Activist, Interrupted

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

The same day, Griffin wrote to the city building department: "Please be advised that we are relinquishing the above-referenced permit[s] for the project at John Knox Village. All paid fees are being transferred as well." Griffin then wrote a letter to Countryman stating that he would never again work for John Knox Village. Griffin's city-funded attorney, Stuart Michelson, would later tell a state ethics investigator that Countryman, through a "third party," had requested that the mayor write the letter.

Countryman closed his investigation on April 17, 1998, with a memo:

"While Mr. Griffin's decision not to abstain from voting on the zoning issue could be questioned, his written statement that he will not do work for John Knox Village in the future and his decision to withdraw as contractor on all existing projects would appear to have rectified any ethical issues that might have arisen from that vote."

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

Stanton, thankfully, is still allowed to criticize Countryman.

"In effect, Countryman served to protect Griffin," says Stanton. "He basically acted as Griffin's attorney by advising what Griffin had to do to avoid any charges. It stinks here in Broward County."

Countryman says Griffin's promise to surrender the permits and never work at John Knox Village had no bearing on his investigation. "I determined that there was no crime, or provable crime, committed by Mr. Griffin," says the prosecutor, who supplied me with two letters he'd written Stanton explaining his decision. "There was not, in my opinion, sufficient evidence of a quid pro quo to warrant prosecution," Countryman wrote on January 15, 1999.

In Stanton's legal opinion, the permits, which indicate that Griffin was going to be the paid contractor, were sufficient for prosecution. And Stanton faults Countryman for never even talking with Griffin during the investigation. When I asked him why he never spoke to the mayor, Countryman said the mayor had the right to refuse to speak to him.

Did he ever simply ask to speak with Griffin?

"I don't think so," he says.

Angry at Countryman's inaction, Stanton complained to the Florida Commission on Ethics, sparking a new investigation. The city hired Michelson (who is married to Broward Commissioner Ilene Lieberman) to represent Griffin. The mayor also had some powerful friends come to his aid. Tom Johnston, a lawyer-lobbyist and Griffin buddy (see "The Wiz," February 28), represented John Knox Village in the investigation and pleaded the mayor's case. Furman also defended Griffin vigorously before the ethics commission. All three argued that Griffin may have pulled the building permits, but he wasn't actually going to do the work. The ethics commission accepted the argument and dropped the case against the mayor on March 3, 1999.

Stanton, however, didn't stop exposing the enemy's past misdeeds. He discovered that police had caught Griffin, when he was just shy of his 21st birthday, stealing auto parts from a Fort Lauderdale Ford dealership in 1964. The charge was grand larceny, a felony, but Griffin eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft.

When Stanton learned that the mayor swore in a 1998 federal deposition in a case involving the city that he'd never been convicted of a crime, he went on the offensive. In the fall of 1999, Stanton declared at a commission meeting that Griffin was a liar and should resign his position.

The mayor, who said at the time that he believed he could deny his criminal past because he thought it had been expunged from the record, didn't resign. Instead, he sued.

A rarely used state law allows public officials accused of ethics violations to sue their accusers for taxpayer money spent defending themselves. Such cases can drag on in the courts for years, causing huge legal bills to pile up on both sides. And citizen complainants are at a distinct disadvantage: The law doesn't allow them to recover legal fees from the city if they prevail. So, in effect, the complainant loses financially either way.

Michelson filed a petition for fees with the ethics commission, alleging that Stanton had maliciously slandered the mayor with false, frivolous allegations. Stanton fought the suit for months, but by the end of 2000, he called it quits. The retired lawyer says that it looked as if the case might drag on for a long time, costing him a fortune in legal fees and too many hours of sleep. "The odds were three-to-one that we would win," says Stanton, who adds that Michelson was threatening to take the case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. "There was a lot of pressure and stress involved in this."

Michelson, to be sure, was playing hardball. The lawyer recalls warning Stanton that he would have to pay and mentioned the fact that he'd won two similar cases in the past for hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Stanton is an intelligent person, but when it came to Griffin, he had a mania or a phobia," Michelson says. "He was a whack job."

Stanton accepted a settlement offer from Griffin. He agreed to apologize to the mayor's family -- Stanton refused to apologize to the mayor himself -- for any pain he'd caused them and paid $16,500 toward the city legal bills. Also included in the signed agreement was this clause: "Mr. Stanton agrees not to criticize Bill Griffin publicly for anything he might have done in the past or for any of Bill Griffin's official actions at any time."

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