George Touart

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George Touart
Touart.jpg
Born August 24, 1948
Pensacola
Occupation Escambia County Administrator
(2002-2007)
Spouse Barbara Touart
Children Christy, Amber, Matthew, Jacob

George Touart (IPA: /ˈtuɑɹ/, born 1948) is the former Escambia County Administrator, serving in that position from April 22, 2002 until September 6, 2007, when he was replaced by interim administrator Bob McLaughlin.

During his tenure he presided over the Perdido Sports property purchase which was held up because of business relationships Mr. Touart had with some of the owners. The failure to disclose these relationships resulted in Mr. Touart's resignation in 2007. In addition, he took office just days after the Governor removed from office of several County Commissioners, as well as the County's reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Ivan. Also during his tenure, Mr. Touart brought to Escambia County much needed industry including Navy Federal which is now one of the County's largest employers.

He and his wife Barbara have four children: Christy, Amber, Matthew and Jacob.

Contents

[edit] Education and early career

Born in Pensacola, Touart received a Bachelor of Science degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Troy State University.[1]

Before returning to Pensacola, Touart served as administrator in two Mississippi counties, Jackson County (from 1989 to 2001) and Madison County (from December 2001 to April 2002). He was also a City Councilman in Pascagoula, Mississippi, from 1984 to 1989.

He was appointed Escambia County Administrator on April 4, 2002, by a unanimous Escambia County Commission vote in which he was selected over four other candidates.[2] He officially took the position on April 22, replacing interim administrator Bob Halfhill, who had served since the resignation of Tom Forrest on December 3, 2001.

[edit] Controversies

[edit] Arety's Angels

In February 2003, Touart's son Matthew, 21 at the time, charged nearly $6,000 at local strip club Arety's Angels to a credit card he had stolen from his father. (Grand theft charges against Matthew were eventually dropped after he completed a "life skills counseling course."[3]) The club's owner, Arety Sievers, was contacted on Touart's behalf by an investigator working Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby, who asked Sievers to follow up on the illegal use of the credit card. Sievers declined to forgive the charges.

After an October 3, 2003[4] raid on her club by the Pensacola Police Department, during which two dancers were arrested for illegal body contact with customers, Sievers accused Touart and McNesby of orchestrating the raid in retaliation against her. These charges were not substantiated. [5] Warrants for the raid, part of a sweep by the Department, were granted following "complaints of inappropriate behavior by dancers."[6] The State Attorney's Office concluded on January 13, 2004 that police did not selectively target Sievers' club, but "devoted far greater manpower and financing to the Arety's investigation than to the other five strip clubs which could be attributed to complaints and issues with the strip club. ref>"Arety's Angels wasn't unfairly targeted but got most attention, state report says." Pensacola News Journal, January 14, 2004.</ref>

A grand jury convened on June 7, 2004 to investigate the allegations, but declined to indict Touart or McNesby of any criminal wrongdoing for lack of evidence or any connection to the strip club investigation.[7] However, a later story by WEAR revealed that the wife of one of the grand jurors was employed by McNesby at the Escambia County Sheriff's Office. What was not pointed out, was that the woman disclosed her position at the department and was still picked for the Grand Jury. In no way did she purjor herself in order to protect the Sheriff or Mr. Touart.

After the story broke, the 21-member jury released a statement asserting that, "in an abundance of caution," the juror in question had disclosed his relationship to McNesby and sat out deliberations involving him (but not Touart). The statement added, "To imply that one person could exert such an influence over the other 20 of us demonstrates an ignorance of the process, diminishes us all and casts doubt upon the entire grand jury system."[8]

[edit] Illegal hunting trip

Escambia County administrator George Touart plead "No Contest" to illegal hunting and illegal possession of game birds. The group hired a guide who was unknowingly to them under investigation for hunting license issues. The comparison would be like hiring a charter boat without a reef permit. In this case, the group of friends hired the guide unknowing to them the guide did not have the proper licensing. The charges stem from a hunting trip to Wisconsin in 2005. Touart has to pay a fine of just over 23-hundred dollars and will lose his privilege to hunt in Wisconsin for 3 years. Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby And County Commissioner Mike Whitehead, a prominent local preacher as well as others were also on the hunting trip. They plead no contest to their charges last year.

