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."

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."

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."

And that ended Stanton's career as a blunt, honest, and competent activist. The promise to never again criticize Griffin isn't really legally binding -- an American can't sign away the freedoms promised by the Bill of Rights. But Stanton considers it a moral obligation. And he doesn't want another court battle.

"I've learned that you can't fight corruption in Pompano Beach," he says. "It's not worth it."

And that must sound like music to the mayor's ears.

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