Robert Payton outside the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Robert Payton, who started as a garbage man with Miramar 34 years ago and rose all the way to city manager, took the stand in the Fitzroy Salesman trial today and showed us how weak and ineffective leadership in government can enable corruption.
Payton didn't commit a crime during the Salesman saga, or at least it doesn't appear that way. But the manager of the 112,000-strong Miramar facilitated Salesman's alleged crime in a frontroom deal for a $35,000 gazebo contract that stank from the beginning.
And Payton knew it; he testified yesterday that it was "unusual" and all but admitted that he played ball with Salesman because he was keenly aware of the politician's potential influence and didn't want to offend someone who might be able to vote him out of his job.
During a meeting in his office at City Hall in April 2006 with Salesman and undercover FBI agents, Payton told undercover agents they wouldn't be getting a "freaking second look" if they "didn't know somebody." Salesman, meanwhile, had already told them that Payton would do what he wanted because the city manager "owed" him.
When federal prosecutor Jeffrey Kaplan asked Payton on the stand who that "somebody" was, the city manager didn't hesitate. "Commissioner Salesman," he said.
Earlier, when asked why he'd given the FBI front company the work, Payton testified that he'd done it for Salesman. "He brought a company in... and I wanted to
give them a shot," Payton told the jury.
At one point, he admitted he didn't want to tell a commissioner "no," even though he found Salesman's persistence unusual. He said some commissioners had introduced him to various companies seeking busienss with the city, but they didn't stick around through the process. "This one seemed persistent," he testified.
"Did that seem unusual?" Kaplan asked him.
"Yes, it was unusual."
Payton conceded that even though Salesman was suspended at the time he gave out the gazebo contract, he knew Salesman might come back into office. Salesman had told him that the DUI charge that had temporarily knocked him out of office was "B.S." and that he would be reinstated.
Payton testified that he felt that Salesman still had pull in the city, and he acknowledged that he didn't want to say "no" in front of a commissioner who could someday help to knock him out of the job he spent nearly a quarter of a century climbing the ranks to get.
He handed the front company a gazebo contract worth about $35,000 on the spot. Payton was able to unilaterally award the contract legally because Miramar permits construction jobs under $50,000 to be awarded without public bids and votes. That doesn't mean that willy-nilly handing out of a job at the behest of a politician was right or good. It was not, and when the FBI came knocking on his door this past September 23, Payton said he was "devasted" and "scared" and quickly hired well-known criminal attorney Fred Haddad.
"Miramar was the third-fastest-growing city in the country," Payton testified of his state of mind at the time. "We had dozens and dozens of land transactions. I had no idea what was going on... I was overwhelmed."
He said after meeting with Haddad, the veteran lawyer told him, "You don't need me -- go tell the truth."
"He said, 'Don't be so nervous, tell the truth, and go have dinner with your family,'" recalled Payton on the stand, adding that Haddad told him, "If you're coming to see me again, bring another check" in an amount that Payton didn't have.
Payton testified that the first time he met with federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office about the case, he was so flustered they made no progress. "I was so nervous I don't think I answered any of their questions," he testified.
The reason Payton was in the clear was that even though he facilitated the corrupt deal, he didn't take money for it. You see, a city manager can do the wrong thing, like hand out insider contracts to dubious companies for selfish and political reasons, but he can never ever take money.
It was Salesman who got the cash. And one of the great revelations of today's testimony was that Payton had concerns that Salesman might have been angling to profit on his commission job even before that.
Payton testified that Salesman had come to his office shortly after he was elected in 2001 and told him he planned to be a real estate broker. Then he came back a couple of weeks later and told the city manager that he wanted the city to buy several specific parcels of land for park space on the east side. Payton said Salesman described his own role as "like a consultant or brokerage" in the deal, words that Payton described as "alarming."
He said that he asked Salesman if understood he can't get money for what he was doing as a commissioner and that Salesman told him, "I would never do that."
Salesman was also "very passionate" about allowing a bar owner named Eddie Edwards to keep his establishment open until 4 a.m. instead of the usual closing time of 2 a.m. Payton said he made it clear again to Salesman that he couldn't make any money off his influence as a city commissioner.
Payton testified that Salesman told him, "You must think I'm the dumbest mother-expletive in the world."
The jury's still out on that.
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