Devil in the Details

Local government contractor Fred Martinez credits God for his success. His critics cite more earthly forces.

As he plays tour guide at his engineering firm's expansive north Houston headquarters, Fred Martinez radiates pride. He shows off the advanced soil- and asphalt-testing labs boasting the latest in diagnostic equipment; demonstrates gadgetry in the high-tech computer systems wing; grandly sweeps a hand through his personal conference room decorated with a framed chronological history of his company, Atser LLC.

He calls his employees by their first names and introduces them like old friends. Coffee is served in Atser-embossed mugs, on Atser coasters. "The Lord is blessing me," Martinez says, smiling the broad smile that punctuates every sentence.

Martinez, a youthful 41, has been counting his blessings, and the list is long: a close-knit family, a $750,000 stucco mansion in Cypress, influential positions in the community that include membership on Mayor Lee Brown's Hispanic advisory committee. And there's Atser, an engineering consulting company that only three years ago was flirting with bankruptcy. Today, armed with millions of dollars in city, county and other government contracts, Atser has become one of the most successful minority-owned firms in the region.

Not bad, Martinez says, for the son of a Port Lavaca janitor. He's so pleased with his life that he plans to share his story. "I'm in the middle of writing a book about Atser," he says. "It's a very spiritual issue for me."

Most of his issues, in fact, touch on the spiritual. He's active in his church, and peppers his speech with biblical references. The text of Atser's framed history is couched in religious terms, with such headings as "Revelation in the Fire" and "When Things Really Tight [sic] -- A Word from God."

A pair of lines at the end hint at another facet of the Atser story, the triumph over darker forces: "My God is Awesome," followed by, "He has delivered me from my enemies!"

Martinez won't name those enemies, he says, because "it's my Christian training not to identify them." But he says it's inevitable that achievement breeds jealousy. "The reality of situations is that people don't want you to succeed."

Some of his detractors are willing to identify themselves. Research chemist Beryl Gainer, an early Atser investor and member of the management team, left the company after two years and a trail of broken promises. "It's disgusting and distasteful," Gainer says of his experience. "Next to getting cancer, it's been the low point of my life."

Other original investors share Gainer's view. They all say they were promised stock in exchange for start-up capital and their expertise, which they provided for free or for a nominal wage. But the stock never materialized, and Martinez defaulted on pledges to pay back their investments. "He kept stringing everybody along with this carrot that never came," says J.J. Martinez (no relation), the firm's former accountant. "Any businessman who operates that way has no business being in business."

Accusations that Fred Martinez promises more than he can deliver don't stop there. An investigation by the Houston Press indicates that he has filed conflicting information with government agencies and failed to live up to several agreements, including lucrative contracts to manage the city's street and sidewalk programs. In at least one case, Atser's inspector signed for work that was later discovered not to have been done, a matter the city apparently has whitewashed. But that doesn't stop the public money from rolling in; last summer the city extended his program-management contract without a formal review.

No one contacted by the Press disputes that Martinez is a talented asphalt engineer. And they concur he's a masterful salesman who has made friends in high places. "He can sell ice to an Eskimo," says J.J. Martinez.

What disturbs them most, they say, is the contrast between his avowed faith and his apparent willingness to cross ethical boundaries to get what he wants. "He's supposed to be a big Christian," scoffs Gainer. "He's a heathen."

Martinez rejects the various accusations. "I suspect my enemies have spread untruths about me," he says. "There's another story here: that we're pretty doggoned good at what we do."

Growing up poor in Port Lavaca wasn't so bad, Fred Martinez muses. Recounting his life story across Atser's hardwood conference table, he says his family always had food on their plates, even if it meant his father sometimes had to work several jobs. "You don't know you're poor when you're poor," he says. "You just kind of exist, and you're happy as a lark."

His youth wasn't free from tribulation, however. Before his fourth birthday, he contracted an illness ("sleeping sickness," he calls it) that left him unconscious for three days. As he lay near death, his mother prayed for his recovery, he says, "and I woke up."

At age seven Martinez was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that required him to wear an immobilizing body cast for a year. His siblings fashioned a makeshift wagon out of an old lawn mower chassis and wheeled him around. Again, his mother looked for divine help: She brought him to a revival in Victoria. "I went up there and got healed," he says. When he went to the doctor shortly thereafter, "The bone had grown back."

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