Enemies of Pompano

How a secret group funded by a political profiteer broke election laws -- yet failed to protect Mayor Griffin's throne

Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin didn't face an election on November 5, but his political fate was on the line just the same. The ballot in his city included a mayor-at-large referendum designed to force Griffin outside of his cozy district for a citywide reelection bid this coming March.

Since much of the populace is on record as loathing the scandal-stained mayor, he likely couldn't survive such a vote.

No surprise, then, that Griffin vehemently opposed the initiative or that his countless critics rallied behind it. The fight spread to television, as civic groups spent more than $2,000 for cable spots in support of electing a citywide mayor. A secretive group called Friends of Pompano countered with commercials urging citizens to vote "no."

Bill Keith, lawbreaker?
Colby Katz
Bill Keith, lawbreaker?

The difference was that the civic groups followed Florida election law, while the Friends of Pompano apparently did not. The Coalition of Pompano to Save Our City, which is composed of seven civic associations, filed the necessary campaign finance forms at City Hall, disclosing the names of its bookkeeper and principal officers, among other information required by state statutes.

While the coalition operated in the sunshine, the Friends of Pompano remained under a stone. The group, in fact, doesn't officially exist. It submitted none of the required disclosure forms, according to City Clerk Mary Chambers.

After researching the origin of the mysterious ads, I'm not sure that the people behind them are really friends of the city, but I do know that the man who financed the campaign is a very close chum of Bill Griffin's.

Luckily, AT&T Broadband, which provides cable service to the city, is required to release information on political ads it sells. The records show that Bill Keith, a close Griffin ally whose engineering firm does business with the city, paid the $2,160 for the ads. Keith, a long-time Broward County businessman whose companies have garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts, signed a check from an account belonging to his business, Keith and Associates. It was made out to Jesse Guido, a political activist and member of numerous city boards who apparently acted as an agent of the mysterious political committee. Keith wrote in the memo section of the check that it was for "Friends of Pompano."

It appears that Keith and Guido, neither of whom responded to my numerous requests for comment, broke state campaign laws. But that's ultimately a matter for the Florida Election Commission, which is charged with investigating alleged campaign violations and levying fines if it finds wrongdoing. Before the FEC will get involved, however, a sworn complaint must be filed, which hasn't happened yet in this case.

The real story here is the covert, close-to-the-wallet nature of Pompano politics and Keith's undue influence in city affairs. I've found no evidence that Griffin, who also ignored my phone messages, was one of the Friends of Pompano, but it's obvious that Keith was at least in part looking out for his friend's interests by financing the TV spots.

Readers of this column know that Keith serves as a veritable cash machine and career counselor for the mayor. He's doled out expensive favors for Griffin, including a $500 contribution to the mayor's last campaign and a $1,000 check for Griffin's grandson's Little League team. It was Keith who helped Griffin land a job earlier this year at Turner Construction, which at the time was bidding to build the publicly vilified International Swimming Hall of Fame project. That plan includes two high-rise condominiums and is set for a prime piece of Pompano public beach.

The swim hall's developer, Michael Swerdlow, also helped Griffin find new employment. For his part, Griffin has ramrodded Swerdlow's project -- which will benefit from $31 million in public funds -- down the city's gullet at breakneck speed. Earlier this year, Keith picked up a contract from Swerdlow, an old friend and business associate, to provide preconstruction services for the swim hall.

That incestuous tangle didn't keep Griffin from voting to approve the swim hall deal last month. It's outrageous -- and possibly illegal -- dealings like this that have turned much of the population against the mayor.

The apparently illegal ads are "symptomatic with what's happening with the fat cats in Pompano," says Ed Moles, executive director of People of Pompano Inc., which was formed in January to defeat the mayor and his development plans. "Keith is favored over and over by the mayor. This was payback time."

Keith's cash didn't help the mayor last week. Voters, by a 61 percent majority, approved the mayor-at-large ballot initiative despite the ads. And with that vote, Griffin's stormy and controversial political life should have flashed before his eyes.

The passage of the referendum means that Griffin's district will be split up among the four remaining districts and that he will have to run a citywide campaign. At least one of his opponents will be Janice Griffin (no relation), a lawyer who has represented angry beach residents in legal battles against high-rise condominium projects backed by the mayor. She promises to put an end to high-rise development and the swim hall boondoggle in favor of more-sensible growth.

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