Embattled Manatee port official placed on administrative leave

rdymond@bradenton.comJune 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- Robert J. Armstrong, Manatee County Port Authority's embattled official whose son is accused of stealing from the port, was placed on paid administrative leave effective Friday afternoon.

"While the port conducts an investigation into this case, we have decided to put Bob Armstrong on leave until further notice," Port Executive Director Carlos Buqueras told the Herald. "Until this is resolved, Mr. Armstrong will not have access to the port."

Armstrong was notified of the leave by email shortly before Buqueras told the Herald at 4 p.m. of the decision.

"For the time being, I will take over his duties," Buqueras added.

On April 6, Armstrong had been promoted from his job as the port's CFO and senior director of business, earning $127,587 annually, to CFO and deputy executive director with a raise to $149,510, according to port records.

The port's law firm, Lewis, Longman & Walker of Bradenton, is conducting an "administrative review" over the next few weeks to see if Armstrong violated any of the port's rules and regulations involving alleged crimes that involved his son, Robert Benton Armstrong.

Armstrong's son, 24, who also was a port employee, was arrested June 11 and charged with 24 counts of burglary, defrauding a pawn shop and dealing in stolen property, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Robert Benton Armstrong remained in the Manatee County jail Friday in lieu of $24,000 bond, according to the sheriff's office website.

Some of the items that were stolen were taken from the port, the Herald has reported.

Armstrong's son was hired in late 2011 as a part-time

laborer making $20,800 annually.

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

The elder Armstrong told authorities he went to Value Pawn in Palmetto and redeemed some stolen items in order to return them to the port.

Carol Whitmore, chairman of the Port Authority, said Armstrong's leave is straight from the port rule book and it didn't come about due to outside pressure.

"We have been working with our attorneys, following all the policies and procedures, and this was the correct time for this step," Whitmore said Friday.

"I am disappointed if any person or any event would tarnish the port," Whitmore added when asked her assessment of the Armstrong case. "We are doing wonderful things at the port. We have interviewed with three countries over the last two or three weeks to bring business to Manatee County. They won't tolerate any rules or procedures broken."

While he is on leave, Armstrong's duties, which include business administration, finance, human resources, risk management and accounts and receivables, will be handled by the port's senior directors, Buqueras said.

Buqueras said the decision to put Armstrong on leave was made "in the best interest of the port."

"The law is the law and the rules are the rules and everyone does abide by the rules," Buqueras said.

"The main reason this investigation is being conducted is that we didn't want any perception that there was any interference by any member," Buqueras added. "We are doing this to remove any spectre."

Local activist Corie Holmes, a former Manatee County commission candidate, told the authority board Thursday that Armstrong should be put on leave while the port considered what happened.

Asked if Holmes' words motivated port officials to put Armstrong on leave, Buqueras said, "It was an independent decision."

Armstrong also told authorities 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.

Buqueras said the administrative investigation will not deal with previous complaints concerning Armstrong's management style, in which he had attracted some criticism for speaking to both men and women in a disrespectful, condescending, and/or aggressive manner, according to an internal report.

Richard Dymond, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686

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