Port Manatee fires No. 2 official as investigation into son's thefts continues

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 28, 2013 

MANATEE -- Robert J. Armstrong, Port Manatee's deputy executive director and chief financial officer, was fired Thursday.

Executive Director Carlos Buqueras wrote in a termination letter that he "lost confidence" in Armstrong's ability to effectively perform his duties.

The dismissal is effective immediately, Buqueras said.

In his letter to Armstrong, Buqueras wrote: "Simply put: I have lost confidence in your ability to effectively perform the duties of Deputy Executive Director and CFO, 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."

Last week, Armstrong was put on leave pending an investigation of his ethical conduct and resolution of criminal charges lodged against his son.

Armstrong was promoted April 6 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 salary increase to $149,510.

The port's law firm, Lewis, Longman & Walker of Bra

denton, is conducting an "administrative review" to see whether Armstrong violated any of the port's rules and regulations involving alleged crimes that involved his son, Robert Benton Armstrong. The investigation has not yet been completed, Buqueras said Thursday.

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 Thursday in lieu of $24,000 bond, according to Dave Bristow, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

Some of the items that were stolen were taken from the port. The thefts at the Port Authority were determined to have begun as far back as Jan. 1.

The elder Armstrong admitted to authorities that he went to Value Pawn in Palmetto and purchased some of the stolen items and returned them to the port. He also said that his son had stolen and pawned many of his personal items, including scuba gear, guitars and lawn equipment.

Other items stolen from the port are in the process of being returned, Buqueras said Thursday.

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

Efforts to reach Armstrong for comment throughout the day Thursday were unsuccessful. His office cell phone has been disconnected.

His biography was removed from Port Manatee's website sometime Thursday. It had noted that Armstrong worked for the Florida Auditor General's office before joining the port and was in public accounting for 25 years. He also was serving on the Florida Ports Council Finance Committees, the Government Finance Officers Association and various committees for the Florida and American Institutes of Certified Public Accountants.

"I know that people think we haven't been doing anything, but we have been doing an internal investigation since Day One," port authority chairwoman Carol Whitmore told the Herald on Thursday.

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.

Corie Holmes, a former county commission candidate who last week had asked the port authority board to suspend Armstrong, has questioned how Armstrong's son, with a criminal record, could have qualified for a security clearance.

The younger Armstrong has been arrested several times on charges of possessing heroin, cocaine, marijuana, Oxycodone, Xanax, Klonopin and other drugs.

In October 2007, he was charged with possession of a controlled substance for Xanax and Klonopin. In May 2008, he was charged again with possession of heroin and in December 2006 with possession of hydrocodone.

Holmes said Thursday that he believes the port took appropriate action in firing its No. 2 official.

"This conclusion thus far is a good outcome to move the port forward, but there's more to be looked at," said Holmes, who is a former sheriff's deputy and now works as a private investigator.

Buqueras said a search for Armstrong's replacement will take place, but won't begin immediately.

"We will plan to fill the position," Buqueras added.

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

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