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A breach of trust

In the small town of Bronson, many couldn't imagine that the mayor everyone had known since childhood could be corrupt.

CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published August 15, 2004

BRONSON - Home was just a rusty, one-stoplight farming town stalled between a storied past and an out-of-reach future, but Jamie Griffin never strayed far.

The town of Bronson sensed early that Griffin was special, burning with hustle and ambition, and that its fate would be hitched to his. Townspeople considered him "probably the one kid that was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 25," says councilwoman Edith Brown.

At 15, he hawked boiled peanuts and watermelons from a roadside stand. At 18, he won a spot on the Town Council, and at 19 built a roller-skating rink. Even those who thought the portly, folksy, sweet-talking entrepreneur flaunted his big homes and flashy cars did not doubt his dedication to the town and its 957 people.

When they made him mayor in his late 30s, he helped develop a magnificent park and pushed hard for a town sewer system. Says Griffin: "I love Bronson, and I wanted to see it thrive and become a wonderful place."

In Bronson, all 4 square miles of it, people had known the mayor all his life. They remembered his dad, the town handyman, and they knew how good a name Griffin was. "Everybody knows everybody else's name," says Griffin. "It's like the Cheers song."

Before it became easier to hide his face than to show it, that was a wonderful thing - one of the best - about life in a tiny town that lacked so much else.

It was too small to afford a thief, too trusting to see him coming, and when he arrived in such a familiar likeness, too scared to stand up to him.

Said councilman Franklin Schuler: "He's a bad man to have as a friend now."

* * *

When the bad news broke, late last year, a lot of townsfolk refused to believe it. Others wondered why it took so long for someone to finally tell.

For more than three years, investigators announced, Griffin had been stealing from the town, looting state grants, using city-bought supplies for his homes and restaurant and bowling alley.

Considering the annual budget was just $350,000, the missing money - $200,000 - boggled imaginations. The money came from state grants meant to expand the park and refurbish the historic Jackson House, named for an eminent town forebear.

Most troubling, however, was that Griffin had been able to steal so much, for so long, with what seemed, in hindsight, plain-view brazenness.

"The one thing we couldn't understand is for three and a half years, nobody had caught any of this," said Levy County sheriff's Lt. Danny Riffle, who investigated the case.

Like others, however, Mickey Beauchamp, the town's public works director, did notice the mayor stealing. He just didn't report it.

"If the Town Hall got plants and flowers, he got them, too," Beauchamp said. And when the town bought grass, "We had 8 acres of ballfield sprigged, and he had 3 acres at his house sprigged." Beauchamp says he feared retaliation. "If he was the mayor, who was I going to go to?"

How do you measure the damage Jamie Griffin did, in a place like Bronson? Do you measure it in dollars lost and projects squandered? In the park that sits unfinished, the historic house with peeling paint?

Or, in a town where some people still leave their keys in the car at night, that prides itself on not being Miami or Tampa, maybe you measure it by the words of the new mayor, Beatrice Mongo, who says Town Hall has changed radically.

Until Griffin, it operated largely on an honor system.

From now on, Mongo said, "Someone will be watching everybody."

* * *

It used to be called Chunky Pond, for the mounds of phosphate that rose from the waters. For fortune-seekers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, those big, chalky-white lumps beckoned like gold.

Situated at the county's geographical heart, Bronson became the seat of Levy County soon after the Civil War, flourishing around the coast-to-coast railroad that crossed through town.

But World War I crippled the phosphate trade by severing the German market, and the town watched its glory days chug over the horizon with the last train in the early 1930s.

To some, Jamie Griffin, plucky hometown boy, looked like the herald of their return.

If anyone had the know-how to stage an economic comeback, well, who better than Bronson High School's 1979 Most Likely to Succeed? Who else but the born businessman who kept his smarts close to home instead of heading for the big city? Who knew what Bronson needed more than he did, and who felt the place deeper in his blood?

Today, Jamie Griffin will tell you that he did a lot of good as mayor of Bronson.

He'll tell you how he got the Fire Department a new truck, its first in eight years. How he made the recreation field into one of the town jewels, stapling the grant applications and laying the sod. How he planned to put in a livestock pavilion, to attract rodeos and horse shows. How he hauled turkey, yams, corn and peas to the hungry at Thanksgiving.

How he pushed to bring Bronson a sewer system that would lure businesses to town and kick-start its long-neglected future. "Without that, there was just no room for growth," Griffin says.

* * *

Griffin's unraveling began in September 2003, when the Bronson Town Council voted him out after several terms as mayor. Councilman Franklin Schuler said Griffin's haughtiness alienated people.

"He was on a high pedestal," Schuler said. "He's really up there. He comes from longtime people that was here for a while, important people. He's sort of conceited."

Mongo, the new mayor who had known Griffin her whole life, started scanning city accounts. "Things just didn't add up," Mongo said.

Why had twice as many shingles been purchased for the renovation of the historic Jackson House as had ever shown up there? Why was a trailer intended for Bronson's youth baseball league sitting at Griffin's bowling alley? Why were two $150,000 state grants almost depleted, with little to show for them?

The Levy County Sheriff's Office, quickly realizing the case was too big to handle alone, brought in agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Investigators found the $3,981 trailer at Griffin's Chiefland bowling alley. They found two 10-ton air conditioners at an old restaurant he owned in Chiefland, and piles of roofing materials at the Bronson restaurant he was building. All were bought with city funds.

"The majority of people said they thought something was going on," FDLE agent Don Ugliano said of townspeople he interviewed. "What he was doing and building was fairly obvious."

In late 2003, sheriff's Lt. Danny Riffle, along with two FDLE agents, visited Griffin in his bowling alley in nearby Chiefland.

