Alex Constantine - March 19, 2023
Election 2020: Iran-Contra spy wins Florida beach town mayor’s race
A pardoned Iran-Contra American spy won his bid for mayor of tiny Palm Beach Shores, an unneighborly clash between neighbors resulted in likely defeat for a Lantana Councilman and the first contested election in 11 years in Jupiter Inlet Colony saw an incumbent in danger of losing his seat.
In Loxahatchee Groves, voters approved term limits for elected officials and rejected the town’s vice mayor.
In Palm Beach Shores, Alan Fiers ousted Mayor Myra Koutzen with backing from about 55 percent of voters, Tuesday’s results showed.
Fiers’ bloc for town commission — former Mayor Tom Mills and former Commissioner Scott “Surf Doc” McCranels — led by slim margins over challenger Tracy Larcher and Commissioners Gil Gilgallon and Brian Tyle.
Fiers, who headed the CIA’s Central American Task Force during the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, worked with the man at the center of the scandal, Lt. Col. Oliver North. In 1991, Fiers became the first former CIA official to admit knowledge of the scheme. He was among 14 people convicted and six pardoned.
He settled to Palm Beach Shores, served as mayor and decided to run again to challenge Koutzen.
LINK - Charges against Fiers: "United States v. Alan D. Fiers, Jr."
Pardoned Iran-Contra spy at center of hot Palm Beach Shores race
Unless, of course, a candidate in the town’s upcoming “hotly contested election” happens to be the retired CIA spy whose testimony nearly 30 years ago played a pivotal role in exposing Iran-Contra, the Reagan administration's secret illegal diversion of money from Iranian arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels.
Alan Fiers, who ran the CIA’s Central American Task Force from 1984 until his retirement from the agency in 1988, is a former town commissioner who’s challenging Mayor Myra Koutzen in the March 17 election.
He is campaigning on a ticket with two other challengers — former Mayor Tom Mills and former Commissioner Scott “Surf Doc” McCranels, who are trying to unseat Commissioners Gil Gilgallon and Brian Tyler.
Team ATS, as the ticket is known for the initials of their first names, was formed because of concerns about positions that Fiers said threaten “the soul of the town" — from the mayor’s “fear-mongering” about finances to recent talk about raising building height limits along the waterfront that preserve the tiny town’s old-Florida character.
Among them: Neighbors allegedly harassed for taking sides, campaign signs vandalized, and accusations of illegal campaign contributions and error-filled finance reports.
Then there was the day the mayor fired an Iran-Contra salvo at her opponent.
Fiers was walking out of Town Hall on Dec. 16, after filing his qualifying paperwork for the mayor’s race, as his opponent was walking in.
“She certainly was not expecting to see me," Fiers (pronounced fires) recalled. “I said, ‘Hello, Myra.’ And she said, ‘What office are you running for?’"
Fiers, 80, said he told her that while he didn’t necessarily want to run for mayor, he was doing so anyway because he felt duty bound after being approached by citizens concerned about the direction of the town.
According to Fiers, Koutzen snapped back, “What do you want to do that for? Are you really ready to work that hard?”
Koutzen said she never snapped at him. “The first thing he said was, ‘I don’t want to be doing this.’ And I said, ‘You have to really want it,’" she recalled.
She does not dispute his version of the rest of the conversation.
“I said, ‘Myra, all my life I've done jobs that I didn't want to do and I did them well and I put as much time as I needed to do it right,’" he recalled.
“And I said, ‘For instance, when I ran the Central American Task Force, I didn't want to do that (take the post). But (then-CIA Director) Bill Casey asked me and said, ‘Al, we need you to do that job’ and I said I would.’"
“Well," Koutzen replied, “that didn’t turn out so well for you, did it?"
Fiers, sentenced to a year’s probation after pleading guilty in 1991 to two misdemeanors of withholding information from Congress, said he tried to laugh off the remark.
