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Seeing Red
Mark Poutenis

Seeing Red

Bill Griffin's new job has prompted a handful of activist groups to demand he relinquish his old one -- as mayor of Pompano Beach. More than 100 protesters met last Tuesday to demand Griffin's resignation after learning in this space that the mayor had landed a job with a construction company in line to build the International Swimming Hall of Fame and two skyscraper condos on the beach. Crying conflict, they held a rally along Atlantic Boulevard in front of City Hall, a place that lately seems likely to overtake Berkeley as the nation's mecca of civil disobedience.

The protesters made a point to wear red. Another 60 or so Griffin supporters came out to oppose them. Because most of the latter wore green "Go Pompano Go" shirts, the occasion looked more like Christmas come early than civic unrest. And it seemed to be a family affair, as a bunch of Little League baseball players, wearing green shirts over their uniforms, excitedly ran about the crowd. When I asked the 12-year-old boys why they showed up, they shouted, almost in unison, "Mayor Griffin gave us $3000!"

Good God, had the mayor sunk so low as to bribe kids? No, this was the Pompano Predators, a traveling team that needed the money for a trip to Cooperstown, Ohio, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Griffin promised to raise the money because his grandson is on the team.

This is the stuff of good old Americana, but it still fits the Griffin-supporter prototype: They either stand to gain financially from him in office or are kin to him, or both. Many belong to the Chamber of Commerce. The bulk of the Griffinites believe that the swimming hall and the mayor-driven condo projects on the beach will serve as the economic engine to draw other developers, drive up real estate prices, and help make them rich. Forget the beauty of the beach and public access to it. What has that got to do with the bottom line?

While I talked with the baseball players, a thin, tall, buttoned-up, rather severe looking older woman sidled up next to me. "I can't wait to see what you write next week," she said.

I told the woman I wasn't sure what I would write. Then she got down to the business of her visit. "What you wrote last week was pathetic," she proclaimed with disgust.

She walked away before I could properly thank her, so I turned back to America's future, the Little Leaguers, who'd received an abrupt lesson in the social perils of revealing a mayor's secrets. They looked a little puzzled, but, not wanting to further confuse them, I decided not to explain the woman's vitriol.

Also among the green shirts was Dan Hobby, executive director of the Sample-McDougald House Preservation Society in Pompano and former director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. He too has financial reasons to support the mayor, as the city supplies him with an office and the commission helps fund his organization. But Hobby said he came because he wanted to defend the mayor from "personal attacks."

"There are issues to discuss, and I am all for citizen input, but not like this," he said.

I asked him if a referendum on the swim hall might boost citizen involvement. Griffin and his fellow commissioners had killed that possibility in a recent vote. Hobby didn't have a ready answer, but a man nearby offered, "We don't live in a democracy. We live under a representative form of government."

I didn't catch the man's name but appreciated his citizen input nonetheless. Then Hobby got to the point: "The mayor's job is not a conflict. All you have to do is call the Attorney General's Office and they'll tell you it's not a conflict."

Everything about that statement is dead wrong, but I don't blame Hobby. He's just a willing parrot for the official spin coming from the Griffin camp. The attorney general has, of course, made no ruling on Griffin's employment and never will. Ethical concerns regarding politicians fall under the jurisdiction of the Florida Commission on Ethics, which I hope soon to see investigating the mayor.

Here's a summary of the facts:

Griffin began meeting with swimming hall developer Michael Swerdlow this past November to encourage him to build the project in Pompano. That same month, the mayor, who makes $15,745 per year in his official capacity, closed down William F. Griffin Construction, his mom-and-pop home-renovation company, and began looking for a new job. He enlisted Bill Keith, a prominent engineer who contracts with the city, to help him find work.

