an administration manager, was hired in January 2013 by Lopez-Cantera, the former elected appraiser.

Public records show Martinez has jointly owned the South Miami house, valued at about $350,000, since 2005 with his wife, Michelle Gonzalez. But Martinez’s mailing address is a Venetian Causeway condo on Miami Beach.

Anonymous tipsters complained to the appraiser’s office about Martinez’s South Miami homestead exemption in April and May of 2012, investigation records show. But Miami-Dade police detectives assigned to the office didn’t begin investigating until Feb. 19 of this year.

The appraiser’s spokesman, Robert Rodriguez, said the complaint was assigned to a detective “in the order that it was received.” He attributed the delay to the “over 4,000 complaints” the office receives each year.

“Therefore, due to the high volume and complexity of some cases, it may take longer than anticipated to assign an investigator to a new lead/complaint,” Rodriguez wrote.

The long backlog seems troubling, considering politicians have pressured the appraiser for several years to crack down on fraudulent exemptions and boost the government’s property-tax revenue.

Lopez-Cantera’s political foes have quietly wondered whether Martinez was spared while Lopez-Cantera was in office, from January 2013 through January 2014. Campaign finance records show Martinez made a single contribution, for $500, to Lopez-Cantera’s state representative race in 2002.

Meanwhile, Lopez-Cantera’s backers suspect that Martinez’s resignation was timed to benefit Solis in the lead up to the election between former Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia and term-limited state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah. Garcia is a Lopez-Cantera nemesis, having lost his job to him two years ago. Lopez-Cantera appointees fear they’ll be asked to go if Garcia wins.

Solis, a career civil servant who worked for both Garcia and Lopez-Cantera, said he didn’t know detectives were looking into Martinez until the employee received notice of the investigation on Aug. 30 and mentioned it to Solis on Sept. 2.

“It then became known to our office that the property owner under investigation was an employee,” Solis’ statement said.

Yet detectives knew of the unwarranted exemption since February, when they started their investigation a few short weeks after Lopez-Cantera left office. Records show they left a notice at the house on Feb. 22 but received no response. A follow-up letter wasn’t mailed to Martinez until six months later. Investigation records don’t say why.

Before taking the county job, Martinez tried to cancel the homestead exemption in August 2012, about two weeks after Lopez-Cantera was elected. The request apparently went nowhere because it was missing Martinez’s wife’s signature. It wasn’t until Martinez began working in the appraiser’s office that he checked the status of the cancellation and added her signature, in February 2013.

The cancellation kicked in for that year, but Martinez still ran into trouble for having had an illegal exemption from 2010-12.

Solis’ office also investigated Martinez’s residency status from 2006-09 but results have been inconclusive. Additional tax information from those years was pending on Oct. 7, when the county notified Martinez and his wife it was placing a $5,046.30 lien on their property. Martinez resigned the same day. He has already paid the lien in full, Solis said.