To say Port Manatee CFO Bob Armstrong has been through the ringer would be like saying Paula Deen didn't have a good week. Just a couple of months ago, Armstrong, long respected as a key figure in the port's recent growth, had been promoted to the dual role of CFO and deputy director. Two months later, he spent Father's Day weekend on the east coast burying his dad, while his own son sat in jail. Little did he know, things were only going to get worse. On Thursday, he was fired from his job.
What instigated Armstrong's fall from grace is an all too common answer for such scenarios when they occur in the state of Florida – prescription drug abuse – though Armstrong himself never had to pop a single pill. His troubles have been well documented, but until now Armstrong has remained quiet as he tended to his family's woes. He agreed to an interview yesterday in order to have his side heard. Given what he's been through, I think that's only fair.
Armstrong's son has battled dependency issues for much of his adult life, sometimes with admirable progress. Throughout his recovery, he was instrumental in the formation of his church's “adopt-a-block” program and spoke about the challenges of addiction at countless neighborhood and civic group meetings – a slate that unfortunately tends to get pretty much wiped out when an addict suffers an epic relapse of the sort that Robert B. Armstrong fell into earlier this year.
The younger Armstrong managed to get clean long enough to get hired by the port in 2011 as a part-time grass cutter, to which Armstrong insists he had nothing to with. A previous internal investigation also found no evidence that his father helped Robert get on at the port.
By all accounts, the younger Armstrong was an otherwise sharp kid, so it's not that hard to imagine he could manage to get the unenviable job of doing menial part-time work out in the brutal Florida heat. When it was learned that he'd had some knowledge of computer-aided design, he was moved into a full-time position by the port's deputy director of maintenance. An investigation into whether Armstrong had a hand in his son's advancement also found no evidence of that being the case.
It's also been suggested that the younger Armstrong had received multiple raises during a time when port wages were frozen, another accusation that the senior Armstrong vehemently denies. He explained that, as per port policy, all port employees receive a 5 percent raise after six months, following the successful completion of a preliminary period of probationary employment.
Across the board raises given to port and other county employees in September of 2012 accounted for another one of his hikes. In another instance, raises were given to five of the eight employees in the maintenance department according to Armstrong, where his son seemed to do quite well until things fell apart. Then there was the promotion, which he says occurred alongside 14 other employees who were promoted at that same time in a port operation that has been steadily growing.
Now, it goes without saying that it probably didn't hurt to have a father in a high-ranking position at the port, and the elder Armstrong wouldn't have necessarily had to intervene for someone beneath him to think that it was a good idea to be considerate to the number two's son. Still, there's not really anything in his son's career path that jumps out as having been highly-unlikely were his father not the CFO.
It seems that by the time he was working there a year and a half, he was in a full-time gig that paid in the mid-30's. Not exactly a meteoric rise, nor something we'd likely be talking about had it not been for what happened next. There are questions as to whether the job was properly advertised and posted, as per port policy, and while that would raise a red flag and put somebody at fault for violating port rules, it again, doesn't mean Armstrong was unqualified or that his dad intervened. But the fact that the younger Armstrong relapsed into such a horrific spiral, one which seemingly led to him stealing and fencing port property, and ultimately getting fired for no longer showing up, certainly doesn't speak well for those decisions.
The first question raised was how someone with a prior history of drug abuse could get hired at a port, a national point of entry with obvious security concerns. Armstrong adamantly claims that his son made all required disclosures and was eligible for his initial employment. He also points to the fact that his son acquired a TWIC card and says that his history of arrests have been distorted in the press (Armstrong put the number, which has been reported to be as high as a dozen, at 4 arrests over a 3 year period).
The port's policy in terms of security clearances, or reviews when an employee is promoted, seems unclear and might be a problem in itself. Let's say that a criminal can meet the criteria to get some very low-level position at the port. If he can advance within the system without such things being evaluated in terms of the new level of responsibility he might incur, that would seem to present serious risks. Given that the police reports seem to suggest that the younger Armstrong was free to come and go as he pleased, successfully removing quite a bit of cargo without scrutiny, one has to wonder what someone with more nefarious intentions might accomplish in the same position, like a terrorist or a smuggler.