[edit] Connections to County land deal

On August 21, following inquiries by the Pensacola News Journal, Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV and County Attorney Janet Lander halted the purchase of a 217-acre property off Bauer Road, which the Board approved 4-0 on August 2. (Robinson was out of town at the time.) The property, almost 70% wetlands, was purchased for $1.41 million from Martine's Corp. to be developed by the County as ballparks for the Perdido Bay Youth Sports Association.

The county administrator is required to obtain two appraisals for property purchases over $250,000, as well as an environmental site assessment.[9] The seller offered its own appraisal (from John Hufford) of $1.75 million,[10] while the County obtained a second appraisal of $1.41 million from John Asmar.[11] Both appraisals are significantly higher than the $328,420 assessment by the County's property appraiser.

The newspaper's investigation was related to business and social ties between Touart and Neal Nash, vice-president of Martine's Corp., the extent of which were not disclosed to the Commission prior to the sale. Touart has also been linked to Ronald Swaine, owner of Swaine & Company, which negotiated the sale and stood to receive a 10% commission.[12]

The following relationships exist between Touart, Nash and Swaine:

  • The three men have a pre-sale contract to buy a Panama City condominium. Touart has cited financial difficulty stemming from his real estate investments[13] and claimed the other two "agreed to buy me out at closure."[12]
  • Nash and Touart owned a 30-foot Grady White boat together, registered in Alabama under the name "Nash Touart." Touart later bought Nash's share of the boat, registering it under his own name in Florida in December 2006.[12]
  • Touart has an interest in four lots (his wife bought a fifth) at the Nature Trail subdivision being developed by Swaine & Co. with John S. Carr & Company. Nash is also a partner of the development's realty company. Asked by the News Journal about Touart, Swaine said, "To my knowledge, Nature Trail has never sold him any lots."[12]
  • Touart and Nash have taken several vacations together, in Alaska and elsewhere, with their families.

These relationships represent a possible violation of Florida state 112.313 (7)(a), which forbids public officers from having "any employment or contractual relationship with any business entity" that does business with their agency. An exemption is allowed if "there is full disclosure by the officer … prior to the purchase."[14]

Several commissioners have criticized Touart's failure to disclose the relationships in light of a previous scandal, in which Commissioner W.D. Childers allegedly engineered the County's purchase of two properties owned by his friend Joe Elliott. Four of the five commissioners were removed from office by Governor Jeb Bush in May 2002, shortly after Touart began work as administrator.

Commissioner Mike Whitehead dismissed Touart's nondisclosure as "just an oversight," but added, "in this post-W.D. era, we just got to have disclosures on this stuff." Commissioner Robinson said, "The worst thing it did is we are trying to build trust with the people and this pushes us back and we've lost trust."[14]

On August 23, 2007, the County Commission voted to cancel the land deal. At the same meeting, the Commission also voted to put off until September 6 any decision on reprimanding or penalizing Touart for his lack of disclosure. The Pensacola News Journal and other media outlets published editorials calling for Touart's retirement.[15]

All in all, at no time did Touart break the law or do anything unethical. In fact, an investigation ensued in which cleared Touart of everything, however, did mention the witch hunt the News Journal did. Later, the county went on to purchase the EXACT tract of land for a much higher price than what Touart negotiated. Unfortunately, the higher land purchase price robbed the ball park of some much needed amenities.

[edit] Other connections

After the fallout of the Bauer Road land deal, some of Touart's other business relationships were criticized for presenting potential conflicts of interest for the county administrator.[16]

  • Touart is a partner in Mississippi-based employee staffing firm Global Employment Services, which has done work for the Disaster Recover division of R. W. Beck Group, which in turn was awarded millions by Escambia County for debris removal after hurricanes Ivan and Dennis and was pending approval to cleanup Escambia's coastal waterways. Touart insists that his relationship to the company is not improper, as Global Employment Services (GES) has never done work in Escambia County. He told the Independent News, "I've checked with the state ethics commission and with (Escambia County Attorney) Janet Lander. I don't have an ethics issue because the R. W. Beck contract with county was signed before we (GES) did any work with them and because my company (GES) does not work in Escambia County."[17]
  • In 2005, Touart and then-County Commissioner Bill Dickson partnered with Dickson's cousin, CPA Barry Dickson, to purchase an 8% share in a waterfront investment property in Mississippi. Barry Dickson was offered the share by his clients, developers Allen Levin and Cliff Mowe. "This was Barry Dickson's deal," Touart said.[16] Touart and Dickson assert there was nothing illegal in the partnership, as the property in question is in Mississippi, not Escambia County, but others have questioned the propriety of such an arrangement. Pensacola News Journal columnist Mark O'Brien posted, "Imagine if Touart messed up as administrator. A commissioner might have trouble disciplining a guy he was partners with on a development deal."[18]

