Paying the Bill | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Paying the Bill

When Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin decided last November that he wanted a bigger job, he went to Bill Keith. The mayor couldn't have picked a better-connected fellow for employment assistance, especially in Griffin's field of construction. Keith's engineering firm, after all, is aligned with numerous major developers and builders and has contracts with the Broward County commission and a slew of cities.

One of those cities, in fact, is Pompano Beach. Griffin has voted with the commission to award Keith hundreds of thousands of dollars in city contracts. That should have given the mayor pause in seeking favors from Keith, but Griffin has shown over and over again that he won't let a conflict of interest get in the way of a good business opportunity for himself.

So he contacted Keith, whose engineering firm, Keith & Associates, is located across the street from city hall. "Friends are supposed to help friends -- just because he's the mayor of Pompano Beach, that doesn't mean he's not my friend, too," Keith declares. "I'll still step up to the plate and help him. He was looking for direction as a friend. I said [to Griffin], 'If I was you, I'd be looking for a big developer or a big government entity.'"

Keith spread the word of the mayor's job hunt among his elite clutch of friends and associates. One heavyweight he spoke to was Michael Swerdlow, developer of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which is proposed for Griffin's city. Though the mayor told me in June that Keith had informed Swerdlow of his job hunt (see "Swimming in Trouble," June 20), Keith isn't sure it happened that way. "I can't remember if I told Michael about or if Michael told me about it," Keith says. "Michael is a personal friend. I speak with him every week."

Keith is sure that Swerdlow told him he was helping Griffin land a position with the giant national firm, Turner Construction. And his first public statements about the job scandal provide insight into the behind-the-scenes deals tied to the proposed International Swimming Hall of Fame, which is worth some $250 million and involves the biggest names in Broward power circles. All the participants in the mayor's job search are connected to the swimming hall: Griffin is its chief political proponent, Swerdlow its mastermind and developer, Turner a bidder to build it, and Keith, who was hired by Swerdlow to conduct site work on the project.

But employment assistance is only one of the favors that Griffin has gotten from Keith. There are others. For instance, Keith says the mayor recently asked him for money to help send his 12-year-old grandson's little league baseball team on a trip to Cooperstown, New York. The businessman promptly wrote out a $1000 check for the team, the Pompano Predators. (The mayor, who didn't return my calls for comment, is helping the Predators raise a total of $3000. Where the mayor is getting the other $2000, I haven't learned).

The mayor also visited Keith in his office this past May and asked him to contribute $4000 toward salvaging an anchor believed to be from an 1804 shipwreck. Keith pledged the money and has already given $400.

Florida law forbids elected officials from soliciting gifts that benefit themselves or immediate family members from lobbyists like Keith. The only exception is if the gifts are for charity or a government agency. Both of Keith's monetary offerings help Griffin politically, but the money for the anchor is probably legal. The $1000 gift to the grandson's baseball team, however, is questionable, since it benefited Griffin's family. And Keith's biggest gift of all, help with the Turner Construction job, almost certainly violates ethics laws.

In Keith, the mayor has found a formidable political benefactor. The 65-year-old South Florida native is the consummate power broker, an affable man with southern-fried charm and a relentless drive to network with politicians, developers, and business titans. The son of a ship captain, Keith sprinkles his speech with colloquialisms, with every third or fourth sentence punctuated by a "you know wha'mean?" Born in Miami Beach, he graduated from what is now St. Thomas Aquinas High School and began working in the 1960s as a licensed surveyor. Ironically, the best-known man in the engineering business in Broward is not an engineer.

He nevertheless founded Keith and Schnars in 1972 and built it into one of the premiere engineering firms in the region. In 1997, Keith left that company and started Keith & Associates. During nearly four decades in business, Keith has been associated with virtually every governmental entity in Broward County and with major developers like Swerdlow and H. Wayne Huizenga. His company even worked with Enron before the energy giant collapsed.

Keith and his companies have given hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions over the years. Since 1997, he's donated $18,500 to those seeking state office. Keith also contributes regularly to county commission and city council candidates across Broward. He has, of course, made contributions to Griffin's campaigns, including $500 last year.

And the mayor, in his way, has given back to Keith. He's voted at least twice in the past two years to approve contracts worth more than $300,000 for Keith's engineering firms. Griffin also routinely votes on projects that benefit Keith, whose companies provide engineering and consulting work for numerous projects in Pompano, including two proposed skyscraper condos on Pompano's beachfront, worth an estimated $375 million, that Griffin is backing. "I don't know how I got those jobs," Keith says of the projects, known as Ocean Heights and the Marquis. "Am I certain that Mayor Griffin had nothing to do with it? If I say that, I'll find something in some notes that shows that he did. I think he did not, but there are no guarantees in life. You know wha'mean?"

I asked George Rethati, developer of the two condo projects, why he hired Keith. Rethati, a Hungarian-born businessman who lives on Marco Island and speaks with a thick accent, provided a rambling reply during which he brought up philosophers Hegel and Kant. "I don't know who told me about Bill Keith, I have no idea," he said. "How the hell can you know the evolution of consultants, how a linking to consultants comes about? You can't... we are like sponges... life is absorbed... there is no agenda in life; it forms itself."

Rethati is no stranger to the bizarre. Last year, he floated the much-ridiculed idea of building two 100-story replicas of the Eiffel Tower on Pompano Beach. (In case you're wondering, Griffin supported the notion until it was laughed out of town.)

Bob Shelley, a former Pompano commissioner who lost his reelection bid in March, complains that Griffin and Keith's entwined relationship is a violation of the public trust. And the Turner job is the "smoking gun," he says. "The appearance of impropriety is an impropriety, but obviously Bill Griffin isn't dealing with that," he complains.

Shelley, who is also a former state representative, says Keith would likely shower any politician with gifts. All they need do is ask. "Griffin abuses it," Shelley says of the mayor's panhandling for favors.

He has reason to be angry -- Shelley is a long-time aficionado of the beach area and has been deeply involved in Pompano's Community Redevelopment Agency, which is generating the $31 million in tax dollars earmarked for the swimming hall. He accuses Griffin, Swerdlow, and Keith of hijacking the process. "The deck is stacked against the taxpayer and, in [the swimming hall's] case, we're watching our beach access, our beach pier, and our beach parking lot being turned over to a developer," complains Shelley. "We're giving it all away and it makes no sense at all."

Both publicly and privately, Keith has profited from the CRA. Griffin and the rest of the commission, for instance, handed Keith & Associates the contract to conduct a $63,000 slum and blight study in 2000 that helped create the CRA. Now his company is being paid by Swerdlow to do site work on the swimming-hall project.

Keith's interests extend to the CRA commission, which makes recommendations on projects like the swimming hall to the city. Alfreda Burgess-Cole, who is paid to drum up business for Keith in northwest Pompano's black neighborhoods, is, predictably, an avid supporter of the swimming hall. But Burgess-Cole, who was appointed to the board by Commissioner Ed Phillips, says she doesn't believe her serving is a conflict of interest.

Her boss, however, concedes otherwise. "She should probably abstain from voting on an issue [pertaining to the swimming hall]," Keith says. "She's serving two masters, isn't she?"

Sounds like a certain mayor. You know wha'mean?

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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