Theft and Recovery
Police believe that the younger Armstrong may have begun stealing items from the port as early as mid to late January, which is also right after he moved out of his parent's house, according to his father. When asked when he first had any indication that his son had relapsed, Armstrong said that it wasn't until May, when after having gone a prolonged period without hearing from him, his parental intuition told him something was amiss. His son was fired after he dropped out of contact and failed to show up to the job, which Armstrong says he assumes was linked to his relapse.
“I fully supported his termination, which was on the grounds of not showing up for work,” said Armstrong. “That's what he was fired for, not theft, and all port policies were followed.”
Where things get sticky is when it was discovered that port property was missing. Armstrong adamantly refutes reports that he purchased stolen port property from a local pawn shop and returned the items without notifying port officials, though it's been reported that police have obtained video of him purchasing back IBM computers that belonged to the port from Value Pawn in Palmetto.
“I never purchased back port items that had been stolen,” said Armstrong. “I never did that and I never stated that I did. That is absolutely false and that's what I told investigators. My son bought that property back with his money and gave them to me to return, because he was going to rehab the next day ... The only thing I bought was personal property that he had taken from me and pawned.”
Armstrong said that an annual audit had revealed that some items were missing and that when it was brought to his attention, he went to his son – who'd already been fired from the port – and he ultimately admitted taking the items and agreed to “get them back,” so that they could be returned.
“I put them back, and I reported that upon returning the items,” said Armstrong who claimed that he reported it to the port business manager and also another employee who assists the clerk's office in keeping inventory at the Port. Armstrong said they took pictures of the returned items and logged them into the file.
Detectives investigating the thefts, however, say in their report that the employees claimed Armstrong never said how the returned items were discovered, or who had taken them. If he did in fact attempt to abet his son in such a way, then clearly that is a major problem that would not only justify his dismissal, but seemingly put him at risk of facing charges himself. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office is still investigating the thefts at the port, while the Palmetto Police Department is investigating other thefts at a marina that also might involve the younger Armstrong.
Armstrong maintains that it wasn't until after his son had been fired for failing to show up for work that he'd learned he'd stolen items from the port. Port Director Carlos Buqueras fired Armstrong Thursday, citing a loss of confidence in his ability to perform his duties, “including the ability to properly handle and control Port property, act in accordance with Port policies, and act honestly and above reproach in the operation of the Port.”
The port says it is conducting an investigation through its outside legal counsel. Once it is made public and the MCSO has concluded their investigation, more should be known in terms of how exactly things unfolded. For Armstrong, the bulk of his fault seems to hinge on whether or not he attempted to cover up any of the thefts, which again, he adamantly denies. The port also needs to know if anyone else had knowledge of the thefts and failed to report them.
As for the board, it will need to follow through in seeing that public trust is restored and that clear and viable policies in terms of nepotism and employee background checks are in place and followed consistently. The port is a public asset and its security must be ensured through policy and practice.
As for Armstrong, who is 60, it's a shame to see someone who was almost universally seen as a uniquely-talented employee and port asset go down the tubes in an effort to help his struggling kid. After spending quite a bit of time talking to him, it's obvious that he's a loving parent who wants desperately to see his son freed of the demons that have haunted him.
I asked him if there was ever a part of him that worried, given his son's history, that having him work at the port could have had disastrous personal consequences. He quickly answered no, that he believed his son's sobriety was permanent this time.
Armstrong doesn't think he's violated port policy, but showing an almost soldierly allegiance, he didn't express a word of contempt toward the enterprise where he's worked for the last 10 years. In fact, each time he mentioned the port, it was with an almost fanatical reverence. Substitute “the corps” for “the port” and one could easily get the impression they were talking to a career marine officer.
Armstrong spoke highly of Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras and said that he understands his decision and feels that his boss is doing "what he believes to be in the best interest of Port Manatee." In fact. Armstrong expressed deep regret that his situation has taken the focus away from the good people and legitimate successes that have occurred there.
In terms of his own situation, Armstrong said he had no idea what would be next, but that his immediate attention would be focused on his son's predicament.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing that can be taken from this story is not only the incalculable effect that drug addiction has on our community, but that prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic that we have to solve,” said Armstrong. “Countless families have seen children, spouses, friends … the good and the potential just wiped out of them by this horrible disease.”
It might be wishful thinking, given how common such tragedies have unfortunately become. Still, who wouldn't like to see a silver lining to such a sad, sad story?
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