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Felton became the first black in the state of Florida to lead a corrections department in 1981 when he took over the jail system in Pinellas County. Ten years later then-president George Bush nominated him to be United States Marshal for the Middle District of Florida, but his appointment stalled in the Senate -- along with hundreds of other nominations -- owing to election-year politics. When Bush lost to Bill Clinton, Felton found himself looking for a new job.
The opening in Dade County seemed to be a wonderful opportunity, and Felton's impressive resume won him the job. But not long after coming aboard as director, he experienced his first taste of local politics. He had some immediate decisions to make after taking charge of the department, the most pressing being selection of his senior staff. One of the names that kept popping up for promotion was Donald Manning, an eleven-year veteran and a commander in the department. But Felton rejected the idea. "It was a situation where I was not enthusiastic about Manning," he recounts. "I felt that I needed some time to work with him." Furthermore, he says he was put off by Manning's attitude. "Manning knew his name was in the mix," Felton says, adding that when they talked, Manning made it clear he expected to be promoted, and even announced which of the three assistant-director slots he intended to assume: operations, which oversees the day-to-day running of the system. "He was saying, 'I want operations,'" Felton recalls. "It was very insulting. It didn't sit well with me at all."
After Felton decided not to promote Manning, he says, his immediate supervisor, Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera, told him they were going to have to explain that decision to Commissioner James Burke. Manning has served as his campaign manager in every political race Burke has entered in the past ten years. The two men are such close friends that for a time after Burke's separation from his wife, he slept on Manning's couch.
"They put me in a very difficult situation," Felton says. "I found it very annoying. There is a certain amount of power that elected officials have that you have to recognize. They have a feeling they are invincible, that they are not as vulnerable as we are."
On April 1, 1994, Felton says, he and Rivera met with Burke and the commissioner's chief of staff, Billy Hardemon. As tactfully as possible, Felton tried to explain to Burke that he had concerns about Manning's abilities and did not believe it was appropriate to promote him to the position of assistant director. Burke was incensed, Felton recalls, and repeatedly asked the director to reconsider. But Felton refused. "He was very unhappy," Felton says. "He was very unhappy and he was being very persistent: 'Why don't we put him in there temporarily?'" (It is a violation of the county charter for any commissioner to become directly involved in personnel decisions of county staff. Commissioners have the authority only to hire and fire the county manager and the county attorney; interference in any other area is punishable by removal from office.)
Felton says he has had general conversations with other commissioners about staff changes within corrections, but he has never encountered the level of "heavy-handedness" he experienced with Burke. Following that meeting, he believes, Burke considered him to be an enemy. "After that the attitude was set: 'We're going to get Felton,'" he says.
Not only did Felton snub Burke's closest ally in corrections, but one of the people he did promote in the general reorganization of the department was Anthony Dawsey, an active supporter of one of Burke's opponents in the last election campaign. Felton says Burke confronted him regarding Dawsey's promotion, and wanted to know how the director could possibly promote someone who, he recalls Burke saying, "wasn't with us."
Felton says he was only interested in promoting the best people regardless of their political connections. If it angered those in power, he says, so be it. He wasn't going to worry about the consequences. "I don't think you have any choice," he asserts. "You either roll over and do what they tell you to do or you are going to have enemies. Either you let them dictate to you how that department is going to be run or you don't and they are going to hate you. It's either one or the other."
Burke denies becoming involved in any personnel decisions within corrections. "I absolutely didn't do it," he insists. "I'm not the brightest guy in the world, but I can read and I know what the charter says."
Assistant County Manager Rivera acknowledges he attended a meeting with Felton and Burke on April 1, 1994. "I recall the meeting," Rivera says. "I don't recall the specifics of the conversation. I remember that during the meeting the commissioner raised some concerns that were generic about promotions. The commissioner may have brought up the name of Manning, but I don't recall."
Manning claims he knows nothing about the meeting and says he has never discussed with Burke A or anyone else A his desire to be promoted. "I never asked anyone for any position in this department," he says. "If that meeting took place, I think at the time Commissioner Burke was chairman of the public safety committee and he probably would have had some concern about who was being placed in what position and what their qualifications were."