Riffle had known Griffin by first name for decades, had eaten meatloaf and fried chicken at his restaurants. He saw nervousness on Griffin's face, but no surprise.

"He already knew it was coming," Riffle said. "He knew why we was there."

Griffin called immediately for his lawyer, but in the end he confessed. He gave his rationale for stealing: He had done so much for the town that he felt entitled to what he took. As mayor, putting in 40- or 50-hour weeks, he made just $400 a month.

That Griffin stole even more than he acknowledged is a common suspicion among townspeople. Authorities can't say for certain. "He's admitted and has agreed to pay back $200,000," said agent Ugliano. "I think there's probably more. Are we going to be able to prove it? No."

* * *

In May, Griffin pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft and one count of scheming to defraud. The plea stunned those who insisted on his innocence.

The same day brought another shock: The 43-year-old town clerk, June Greenlee, who was in charge of monitoring the town accounts, was charged with grand theft as Griffin's accomplice. Investigators said she stole $7,140 from January 2000 to November 2003. She has pleaded not guilty and her case is still pending. "There was no oversight at all," said agent Ugliano. "When you have the same people write the checks and (watch) the books, then this is what you get. It was pretty wide open."

Angry townspeople have criticized their elected officials for allowing so much money to disappear on their watch. Edith Brown, a longtime councilwoman, said it boiled down to this: They trusted Griffin.

"Everybody's coming up to me now saying, "We knew he was a crook,' " Brown said. "After all this stuff is found out, people say, "I knew better, I suspected that.' Nobody ever said anything to us."

There's a widespread feeling that people beyond Griffin and Greenlee had their hands in the town coffers. Councilman Franklin Schuler shares that feeling. "In my mind, it had to be more than that," he said. "A lot of people knew what was going on, they just didn't say nothing."

Schuler said the town needs money to put sidewalks through residential blocks and a sidewalk leading to the local school. The town needs money to fix cratered, long-neglected streets. It needs lights. He would like to see the work done before someone is killed.

"We're in such a mess from this, we've got to wait until the smoke clears, because we can't do anything about this now," Schuler said.

In the end, Griffin left his hometown in the lurch.

With his arrest, the town is on the hook for a $500,000 economic development grant meant to extend sewer pipes to the restaurant he now won't be opening.

Mayor Mongo said the town just doesn't have it to spare and hopes the state cuts Bronson a break.

"They may have mercy on us, which I hope they do," Mongo said, adding there will be careful monitoring of town funds under her watch. She said she holds no grudge against Griffin. It would be un-Christian to do so.

"Actually," she says, "he did a lot for the town. We got one of the nicest recreation parks for the kids."

* * *

To Kyler Pettry, a 20-year-old artist who works in the Bronson library, which can only afford to stay open 25 hours a week, the embezzlement scandal sums up what infuriates him about home.

To him, it's a story of Bronson's backwardness, of willing blindness to a good old boy with a license to steal from people who couldn't afford it. "In a town like this, if you don't talk about it, it's not there," he said. "Everybody knew this was happening, but nobody talked about it."

Pettry escapes this month to college in Gainesville. He has been counting the days.

Griffin, 43 and unmarried, was sentenced just this Wednesday. A Levy County circuit judge offered him a year and a day in state prison if he paid back his $200,000 restitution by Sept. 15. Prosecutors had asked that he serve two years.

Pettry thinks prosecutors cut too generous a deal with Griffin, in asking that he serve just two years in prison. "It was a shadow of what he should have gotten," said Pettry. "He has deep roots, and around here, deep roots are just as good as deep pockets."

Toni Collins, a former deputy clerk at the Bronson courthouse, said Griffin's reputation as "a shaker and doer" with a "Midas touch" for grant-writing might have fostered a willingness to look the other way while he stole.

"I think there was an attitude of, "Well, maybe we'll let Jamie do it.' Because he was the one who got things done. You would trust him," she said. "We were all waiting for Jamie's restaurant to open, so we had a nice place to take people."

Collins said she would vote Griffin back into office, if she could. She qualified that, adding: "I'd like to have him as mayor, but not where he could get ahold of the money."

* * *

In July, in an open letter to townspeople, Griffin apologized to the people of Bronson and said he was terrified of prison.

In a recent interview with the Times, Griffin said he still adores his hometown, a peaceful place with old-fashioned teachers and folks who spend more time with their families than at work.

This is where, as a kid, he went fishing with his dad and swam in nearby Blue Springs. Where he saw his parents every day - it was the kind of town where that was still possible - until they died eight weeks apart when he was 30.

He described himself as a self-made man, a "go-getter" who has worked all his life. "I'm not go-getting very much right now," he said.

He said he built his skating rink the year after graduating high school and followed the venture by opening the Bronson Restaurant, where he served up country-fried steaks, meat and potatoes. He added, proudly, that he also opened "the first drive-through hamburger place Bronson ever had."

"I've always driven nice cars and lived in nice houses, for the last 20 years anyway. I've always aspired," he said. "You'll always have, when you're successful, those who would like to see you go down in a blaze."

It was no 9-to-5 job, being mayor. It was all-consuming. Whatever he gave, he said he fears he'll never live down the stigma of what he took. "You might have worked your butt off and done some good," Griffin said. "When you do something bad, it sort of cancels out the good things that you did."

Griffin has traveled to Europe and Canada, to big American cities, but he said it did not occur to him to stay. "I've known that I could go other places and do some things and get bigger," he said, but home always pulled him back. "It's everything that I know."

He has big-city friends who don't even know their neighbors.

"Bronson's still not so big that you don't know who people are," Griffin says. "It's kind of nice to be recognized. Maybe not so much right now. But it was nice."

Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com

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