Touart’s job came under question after the PNJ reporter Michael Stewart reported on the county administrator’s business relationships in connect with a purchase of land on Bauer Road for a sports complex for southwest Escambia County.
The newspaper reported that Touart had not reported to the commissioners his business dealings with Neal Nash whose family owned the property and Ronald Swaine, the chairman of the county’s planning board and owner of Swaine and Co. Inc., the development company representing the sellers in the land deal.
Touart, Nash and Swaine had a contract to purchase a condominium in Panama City. Touart had an interest in at least four lots in Nature Trail, a Beulah subdivision in Escambia County being developed by John S. Carr Co. and Swaine and Co. Touart and Nash owned a 1996 30-foot Grady White boat together.
The IN thought the land deal was a good one for the county despite the lack of disclosure by Touart. However, we felt it was critical to Touart’s employment future and the credibility of county government that he make full disclosure of all his business dealings since he was hired as the county administrator.
We suggested that he provide the commission and the public his personal income tax returns, records of all real estate transactions, financial reports of all businesses that he owned fully or in partnership with others, a list of all the clients of those businesses, list of trips that he had taken with people and businesses that do business with the county and records of who paid for the trips.
At its August 22, 2007 meeting, the county commission—which was Mike Whitehead, Gene Valentino, Marie Young, Grover Robinson and Kevin White—voted to delay the closing on the 271 acres and reprimanded Touart. The board would later cancel the deal, order a new appraisal and then eventually buy the land.
A week later, the daily newspaper uncovered more of Touart’s business dealings. His employee leasing company, Global Employment Services Inc., had done business with a major county contractor, RW Beck. RW Beck had done more than $28 million of work in the county since 2001. Also in 2005, Touart was an investor with Bill Dickson (then a county commissioner) and Dickson’s brother in a Mississippi Gulf Coast project being developed by Allen Levin.
The public outcry for Touart’s termination was at a fever pitch when the county commission met in early September 2007. The IN later learned that Board chairman Kevin White had instructed County Attorney Janet Lander to approach Touart about retiring. According to Lander, when she discussed it with him, Touart said he would talk with Grover Robinson and Mike Whitehead. Lander would tell Young and Valentino.
Young and Valentino said they were agreeable to the idea. Valentino said he still preferred the one-week suspension. Grover said he met with Touart and Lander.
At the Sept. 6, 2007 board meeting, Touart jumped the gun, before the commission could vote on anything, and resigned. The board accepted his resignation without voting on any severance package that would have kept Touart employed to April 2008 so that he would have been vested in the Florida Retirement System.
What followed was a big debate over whether Touart had resigned, retired or was fired. He lobbied to stay on the county’s payroll for the necessary six months. Escambia County Commissioners Kevin White, Marie Young and Gene Valentino voted to only pay Touart for his ninety days and his leave. Mike Whitehead and Grover Robinson had wanted to let Touart use his leave to reach state retirement.
In October 2009, we interviewed Touart after he filed to run for Valentino’s commission seat. He talked about had happened.
“I couldn’t sleep. Every day I was being called a crook. I’d never been in this position before. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t work.
“I would go in restaurants and felt people were thinking I was a crook, so I made a decision. The board came to me and offered me one heck of a retirement package, which they later rescinded, as you know. Janet Lander presented their offer, in writing, to me.
“I talked to my lawyer and he said, ‘George, the press is never going to leave you alone. You’re innocent, but the perception in the press is you’re not.’ So I retired.
“I would have had six years in. As we all know now, they rescinded their offer.”
I asked what went wrong with his retirement and his deal with the board.
“I announced my retirement and the press went nuts with it. The press got a hold of that package and again I’m on the front page. It’s amazing. Go back and look: ‘Golden Parachute Given to Touart.’ I’m paying for it but it’s a golden parachute.
“The board called a special meeting and on a 3-2 vote rescinded it. Only Robinson and Whitehead supported me. The other three voted against me. The political pressure on them was tremendous. I understand it, which was why I got out of the way for the good of this county. The toughest thing I ever have done.”
Touart admitted that he had some responsibility for his downfall.
“Rick, the only thing I underestimated–and I paid for it–was the perception of the general public. Public perception is something no politician can avoid. You’ve got to always be mindful of it. And you’ve got to live with it every day.
“When you recommend something to the board, you have to be mindful of the public perception.”