Activist, Interrupted

Pompano Beach's top dog managed to gag his chief tormentor by playing politics

Hundreds of Pompano Beach residents are swarming to fight the proposed International Swimming Hall of Fame deal between the city and controversial developer Michael Swerdlow. About a half dozen civic groups have banded together to stop Mayor Bill Griffin, who is spearheading the deal. They've gone so far as to gather about 1400 signatures on a petition to oust him from office. The outraged citizens don't want to give away $31 million and some prime beach property in exchange for the swimming venue -- "a hole in the ground and a few dusty bathing suits," as the critics like to call it -- and Swerdlow's proposed massive, high-rise condo.

But former Pompano activist Ed Stanton's mouth is shut. It's not that the one-time leading Griffin critic likes the Swerdlow slam; he doesn't. It's just that the First Amendment doesn't really apply to him anymore.

Stanton isn't allowed to criticize the mayor. Exercising free speech has already cost him thousands of dollars, and if he were to say another negative word about the mayor, he could be forced to pay a whole lot more. Stanton, you see, made the mistake of doing the right thing: He exposed Griffin's shady political deals and criminal record.

Shut up and listen to the mayor
Michael McElroy
Shut up and listen to the mayor

Stanton's story should give pause and a chill to anyone who wants to root out corruption in Florida. Don't count on the Florida Commission on Ethics or, God help you, the State Attorney's Office public corruption unit for so much as a semblance of justice. When those two dubious government watchdogs fail, or if an ethics complaint simply can't be substantiated, a politician with a touch of Machiavelli in his soul can use taxpayers' money to drown an activist in court. Stanton is still under water.

Griffin, who hasn't responded to my requests for comment, had reason to put a stop to Stanton. The activist, who looks a bit like Ed Asner with a slightly smaller hat size, was both acerbic and effective. He employed guerrilla tactics to root out the "enemy," as he refers to bad public officials. Stanton would often confront Griffin during the "Audience to Be Heard" portion of City Commission meetings and blare out the mayor's transgressions. "I'm not known to be diplomatic," he says. "I'm blunt, honest, and competent."

The 75-year-old retiree has politics in his blood. Shortly after graduating from Columbia University Law School in 1955, he served a couple of two-year terms as a councilman in East Orange, New Jersey. He left elective office in 1959 to pursue his legal practice full-time. But he remained in government service, working as an attorney for the city, the board of education, and the housing authority in East Orange for decades.

Retirement came in 1995, giving Stanton plenty of time to jump into the turbulent Pompano political fray. He and his wife of 52 years bought a condo on the beach with a beautiful view of the ocean. But Stanton rarely ventured onto the sand. Instead, he went to City Hall. Without his legal practice and with his three children grown, Stanton had time to rake some muck. And he quickly learned that there was a veritable quagmire in Pompano.

Along with fellow beach condo dwellers, Stanton in 1996 formed a group called the Pompano Civic Action Committee. The now-defunct organization's purpose, as its mission statement put it, was to "insist that all city officials serve with the highest standards of honesty and integrity" and "abstain from acts which create even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

The mayor, Stanton quickly learned, was neither honest nor above conflicts of interest. The activist discovered that Griffin was abusing his dual position as mayor and member of the board of directors for John Knox Village, a large retirement community. Griffin was appointed to the board in 1996 by Frank Furman, a powerful insurance man and leader of the Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce. The unpaid Village position came with a business perk for Griffin: His small construction company, William F. Griffin Inc., was awarded several contracts to fix up housing units there.

Without publicly revealing this relationship, Griffin voted during a January 13, 1998, commission meeting to give John Knox Village a zoning variance. Worse, Griffin failed to inform the public that his construction company had pulled three permits to do tens of thousands of dollars' worth of work that was contingent upon the city's granting the variance.

It appeared that Griffin was using his position as mayor to make a bundle of money. So George Melcher, a city commissioner at the time and a political ally of Stanton's, filed a complaint against Griffin with the Broward State Attorney's Office. John Countryman, the assistant state attorney who heads the public corruption unit, focused his investigation on whether Griffin had received unlawful compensation.

The prosecutor's stunted little probe provides a textbook example of how to go easy on a public official. On March 30, 1998, Countryman contacted Robert Rigel, who was then executive director of John Knox Village. The same day, Rigel wrote Countryman a letter. "As per our telephone conversation," he began, John Knox Village would recommend a new contractor to do the work that Griffin had pulled the permits to do. "Furthermore," Rigel continued, "Bill Griffin ... will have voluntarily transferred three building permits to another contractor within 72 hours in order not to imply any conflict of interest."

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