[edit] Retirement

At the September 6, 2007 Board of County Commissioners meeting, facing criticism related to his private business dealings and citing an "atmosphere of distrust" that made it "almost impossible to continue as county administrator,"[19] Touart announced his intention to retire "effective April 22, 2008 … pending the approval of the settlement and release agreement setting forth the severance terms and conditions for my retirement." He was granted temporary administrative leave by the Board while the terms of his retirement could be negotiated, and assistant administrator Bob McLaughlin was appointed to serve until a permanent replacement could be found.

Touart had requested to remain on paid leave until April 2008 so he could retire with the Florida Retirement System's pension plan, which would be worth up to $1,275 per month. At the time of his stepping down, Touart was vested in the FRS investment plan (similar to a 401(k)), and allowing him to remain on the county's payroll long enough to qualify for the pension system would have required a change in his contract. It was one of three severance options recommended by Escambia County Attorney Janet Lander, only one of which consistent with his current contract.[20]

On September 18, the County Commission voted 3-2 to deny Touart's request to amend his contract. Commissioners White and Valentino supported the motion tendered by Marie Young, who said, "If you don't qualify for retirement, you don't qualify. This is nothing personal. It's just the way it is."[21]

In a September 28 letter to county officials, attorney P. Michael Patterson wrote that Touart had been assured by the Board's staff that the terms of his retirement would be approved. He added, "The BCC should not and can not terminate Mr. Touart's employment under the ruse of accepting his announced retirement and then rejecting any agreement implementing his retirement effective April 2008."[22]

In an October 2 response, Lander disputed the authority of any informal assurances made by county staff, citing the contract's wording that any modification "shall be binding only if evidenced in writing signed by each party." She said that Touart "will continue to receive his salary and benefits through December 31, 2007 and at the end of this period he will receive a lump sum payment of all accrued PTO, MOB and ELB and will receive information regarding the distribution of [investment plan] retirement funds which are held by the FRS."[23]

[edit] References

Caution; Any information referenced from Ricks Blog or Independent News is open to interpretation and should be validated by a separate source.

  1. County bio
  2. "Touart picked to lead Escambia." Pensacola News Journal, April 5, 2002.
  3. "State drops charges against county administrator's son." Pensacola News Journal, October 15, 2004.
  4. "Arety Sievers on her facebook page"
  5. "Lounge owner blasts Touart." Pensacola News Journal, January 9, 2004.
  6. "Two arrested after sting at local clubs." Pensacola News Journal, October 8, 2003.
  7. "Officials not charged in inquiry of strip club." Associated Press, June 11, 2004.
  8. "Nice Watchdog." Independent News, June 25, 2004
  9. Escambia County purchasing ordinance, page 30, "Sec. 46-139. Purchase or lease of real property by the county."
  10. Hufford appraisal
  11. Asmar appraisal
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 "Touart's ties to seller delay county land deal." Pensacola News Journal, August 22, 2007.
  13. "Touart's fiscal luck sinks with real estate." Pensacola News Journal, August 22, 2007.
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Commissioners discuss Touart's future." Independent News, August 23, 2007.
  15. "Time for Touart to retire as county administrator". Pensacola News Journal, August 26, 2007
  16. Touart offers up his side
  17. "By George, the man is the Donald Trump of the Panhandle." Pensacola News Journal, September 3, 2007.
  18. "Touart resigns." Pensacola News Journal, September 7, 2007.
  19. "Touart's exit could pay off." Pensacola News Journal, September 12, 2007.
  20. "Touart forced to resign." Pensacola News Journal, September 19, 2007.
  21. Letter from Patterson
  22. Response from Lander
Preceded by:
Bob Halfhill
Escambia County Administrator
2002—2007
Succeeded by:
Bob McLaughlin
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