“I said, ‘Well, yeah, it did, as a matter of fact,’" he recalled. “‘The (Berlin) wall came down, we won the Cold War, and for a while Nicaragua had a democratically elected government. So, if I had to go through a little suffering, that’s OK.’ And I walked away."
Fiers, who was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, said his role in Iran-Contra never came up during his first successful election runs that won him a seat on the Town Commission from 2008 to 2014.
And he said it hasn’t surfaced again since his confrontation with Koutzen in December.
“I was absolutely stunned," he said, “because I'm the kind of guy that unless I am really angry I would never get in anybody's face like that. But she sure got in my face."
Fiers, a decorated Marine and former Ohio State lineman under legendary coach Woody Hayes, said he hasn’t been intimidated by the political tension.
“Do I look like I'm stressed?" he said from a rocking chair in the den of his Inlet Drive home, surrounded by framed photographs and citations, including a Purple Heart, of a colorful and controversial career.
“Let's put it this way," he said, dryly. “It’s not my first rodeo. I’ve seen a lot worse."
Pivotal role in Iran-Contra
Although it’s not something he openly advertises, his spy background has been no secret to friends and neighbors around town over the past 15 years.
After leaving Ohio State, where he said Hayes instilled a winning edict that would help guide Fiers, he joined the Marine Corps and eventually the CIA.
He served stints in Turkey, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia before being tabbed in 1984 for a prime job in Afghanistan. But Casey changed those plans and assigned Fiers to Central America.
Fiers said he resisted at first, but quickly got on board out of loyalty to his superiors and personal values of duty, honor and country.
The task force’s “heart and headache," as described by The New York Times in 1991, was a 15,000-man army of rebels fighting the Communist-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The army was also the focus of a dispute between President Ronald Reagan, who considered the rebels “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers," and the Democratic Congress, which prohibited the CIA from giving military support to the Contras.
But Oliver North, a Marine colonel and White House aide, sidestepped the ban by secretly shipping arms to the Contra rebels. The secret deal was exposed by journalists in November 1986, setting off the worst presidential scandal since Watergate.
Under questioning from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Nov. 25, 1986, Fiers said he learned about the illegal diversion only that same day at a presidential news conference. But in his guilty plea in July 1991, he admitted to prosecutors that North told him about the scheme in summer 1986.
Fiers was the first former CIA official to admit knowledge of the scheme, a revelation that made him the target of criticism from agency loyalists but also won him praise for cooperation that reopened long-buried questions about the CIA’s involvement with North.
“Many pieces of the Iran-Contra puzzle fell into place solely because of the information provided by Fiers," Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who led the investigation, wrote.
Fiers was among 14 people charged and six pardoned.
“It was a nightmare," he recalled. “But I always said it wasn't too great a price to pay because a lot of people died in the Cold War. I didn't die. So it was OK."
Retires to Palm Beach Shores
After leaving the CIA, he went to work for W.R. Grace and retired in 2004 to Palm Beach Shores, where since 1950 his family owned land fronting the Palm Beach Inlet, just across the water from the northern tip of Palm Beach.
He joined the town planning board in 2004, served on the Town Commission, then stepped back to spend time with family, water ski and write a memoir.
The working title, “Mist on the Bosphorus,” alludes to the narrow strait in Turkey separating Asia and Europe where he spent fond times early in his CIA career with his late wife of 58 years, Hazel, who died in 2008. He said he doesn’t have a publisher yet but the manuscript is just about done.
He said he has set the book project aside to focus on his mayoral campaign, launched because of concerns about zoning proposals that could change a town that still retains much of its 1951 charm.
A particular sore spot has been recent talk about raising the three-story cap on building heights to six, an option broached last year as part of a long-range plan that projects a $3.8 million town budget deficit by the end of 2024.
“There are probably other ways to increase the tax base without taller buildings," said Tracy Larcher, a member of the town’s revenue committee, who is running a solo campaign in the five-person race for commission. (The top two vote-getters win.)
