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Miami Herald 8/22/03

Street artist got $24,000 in program tailored for him
Miami agency also bought painter's late father's church

By Oscar Corral

Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency gave a little-known painter about $24,000 in cash and subsidies over a one-year period as part of an obscure ''Artist-in-Residence'' program tailor-made for him, not long before negotiating a deal to buy his late father's church.

Ernest King, an often-homeless street artist with a felony arrest record, received food vouchers, clothing allowances, and even hundreds of dollars for paintings paid by Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. and then-CRA Director Annette Lewis, who were then reimbursed by the CRA, records from the city's finance department show.

The CRA bought the Divine Mission Church at 910 N.W. Second Ct. in Overtown in May 2002, for $254,000 -- $112,000 more than its appraised value. The sale is now one of the questionable CRA deals being probed by investigators from the Miami-Dade state attorney's office and the FBI, sources familiar with the investigation said.

King received money from the CRA's Artist-in-Residence program from June 2000 until at least Septembe 2001. The CRA did an appraisal on the church property in May 2001, as it considered its purchase.

In a recent interview, Teele said there was no connection between the Artist-in-Residence program and the agency's purchase of the building. The church belonged to King's late father Clennon King, and was eventually sold to the CRA by the church board, which was led by King's sister, Muriel King.

''Ernest King was persona non grata with his father and his sister,'' Teele said. ``He was not an heir.''

Teele said he wanted to help Ernest King because he saw him as a talented painter who was down and out. Just three months ago, he said, he paid Ernest King's $400 rent out of his own pocket.

Teele said he gives King support because ``I have done anything I can to help talented people.''

Ernest King was not a member of the Church of the Divine Mission board of directors. But Muriel King, and her brother, Lee King, were.

Muriel King said that she formed a friendship with her brother's mentor, Martin Siskind, who had helped her brother get off the streets. She said she later asked Siskind, who runs the Advocacy Foundation in Wynwood, to help her coordinate the sale of the church to the city.

The CRA eventually severed its ties with Ernest King because, according to Teele, ``we could never get him to take a urine test.''

Several attempts to reach King on the streets of Overtown and Liberty City, and through Siskind, were unsuccessful.

In December 1997, King, who then lived in the church, was charged with beating up his 77-year-old father there, police records show. A press release put out by the church at the time said Clennon King ``ordered the arrest of his youngest son, Ernest, for trying to kill him.''

Ernest King pleaded no contest in 1998 to aggravated assault on an elderly person and was sentenced to time served and probation.

Clennon King kicked Ernest out of the church, leaving him homeless, and obtained a domestic violence restraining order.

In April 2001, while King was the CRA's artist in residence, he was arrested again for kidnapping-false imprisonment and battery, police and court records show. Both charges were eventually dropped.

''My father and I had all kinds of problems,'' Ernest King told The Herald in an interview in 1999. ``Lots of bad feelings. It's best I stay in the streets. I don't want no trouble.''

After Clennon King's death in February 2000, Siskind, a local art enthusiast, found Ernest King living on the street and decided to champion his cause, Siskind said.

Siskind hired a lawyer for King, who successfully sued to be let back into his late father's church. Around the same time, Siskind met King's sister Muriel King, of San Diego, who had taken over the church's board of directors soon after her father's death by replacing other board members.

In June 2000, the CRA announced it was creating an Artist-in-Residence program and that Ernest King would fill the job. CRA records do not include any indication that the agency publicly announced the creation of such a program beforehand, nor that it took applications from any other artists.

A press release that June said, ''Through the vision, creativity and continued interest and support of our community, Chairman Arthur E. Teele, Jr., in conjunction and approval by the Board of Directors of the [CRA], have made possible the implementation of an Artist in Residence Program. And, designating Ernest Joe Fedler King, the son of former Rabbi Clennon W. King, pastor and civil rights activist, as the Artist in Residence and caretaker of the Dorsey House [historic residence],'' the press release said.

Siskind played a role in helping King get the artist in residence program. CRA records show that William Bloom, a lawyer for the CRA, faxed Siskind a copy of the contract between King and the CRA the day it was signed, and Siskind signed off on the terms.

But it wasn't long before the agency had problems with him. In January 2001, Bloom wrote Ernest King a letter scolding him for using his CRA stipends for food to feed his friends.

''It has come to our attention that you are exceeding the dollar limit and that you are also feeding other individuals utilizing the credits made available to you,'' Bloom wrote.

By the time the contract between King and the CRA was terminated, he had received more than $24,000 in cash and subsidies from the agency, which never revived its Artist-in-Residence program. The CRA continued to reimburse Overtown restaurants for Ernest King's meals until at least late September 2001, records show.

Final taxpayer payout to King from the CRA: $11,000 in rent; $7,860 for food; $2,750 in cash for his paintings; $1,495 for clothes; and $1,100 in art supplies.

Part of the money paid for his paintings came from Teele, who gave $600 to King for three paintings, titled Freedom Tower, Aubury House and 12 Steps, in June 2001. Then CRA-director Lewis paid him another $550 for paintings and a deposit on his art. Both Teele and Lewis were reimbursed by the CRA, according to photocopies of checks from the city's finance department.

Of the three paintings Teele paid for, only the painting titled 12 Steps is accounted for at the CRA.

Both a Herald walk-through of the agency and an inventory list compiled by the CRA recently show that Freedom Tower and Aubury House are not at the agency.

An aide at Teele's city commission office, Alexis Snyder, said the paintings are not in Teele's City Hall offices either.

Teele could not be reached for comment Thursday. CRA Executive Director Frank Rollason said it's possible that one of the paintings at the CRA of the Ward Rooming House could be the Aubury House painting that Teele paid for.

In an interview, Siskind said Ernest King ''was part of the problem'' at the Divine Mission Church in the months leading up to its purchase by the CRA.

Siskind said King would collect rent money from residents and keep it.

Siskind said the sale was above board, and that the payments to King did not influence him to advocate good terms on the sale.

King visits the Advocacy Foundation, a nonprofit thrift store and art studio Siskind runs in Wynwood, about twice a week, Siskind said.

''I'm the one who found him on the street,'' Siskind said. ``He's doing quite well.'