Somehow, Swerdlow found out that Griffin needed a job. Griffin says Keith, who often works with Swerdlow, may have told the developer about his employment needs. Swerdlow says someone in his office introduced Griffin to officials at Turner Construction, which has done nearly $50 million of business with Swerdlow. Turner hired Griffin in March; the mayor admits he knew the company was interested in building the hall of fame project. Turner has since begun doing preconstruction work on the project; company Vice President Scott Skidelsky told me he believes Turner is "slated" to build it.

Since obtaining the new construction job, Griffin has voted to change the designation on two public parking lots so they could be sold to Swerdlow. The vote also allowed the commission to avoid a referendum on the project.

Obviously, this is some sleazy stuff. A responsible elected official would never have taken the job. An ethically compromised politician might have taken it, then declared publicly that he had a potential conflict and refrained from voting on matters concerning the swimming hall. Griffin, of course, did none of these things.

It was only after his new day job was made public that Griffin went to City Attorney Gordon Linn and asked if there was a conflict. Linn did what any good lawyer does: He found a legal argument that favored his client. "As long as there is no agreement that Turner will do any of the construction work which Mayor Griffin approves, there is no voting conflict," Linn says.

Linn is basing his decision on one paragraph of the Florida Code of Ethics, which states that elected officers are forbidden to vote on any issue they "know would inure to the special private gain" of their employer. Without an agreement between Turner and Swerdlow, Linn argues, Griffin couldn't have known that his vote would have inured to Turner's gain.

We're slipping into a Clintonian game here (I can see the deposition: "Well, that depends on what would would mean"). Now, I'm going to play prosecutor and tell you the violations of which I believe Griffin is guilty, and the first thing is a voting conflict. The salient fact: Turner officials would cheer any vote affirming the swimming-hall project. Why? Because the firm stands to gain from it. If the project is shot down, Turner stops doing work and loses what company officials considered a great opportunity for business. Turner has already started to work on the project, at Swerdlow's behest. Though Turner and Swerdlow both contend that no money changed hands, Skidelsky told me that his company expects to finish the job.

In addition to committing a voting conflict, Griffin misused his position. The Code of Ethics dictates that "No public officer... shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position... to secure a special privilege [or] benefit."

Well, Griffin, in his official position, hobnobbed and dealt with big-money Broward County players like Keith and Swerdlow. Then he turned around and used the engineer to help him find a job. Griffin admits that Keith "may" have mentioned it to Swerdlow, who then helped him get a job with Turner. The misuse of his position goes hand in hand with another violation: The mayor accepted unauthorized compensation. No public officer, according to the code, can accept anything of value when he "knows, or, with the exercise of reasonable care, should know, that it was given to influence a vote or other [official] action."

Why would a multibillion-dollar company like Turner suddenly hire a small-time contractor like Griffin? Shouldn't the mayor have known that his auspicious hiring might have had something to do with the fact that he's a development-hungry mayor who is pulling the strings on the coveted swimming-hall project? Of course he should have.

The Commission on Ethics should investigate the mayor on these points; at least one Pompano Beach commissioner, Kay McGinn, agrees with me. "I would like an investigation to see if he is guilty," says McGinn, who represents the beach area, opposes the swimming hall, and wore a bright red suit to last week's commission meeting. "Let's get the truth out. Is it a conflict, or is it not?"

But don't expect much from the ethics commission. The last time Griffin was involved in an apparent conflict of interest (remember John Knox Village?), the commission let him skate.

Another lax ethical watchdog is the State Attorney's Office, but still, it should investigate the mayor for possibly receiving unlawful compensation. Unfortunately, a nefarious politician practically has to throttle one of our assistant state attorneys and shout "Quid pro quo!" before they'll lift a finger. Former County Commissioner Scott Cowan, who never met a developer he didn't want to hug, had to steal from his own, easily traceable campaign account before anyone noticed he was crooked. There is no real ethical vigilance in Broward County, which is what emboldens the Swerdlows and Griffins among us. No wonder the swimming-hall/condo deal is going forward in Pompano. It's one of the last great jackpots -- and Griffin is giving it to Swerdlow for a steal.


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