Tom Johnston is a big man who, but for his prominent, parted mane of white hair, looks like a middle-aged Orson Welles, just pre-Touch of Evil. Under the hair is a large, bald, moon face, often partially obscured by eyeglasses. On his six-foot-plus frame, he carries his round, prominent belly well, usually under a suit jacket. But Johnston has more in common with Welles than looks. Like the legendary auteur, Citizen Tom is a virtuoso director, only he practices his art not with camera angles and lights but with cash and influence in Pompano Beach. He's also an accomplished actor, performing on Tuesdays at City Commission meetings.
Johnston is a member of that hyphenated group that ranks in the public mind somewhere above rapist-killer and below consultant-accountant. He's a lawyer-lobbyist. But he's not just any hyphenate -- Johnston is the hyphenate in Pompano, where developers are swarming to build skyscraping condominiums on the beach. The man exerts tremendous power over the commission, especially Mayor Bill Griffin. When Enron wanted to build a possibly harmful diesel-burning power plant in Pompano last year, Johnston pleaded the company's case before the commission. When Hidden Harbour Marina wanted to construct a huge boat-storage facility in a residential neighborhood, Johnston helped orchestrate the city's approval. During the past four years, he's almost single-handedly rewritten Pompano's building ordinances and zoning laws -- including ending the city's longstanding, ten-story height limit on the beach -- to make way for two proposed 40-plus-story oceanfront condo buildings.
So many developers have hired him that even Johnston apparently can't keep track of them all. One of his clients, Atlantic Point Inc., recently filed a complaint with the Florida Bar alleging that Johnston engaged in a conflict of interest when he took on a competing developer as a client. Last year, Johnston represented Atlantic Point in its attempt to build townhouses on prime city-owned beach parking lots. When moneyed developers Farrod "Fred" Zohouri and George Rethati -- who are planning to build the two skyscrapers -- decided that they wanted to put two 100-story replicas of the Eiffel Tower in the same place, Johnston joined forces with them.
"He represented us in the public parking lots, and then he suddenly jumped on with another developer," says Joe Nickelson, general manager of Atlantic Point, who was reluctant to discuss what he knows about the continuing bar investigation. "We said, "Hey, you are releasing information with [Zohouri and Rethati] that we paid you to put together.' [Johnston] is free to represent who he wants, but he should have at least signed a release with us to do that."
When even developers are lobbing ethical complaints, you know the natives must be restless. Pompano is a city at civil war right now, with the so-called "smart growth" activists revolting against what they consider to be a development-mad commission. Several citizen groups are at the gates, basically calling for Johnston's head. "He's a snake-oil salesman," says one activist, Paul Smith. Joyce Tarnow, who is leading a petition drive to recall Griffin and Vice Mayor Herb Skolnick, says Johnston "represents every bad guy who wants to come in and rip off this city." Another neighborhood activist, Mike Horan, calls the lobbyist the "sixth commissioner." But that's an insult to Johnston: He's more powerful than any of the five officials on the dais.
At times, he basically runs the commission meetings. On February 12, for instance, more than 100 protesters arrived to try to shout down a zoning change allowing one of the planned skyscrapers. During the meeting, Johnston indignantly stalked up to the microphone and stole the floor from lawyer Janice Griffin, who represented the concerned citizens. While Johnston shouted his objections, attorney Griffin protested loudly that Johnston was breaking the rules of the meeting. Dozens of angry audience members, many of whom openly loathe Johnston, screamed at him, "Sit down!"
Mayor Griffin, however, didn't dare get in Johnston's way. Johnston finally sat down on his own accord, but he'd already disrupted his opponent's argument. And the commission gave Johnston and his clients the zoning variance they wanted. "It's not so much that Tom does it," Janice Griffin remarks of Johnston's aggressive tactics. "It's that the mayor continually allows him to get away with it."
Such influence (and enmity) doesn't come without a price. Johnston is living proof that lucre buys power in Pompano. Some activists call him the city's "bag man" -- meaning that he carries large sacks of cash to politicians' campaign coffers. He and his two grown children, both of them lawyers who work at his Pompano law firm, often give the $500 maximum. The magnificent Johnstons, for instance, have already given Commissioner Bob Shelley $1000 for his current race. Johnston's clients -- including Zohouri and Rethati, who contributed a total of $1500 -- have given Shelley even more.
But it's those little things Johnston does that really make the lobbyist special. If you look closely enough at the mayor, you can see the strings -- and Johnston is holding them. Griffin has backed Johnston on almost everything, from the Enron plant to the marina expansion to the skyscrapers. They eat lunch together and are unabashed friends. When the mayor was roasted last Friday at a $1000-a-table charity fundraiser, Johnston put on his tux and emceed the event.
Forget about a touch of evil -- this courtship constitutes a smothering of the stuff. But they refuse to talk publicly about their relationship; both, despite repeated requests, refused to discuss it with New Times.
Johnston also woos Skolnick, who is widely considered to be the third man in the Griffin-Johnston power combo, but the vice mayor at least retains a semblance of independence. When Johnston and his family contributed $1500 to Skolnick's current campaign, the vice mayor returned the $1000 given by the lobbyist's children. "I sent the checks from the kids back and told them they were great kids and to consider it a gift from me," he says.
But Johnston knows how to find Skolnick's heart: It's in the large Palm-Aire community in southwest Pompano, where Skolnick lives -- and thrives politically. For the past 15 years, Skolnick's pet project has been to bring a large community center to his neighborhood. When Palm Aire's partnership with a private developer failed because residents didn't want to foot the bill, Skolnick asked the city for the $2 million to build it. He got the votes, and the commission moved to fund the center, but there was one hurdle: It needed a special zoning exception. Enter Johnston. The lobbyist represented the development on a pro bono basis last month before the city's zoning board of appeals. The exception was approved unanimously. Now Skolnick's neighborhood, with a special thanks to Johnston, gets a $2 million windfall from the city.
Skolnick swears he didn't even know about Johnston's little favor until after the lobbyist had done it. Asked why Johnston would volunteer for such a thing, Skolnick says he has no idea. "Nobody has influence over me except my wife," he insists.
Skolnick, however, usually votes Johnston's way (the vice mayor points out that he opposed the Enron power plant but could come up with no other examples). He acknowledges that the lawyer treats him to lunch on occasion but says he isn't a personal friend, and the 25-year elected official isn't afraid to speak ill of Johnston. "He can be somewhat pompous," the vice mayor says, bringing up Johnston's bullying ways at commission meetings. Skolnick says he'd never permit such behavior if he were running the meetings. "I'm not saying [Griffin's] doing anything wrong; I'm just saying I wouldn't allow it," he says.
Which leads us to the heart of the matter: The mayor doesn't resist the city's chief lobbyist at all but rather holds him close. Griffin has lost even the pretense of serving as a shepherd of the people. He not only lets the wolf run amok; he opens the gate for him. And that is why there is an ugly war of the worlds -- one of money-hungry developers, the other of outraged citizens -- raging in Pompano today.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.