Swimming in Trouble | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Swimming in Trouble

Congratulations are in order for Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin, who recently landed a new job at a huge, Dallas-based firm called Turner Construction. You may not have heard about the new gig, since Griffin hasn't talked about it publicly, but it's a very big deal. Turner has offices in 42 cities, including Miami and Boca Raton, where Griffin has been reporting to work since March 1. The company boasts $6 billion in annual revenues and touts itself as the largest construction firm in the United States. Although Griffin is too modest to disclose his salary, he's surely making a pretty hefty paycheck. It's quite a step up from the mom-and-pop home-renovation business that he'd been running for the past 30 years or so.

So congratulations, Mr. Mayor.

His position is "business developer." He says that entails "cruising" newspaper stories and ads every morning to find big construction jobs for his boss, Scott Skidelsky, a Turner vice president. So far, the mayor hasn't drummed up any business, but he says it takes many months to develop good leads and contacts in the business.

Interesting how he got the job. Last November, he decided to up and shut down his old business. "I needed a change of pace," Griffin explains. As it happened, he also began talks in November with mega-developer Michael Swerdlow to bring the International Swimming Hall of Fame and two giant, high-rise condos to Pompano.

Swerdlow also happens to have a close relationship with Turner Construction -- $50 million close, in fact. That's the amount Swerdlow paid Turner for building two of his projects in Miami-Dade County last year.

While Griffin was trying to drum up support for the Swimming Hall of Fame, he found time to send out 40 or more résumés to all the big construction companies in the area. The mayor says that he sent one to Turner but that the company didn't seem interested at first.

Just about everyone in town, however, was intrigued by the Swimming Hall of Fame deal. Beach residents generally loathe the idea and have been protesting the project since it was announced. They were especially angry about the proposal to construct condos on prime, city-owned beachfront land, where there is now a public park and parking lots. That the city was going to use $31 million in Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds to finance the aquatic center didn't go over well either.

While the controversy simmered, Swerdlow found out that Griffin, whom he considers a friend, needed a job. Swerdlow says he doesn't remember whether it was Griffin or a mutual friend who told him that the mayor needed work, but the developer acknowledged that someone in his office -- he wouldn't say who -- gave Griffin employment assistance. "Griffin might have told 20, 30, 80 people that he needed a job and [asked], 'Did anybody know someone in the construction business?'" Swerdlow explains in a telephone interview from his office in Hollywood. "Over a period of months, it came to my attention... and someone here in the office might have introduced [Griffin] to Turner."

The mayor, however, professes ignorance about how he landed the Turner job. He says that as far as he knows, Swerdlow didn't help him get his new gig. "I'm not saying it didn't happen; I'm just saying I'm not knowledgeable about it," Griffin says. "I don't know how [the Turner job] came about. I sent out a lot of résumés."

Griffin says his friend Bill Keith -- who was helping him find work -- might have mentioned it to Swerdlow. Keith, by the way, owns a Pompano Beach engineering firm that contracts with several local governments. I asked Griffin if Keith has done any work for his city. "I don't think so," the mayor answers.

He thinks wrong. Keith has done work for the city, including a 2000 study that helped establish the very CRA that is generating the $31 million slated to pay for the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Just last year, Griffin voted to hire Keith and Associates for a city job worth nearly $300,000. In Pompano, it really is a small world after all.

The Swerdlow Hall of Fame deal, meanwhile, is on the fast track, thanks to Griffin's tenacity. Though the commission has so far cast three votes in support of the project, it is still months away from final approval.

Asked whether Turner Construction is interested in building the Hall of Fame and condos for Swerdlow, the mayor answers in the affirmative. "They asked me about it because they were looking at it," Griffin says. "They said, 'Do you know anything about this project?' I said, 'It's not a project yet because it hasn't been approved.'"

Good answer. But Griffin's boss, Skidelsky, has a different take. Skidelsky proudly tells me that Turner Construction is not only interested in building the hall but that his company has already begun preconstruction work, including setting up schedules, materials lists, and budgets. He says he expects that Swerdlow will ultimately choose Turner as the builder once Griffin and the rest of the commissioners approve the deal.

"We have a successful relationship with Michael [Swerdlow], and we're going to continue to have a successful relationship," Skidelsky says. "We believe we are slated to be the contractor for the International Swimming Hall of Fame. We're assisting him on the project right now."

Swerdlow says that, although Turner did some work for him on the project, it's far too early to decide whom he will choose as the contractor. "I don't want to see Turner get hurt because Bill is working for them," he says, his voice rising with anger, when I ask him about the mayor's role. "You shouldn't try to make anything out of this, because it's not fair to Mayor Griffin. It's not right for a guy's livelihood to be jeopardized."

Swerdlow should know: He has a history of attaching his deals to politicians' livelihoods. You may recall the infamous 1997 Port Everglades deal in which Swerdlow sold 271 acres to Broward County for $120 million, about double the price that county's appraisals showed for the raw land, much of it swamp.

Former County Commissioner Sylvia Poitier was slammed by opponent Kristin Jacobs during the 1998 commission race for accepting $2250 in contributions from Swerdlow before she even opened her campaign account. The claim probably contributed to Poitier's loss. Another fallen commissioner, Scott Cowan, was also rumored to have procured work for his former law firm, Atlas, Pearlman, Trop & Borkson, from Swerdlow, though it was never proven. Swerdlow concedes to me that he gave the firm a "couple of leasing contracts," which helps explain why Cowan, who was drummed out of office in 2000 after being convicted of campaign violations, supported the port deal so wholeheartedly.

Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom, who opposed the port deal, still distrusts Swerdlow and contends that no government is a match for the developer. Rodstrom recalls that Swerdlow's lobbyist, Ron Book, offered his private firm work as well. Rodstrom declined the offer, which Swerdlow insists Book made without his knowledge. "Book did it, and at the time, I wasn't doing anything in Broward County," Swerdlow explains. "He was trying to do something for Rodstrom."

My questions about Griffin's job and his financial ties to politicians soon begin wearing on the developer, who is known for his gruffness. "Nobody has built more in this county than me!" he yells into the phone. "Nobody has contributed as much to this county's tax base as me! This needs to stop -- it's ridiculous. The lack of gratitude in this town is legion.... All you have are shopping centers, office buildings, and homes that I built. If it wasn't for people like me, there wouldn't be any services -- you think these buildings just grow, that they just grow out of the ground?"

No, they're often built after a developer greases the wheels for politicians with questionable motives. Like Mayor Griffin, for instance. This new employment scandal, which I'll rather lazily call Turnergate, needs a criminal investigation. To avoid that, Griffin must choose between Turner Construction and the City of Pompano Beach. The natives, who were already envisioning his head on a pike, are going to be cracked-lip thirsty for the mayor's blood after reading this. Call me cynical, but I just don't think the beach residents are going to take kindly to news that Swerdlow's company helped Griffin get a job at a firm that is not only gunning for the Swimming Hall of Fame project but has already done work on it.

So I've got some advice for you, Mr. Mayor: Keep the money, and lose the public service. You're not cut out for it. You've shown us again and again that you're severely ethically challenged, and like a case of the mumps, you've run your course. Here are some simple instructions on what to do: (1) Make peace signs with your index and middle fingers, (2) lift your arms high above your head, (3) wave both arms simultaneously, and (4) climb into a helicopter.

I'm not necessarily saying you're a crook, Griffin. I'm just saying you never should have been a mayor.

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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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