By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Pompano Beach is a city of 80,000, but it's ruled by a tiny cluster of backroom dealers. At the top of the very short list of Tweed-like (or Hogg-like, depending upon your frame of reference) bosses are Mayor Bill Griffin and lobbyist Tom Johnston. You've seen those names before. Pompano is like a recurring dream -- every public deal follows the same pattern: Johnston represents the money, and the mayor gives the money what it wants. The problem for the Pompano populace is that nobody ever wakes up.
It's the little guys, meanwhile, who are getting bitten. Last month, I wrote about Ed Stanton, who uncovered wrongdoing by Griffin and wound up on the losing end of a city lawsuit. He paid with a $16,500 check and a taped mouth. Now it's Mike Horan, a Pompano resident who tried to fight a multimillion-dollar expansion of a marina in his neighborhood. Horan went up against Johnston and Griffin, and he's still standing -- but don't blow too hard or he might fall down. The man just finished the fight of his life. Horan says his mission was simple: He just wanted to protect his front door.
He and his front door lost.
A 58-year-old grandfather of three, Horan lives in a modest condo next door to Hidden Harbour Marina, a boat storage facility and launch located just off Federal Highway north of the 14th Street Causeway. Hidden Harbour was built by none other than Johnston's father, a general contractor, nearly five decades ago and has a colorful history. Johnston the younger remarked during a City Commission meeting a couple of years ago that he had intimate knowledge of the marina and that, in the 1970s, the boats were very fast and the tuna came in square bales. (That means drug smugglers frequented the marina.) During the late '80s and early '90s, it was a Mafia hangout owned by the grandson of Ettore Zappi, a Gambino crime family capo who has since died. Zappi, according to FBI reports, used to drink coffee every morning at the marina restaurant. One of Zappi's grandsons, Anthony Galgano, was indicted in 1995 and later convicted for his part in a boat-smuggling ring involving Hidden Harbour that spread to Canada.
In 1998, the marina and several surrounding properties were bought -- at a cost exceeding $5 million -- by a partnership managed by a businessman named Steve Dobrofsky; he then hired Johnston to help him win city approval to expand the marina from 100 to more than 400 boats. Nearby residents have since learned that it's not the smugglers and mobsters you need to worry about -- it's the lobbyists.
Horan's front door is about 15 yards from Hidden Harbour. He lives with the roar and scream of industrial boat lifters. But when he found out that Dobrofsky and Johnston were trying to persuade the city to give the marina a block of nearby NE 15th Street, he and some of his neighbors had had enough.
The city's zoning director, Reagan Yarbrough, determined that the roadway served no public purpose. Horan knew otherwise. NE 15th Street was an important relief valve for traffic from the 14th Street Causeway. In fact, a traffic study commissioned by Hidden Harbour showed that some 1500 cars used it each day. Without 15th Street, Horan and his neighbors believed, those cars would clog NE 16th Street, an important artery for the neighborhood.
At a commission meeting on October 26, 1999, Horan and a handful of neighbors voiced their dissent, but the commission dismissed their concerns and, at Johnston's direction, gave the road away. Sixteenth Street has been packed with cars streaming from the causeway ever since.
In November 1999, Horan sued Pompano Beach in a bid to persuade a judge to overturn the 15th Street giveaway. Hidden Harbour joined the city in fighting Horan's lawsuit. The marina hired the Fort Lauderdale law firm Ruden, McClosky (which does legal work for the city and routinely gives Pompano politicos big campaign contributions) to fight Horan.
He didn't stand a chance. This past July, Broward County Circuit Judge George Brescher ruled for the city and the marina. Then the city and Ruden, McClosky went after Horan for legal fees. "It was unbelievable," Horan says. "I didn't even sue Hidden Harbour and they wanted me to pay."
The commission, meanwhile, kept granting the marina favors -- to the neighborhood's detriment. The cornerstone of Dobrofsky's expansion was a proposed six-story, 71,170-square-foot storage building. Such a monstrosity, however, wasn't allowed in such a residential area; Dobrofsky needed a zoning change.
Horan and his neighbors came out in droves to fight the expansion, saying that the huge building would be an eyesore and a fire hazard. They also complained that Hidden Harbour didn't meet acreage requirements to warrant the new zoning status. Regardless, after Johnston's dogged lobbying, the commission voted 3-2 on December 12, 2000, to approve the expansion. Mayor Griffin cast the decisive vote, after which Johnston simply said, "Thank you."
By this time, Horan was just a little angry. So he called Countryman at the State Attorney's Office and complained about Griffin and Johnston. He didn't have any proof of crimes, but he told Countryman, who oversees investigations of public officials, that the commissioners were so unresponsive to residential concerns that they must be corrupt. He asked for an investigation. Countryman told him he would look into it. Thirty minutes after he made the call, Horan talked with Pompano City Manager Bill Hargett on the phone about Hidden Harbour.