Koutzen said she does not support raising the building heights, a move that can only be made by voter approval. But she said it’s an option that should at least be considered if revenue from oceanfront timeshares, the town’s largest tax base, stays flat as it has in recent years or declines.
“We will need an increase in revenue. Our town is all built out. It’s 10 blocks long and three blocks wide," said Gilgallon, the town’s vice mayor. “Some people want the town to look and stay like it was in 1960. Unfortunately that isn’t possible."
Koutzen said the town will save $500,000 after the commission voted in August to merge the police department with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, a move resisted by Fiers and others at the time but now generally embraced.
“I would say that that’s something you would want your commission to do — to work ahead and make sure the town has a sound financial future ahead of it," she said of the commission’s long-range plan.
Fiers and his Team ATS running mates think they can find other solutions that don’t ruin the charm that Mills describes in his 2006 history of Palm Beach Shores, “The Best Little Town in Florida.”
The mayor “is driving these decisions in an imperious kind of way and we can't let that happen," said Fiers. “The kinds of fear-mongering she is doing because of her budgeting scares people. It's not the way to do business. "
Not everyone in town agrees with Fiers’ assessment of the mayor, who has a master's degree in business administration from Fordham University and more than 20 years of management experience with Fortune 500 companies like MasterCard International and Citibank.
“The present commissioners as well as the mayor, especially the mayor, have done a great job. I frankly find no fault with them,’’ said Jerry Cohn, a retired developer who sat on the planning board.
Voters “should be begging the mayor to come back,’’ Gilgallon said. “She is brilliant. She has done so much for the town.’’
Koutzen said she has her own questions about the ability of Fiers, Mills and McCranels to effectively run the town.
Complaints filed with the Florida Elections Commission by her campaign manager, Jody Young, accuse each of the Team ATS candidates of filing campaign finance reports late and without proper signatures.
Koutzen also filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission accusing Mills of accepting a $100 donation from a Canadian, which she says is illegal.
“If they can’t be trusted to file simple financial reporting requirements, how on earth are they going to run the town?" she said. “They're cowboys. They have a propensity to ignore inconvenient laws. That makes me nervous.”
She and the two commissioners in the race also worry that Team ATS, if all are elected, will discuss town business outside of a public meeting, in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law.
The retired spy admitted he isn’t a Sunshine Law fan because he believes it “prevents the kind of creative thinking” that can generate solid ideas.
But he promised he will follow the law and only discuss town affairs with fellow commissioners at public meetings if he’s elected.
One day last week, a code enforcement officer from nearby Riviera Beach stopped by Fiers’ house to drop off Team ATS campaign signs that had been improperly posted on city property near the town border.
“I suspect that somebody complained," Fiers said, adding that “somebody cut down one of our banners" from a building east of the Blue Heron Bridge the previous night.
“In case you haven't figured it out, this is a really hotly contested election." he said.
Friends with Ollie
The campaign has driven a wedge through many friendships.
Gilgallon said friends who had posted his campaign signs on their lawns early this year were “harassed by their neighbors. I went and took all the signs off all of the lawns and threw them in the dumpster. I don’t want my neighbors to be harassed."
Another casualty has been Fiers’ friendship with Koutzen, for whom he campaigned in the past.
“I know her well. And we were friends, past tense," he said. “I don't think she considers me a friend anymore because she won’t even look at me. We were at a fireman's picnic last Sunday. Everyone is there talking to people and campaigning and schmoozing. And if looks would have killed, I would have been dead three times.”
There’s a candidates debate on Monday. Fiers said he hopes Iran-Contra isn’t brought up again.
“I thought about that," he said. “Yes, Ollie and I are friends but he’s a busy guy. We don't talk often but if he sends me a text or calls me, we respond. And we talk to each other.
“I think we both have great respect for each other, although there was a period in time it was really uncomfortable. The prosecutors went after us both and it was really hard. It destroyed friendships, damn near destroyed marriages. It was terrible.’’