Port Manatee urged to put embattled director on leave

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 21, 2013 

PORT MANATEE -- A top Manatee County Port Authority official should be put on leave until all questions are answered about his ethical conduct and the criminal charges lodged against his son are settled, a local activist insisted Thursday.

That's what former Manatee County Commission candidate Corie Holmes told the authority board Thursday, saying: "I tell you today, you had a serious failure."

"Clearly, security concerns that were lacking" should be addressed, Holmes told the board.

Holmes said port Deputy Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer Robert Armstrong should be put on leave until an investigation into the arrest of his son and former port employee, Robert Benton Armstrong, 24, is complete.

The younger Armstrong was arrested June 11 and charged with 24 counts of burglary, defrauding a pawnshop and dealing in stolen property, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office website. He remained jailed Thursday.

Some items were taken from the port, the Bradenton Herald has previously reported.

The elder Armstrong told authorities he went to Value Pawn in Palmetto and redeemed some stolen items for return to the port. He also said his son had stolen and pawned many of his own personal items, including scuba gear, guitars and lawn equipment.

The port CFO said his son "had a pill problem," according to a police report.

The board listened toHolmes, but took no action.

An investigation is under way by port attorney Jennifer Cowan, who declined comment, saying she preferred to wait until her report is complete.

"We have an ongoing investigation, and will have

no further comments until we find out something more," said Port Executive Director Carlos Buqueras after the meeting.

Buqueras said he knew nothing about the younger Armstrong's previous criminal record.

He said Armstrong passed a required security check before being hired as a part-time worker to cut grass.

Armstrong's son was hired in late 2011 as a part-time laborer making $20,800 annually.

By May, he was a full-timer working with computer-aided design soft-ware at an annual salary of $32,760, according to port records.

CFO Armstrong was at his father's funeral Thursday and did not attend the port meeting.

"Because of my dad's funeral today, and family issues, I'd like to decline comment at this time," the elder Armstrong said when reached Thursday.

Favoritism was one accusation made in a "hostile work environment" complaint filed last winter by Jill VanderPol, then-port communications manager who has since resigned.

An internal investigation into VanderPol's complaint found no conclusive evidence of favoritism.

The report did state,however, the senior Armstrong "speaks to women in a condescending, aggressive way.

More than half of the witnesses interviewedconfirmed that Mr. Armstrong speaks to bothwomen and men in a disrespectful, condescending, and/or aggressive manner," according to the Jan. 30 report.

VanderPol allegedsuch behavior had oc-curred regularly for many years.

No witnesses could be found to support VanderPol's allegations so the report concluded they did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment.

VanderPol could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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