I reached Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin on his Turner Construction Co.-issued cellular phone last week.
"Hello," the mayor answered.
"Bill?" I queried.
"Yes," he obliged.
"Hi, this is Bob Norman of the New Times calling to bother you again."
"Good," he said with a note of... was it defiance?
"Yeah," I continued, "I'm doing a story about your work for Mack's Groves and need to ask you a few questions about it."
"Bob, I'm up in North Palm right now, and you're cutting out on me. So can you call me in ten minutes? It should be better then."
I reluctantly agreed, knowing in the recesses of my sorry brain that I would regret it. I suspected it was a cheap stunt, especially since he was coming in loud and clear as a dinner bell. I called back in eight minutes. He didn't answer. After 15 minutes had passed, I left another message. Over the next 24 hours, I called about a half dozen times with no luck.
The mayor dodged me with the old cell-phone trick.
It's not surprising. Griffin obviously didn't want to talk about his work renovating Mack's Groves, a decades-old store on Federal Highway in Pompano that sells Florida citrus and Sunshine State kitsch. He didn't play straight with me the last time we talked, either. That conversation was about his job at Turner, which represents a clear conflict of interest and which he secured with the help of developer Michael Swerdlow (see "Swimming in Trouble," June 20).
When I questioned him last month, the mayor told me he took the Turner job after he shut down his own contracting business, William F. Griffin Inc. (He later repeated this claim to the Sun-Sentinel.) Since then, I learned that the mayor actually resigned from MKS Construction Inc., a Pompano Beach firm. In his financial disclosure filed with the city last year, Griffin listed MKS as his sole source of income.
Griffin, it turns out, was with MKS for about three years, says Mark Nelson, who also worked at the firm. It's no wonder the mayor wanted to keep his employment at MKS under wraps -- an examination of his employment there reveals more unseemly conflicts between his public role as mayor and his private career in construction.
The mayor, it appears, has broken yet more ethics laws.
Two MKS jobs stand out: the aforementioned Mack's Groves and one involving Delta Recycling. We'll start with the latter, which involves a large recycling plant on Powerline Road in Pompano. The Delta facility is in the midst of a major expansion and renovation, says John Rayson, a former state representative who serves as the company's attorney. To help finance the expansion, Rayson addressed Mayor Griffin and the rest of the Pompano Beach City Commission during a special meeting at City Hall on December 20, 2000, to request a $6 million bond issue. The commission unanimously approved it.
A funny thing happened four months after Griffin cast that vote for Delta: The mayor's employer, MKS, took over the contract on the expansion project. In April 2001, MKS began handling the complicated permit process for Delta in the city's building department. Nelson was the project manager on the job. Griffin helped negotiate permits and inspections with city staff.
"Bill just annoyed the city staff, that's pretty much what he did," Nelson explains. "He really didn't have much to do [on the Delta project], but he's at [City Hall] so much, he would pop in to see how it was going."
At the same time that Griffin was involved with Delta, he was acting as construction manager on the $1 million renovation of Mack's Groves. The mayor's abbreviated signature appears on dozens of inspection forms and permit applications in city files. Several Pompano Beach employees told me that Griffin visited the department almost daily last year, urging staff to expedite his project.
And Steve McDonough, a city mechanical inspector, was annoyed. He says the mayor skipped the line of waiting contractors and traipsed into the department on the third floor of City Hall like he owned the place. "He was there on a couple of my inspections to expedite it, but he didn't get any special favors from me -- he had to pay reinspection fees like everyone else does," McDonough says. "But he probably did get special favors from the clerical staff in permit processing. He was in here all the time. All I know is, he got special attention because of who he was. I don't know that they did him any favors, but he got special attention."
Former city building chief Eugene Guydosik, who retired at the end of last year, acknowledges that Griffin tried to push his construction projects through city channels but insists that the mayor was treated like all other contractors. Griffin, he notes, doesn't supervise building employees -- they answer to administrative staff.
Nelson, who says the mayor was a competent manager, opines that Griffin's efforts to pull rank in the building department backfired. "The city made sure there was no favoritism played," he says. "I can get shit done that Bill can't get done, and he's the frickin' mayor. It's assbackwards of the perception. [Building officials] don't work directly for him, so Bill has no authority there at all. These guys didn't do anything special for him."
But the mayor's conflict goes deeper than his personal efforts to influence city staff. Mack's Groves also relied on the city for breaks on construction codes. The mayor's close friend, lobbyist Tom Johnston (see "The Wiz," February 28), represented the store before the city's planning and zoning board on March 22, 2000. Johnston asked the seven-member body for four variances, including easing setback requirements and decreasing parking space sizes. The board, including Griffin appointee John Moore, voted unanimously to grant Mack's Groves' requests.
In working on Mack's Groves, Griffin almost certainly violated Florida's Code of Ethics (Chapter 112 of the statutes), which prohibits elected officials from working for any private entity that is actively being regulated by the city. He also likely misused his position; the code states that elected officials cannot use their public position to secure special privileges.
Like Mack's Groves, the Delta project is heavily regulated by the city; the company faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in building and code violations and is hoping to have them reduced. With Delta, the mayor may have also engaged in an illegal voting conflict but only if he knew that MKS was in line to secure the job. When the commission approved the bond issue, the expansion was in the hands of another contractor. The owner of MKS, Michael McKnought-Smith, didn't return my phone calls.
This past May, Delta fired MKS. Mark Bingham, Delta's environmental compliance officer, says MKS was dispatched only because Delta wanted to stick with Nelson, who left the construction firm in May to form Coastal Development Group.
Rayson, the Delta attorney, says the firing indicates that Delta didn't hire MKS last year to take advantage of the mayor's sway at the city. "If Delta hired MKS because the mayor worked for them, I could understand that, but that doesn't square with the fact that they switched from MKS before the work was done," he says. "I don't know that MKS was hired with the feeling that [Delta] would get better treatment."
The firing, however, came after Griffin left MKS, which I think nullifies Rayson's point. Ultimately, Griffin's work with MKS is just more evidence of the mayor's corruption. The thought of the mayor trying to boss around his city's building department for personal gain is enough to make a true public servant indignantly reach for his pistol and demand satisfaction.
The question, however, remains whether Griffin will be punished for his nefarious actions. Some activists, like condo dweller Milton Fein, are pushing for an investigation and say that John Hanlon, a corruption investigator for the State Attorney's Office, is on the case. When I contacted Hanlon, a retired FBI agent, he basically said he couldn't tell me anything.
There is an established pattern of Griffin misusing his official position, and if Hanlon calls the mayor on it, I can hear the phone conversation now:
"This is John Hanlon, with the State Attorney's Office, and I'm investigating you."
"Yeah, I just wanted to ask you some questions about Turner Construction, Michael Swerdlow, Delta Recycling, John Knox Village, MKS, Tom Johnston, and Mack's Groves."
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