TAMPA — A year ago, when published stories about Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's role in an NAACP voting rights lawsuit portrayed him as uninformed and often absent from work, his staff took immediate action to repair his image.
And it used voter education tax dollars to do it.
First, Johnson's chief of staff, Kathy Harris, enlisted the services of voter outreach consultant Thomas Huggins, telling him to get Johnson on a radio show aimed at a black audience so he could address the NAACP lawsuit.
Huggins, who billed the elections office $94,159 last year for voter education services, exchanged e-mails with Harris for three weeks, reporting on his progress in getting Johnson booked on a radio show hosted by Jetie Wilds.
Next, Harris hired Robin Lockett, the local NAACP's political chairwoman, as a $22-an-hour voter outreach worker.
When Johnson was asked at an NAACP breakfast about a decline in African-American voter registration, Lockett stepped in to deflect the question, talking over the questioner and saying loudly, "He (Johnson) is here to demonstrate the voting machine. Nothing political."
In ensuing weeks, Lockett worked closely with Herold Lord, a 24-year-old intern appointed outreach assistant by Johnson. Lockett and Lord conducted voting demonstrations at churches, festivals and cultural events, and handed out some of the 100,000 pens and 25,000 church fans purchased with tax money that displayed Johnson's name prominently.
Lord took 40 phone calls from Lockett in the first month after she was hired, according to elections office cellular phone records. Lord also had frequent phone conversations with Huggins and executives at Schifino Lee, a South Tampa advertising firm paid $630,645 by Johnson's office for voter education services.
Now Lord is among those who have been interviewed by the FBI in an investigation into Johnson's elections office spending.
The probe began in February, with the seizure of records at the Tampa office of accountants Ernst & Young, whose audit showed Johnson violated Florida law by overspending last year's election budget by $940,022.
The FBI interviewed Lord following reports in the St. Petersburg Times that one of the consultants he worked with, community activist Michelle Patty, campaigned for Johnson after she received $16,000 of the $155,000 Johnson's office spent on African-American outreach.
The FBI also obtained invoices and ads related to Johnson's outreach program from Schifino Lee in mid April.
Lord said he was interviewed by the FBI "probably because I was involved in the black outreach program." He said his interview lasted more than an hour but declined to discuss it further.
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The Times' stories on Johnson's role as a witness in a federal voting rights suit brought by the NAACP — published May 10 and 11 — were based on a process server's records and Johnson's deposition in the case. The suit, naming Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning as defendant, challenged a portion of state law prohibiting the registration of voters who gave ID information that did not precisely match driver's license or Social Security numbers.
A process server who tried to subpoena Johnson in the case could not find him for 18 days. The election staff did not know where Johnson was, when he would be in or how to reach him.
When Johnson did sit for his witness deposition, he said he was unable to answer dozens of questions about procedures in his office. Johnson complained that the NAACP lawyer was condescending, and he briefly put on a football helmet before beginning the second day of testimony.
Johnson did not respond to a reporter's phone messages last week.
Before the Times stories, Johnson's office never publicized his role in the NAACP case. But three days after the second news story about the NAACP matter last May, Harris — who sat at Johnson's side throughout his deposition — set off a flurry of e-mails with a message to Huggins.
"I want to try to get Buddy on the AA (African-American) radio show," Harris wrote. "Can you find out when Buddy could come on and talk about the NAACP V Browning? Thanks."
Huggins, a black Republican who served as board chairman of the Tampa Urban League before the nonprofit went out of business, owned a consulting company called Ariel Business Group, which already was under contract to provide outreach and education services to the elections office.
Huggins also had a close relationship with Johnson's office. His daughter was hired there as an outreach worker. Another Huggins relative got a job as a worker in the elections warehouse. Huggins' wife contributed $150 to Johnson's campaign.
Huggins corresponded back and forth with Harris and finally obtained the desired in-studio radio interview for Johnson. He then asked for a synopsis of the NAACP case to give to the radio host.
"Mr. Johnson was called as a witness by the NAACP because he has not taken a strict view of the (registration) law and directed his staff to use common sense when inputting data into the registration system," Harris wrote back in her summary. "Mr. Johnson has trained his staff to take extraordinary steps to ensure citizens can register to vote and have their vote count."
Harris also okayed the payment of the monthly invoices submitted by Huggins, including three extra invoices — 13 bills for the first 10 months of 2008 adding up to $91,015.
Huggins declined to comment, as did Harris, who in early April left the office now run by Phyllis Busansky.
It's unclear what Huggins' company did for the money. Elections staffers have been unable to locate any backup material for the Ariel invoices. Busansky received a final invoice from Ariel for $3,144 and asked on Jan. 26 for "daily records of tasks performed." Huggins has not responded, and the bill for $3,144 remains unpaid, Busansky's office said last week.
Lockett, a temporary outreach worker, began work the week after the NAACP stories. She left the job after Busansky defeated Johnson.
When Lockett stepped in to assist Johnson at the NAACP breakfast three weeks after the NAACP stories, it surprised Gerald White, a pastor and three-time candidate and former member of an African-American advisory committee during Pam Iorio's tenure as elections supervisor.
It was White who had asked about declining black registrations and about the use of new voting machines by disabled people when Lockett called him out of order.
"I was very taken back when I was cut off," White said later. "I hope those weren't political questions. I really wanted an answer. I was kind of shocked when I saw that (Lockett) was working for Buddy Johnson.
"We're used to openness with the supervisor of elections, and we weren't getting it any more. It's troubling."
Curtis Stokes, the president of the local NAACP, said he had discussed with Lockett her dual role as political chairwoman and as a paid staffer for Johnson last year and decided it would be best if she stepped aside from her NAACP position until after the general election.
"It might be perceived as a conflict of interest," Stokes said.
As for White, he agreed in the fall to do public service announcements on the radio for Johnson's office to try to stimulate voter turnout
Looking back on the general election, White believes it was community leaders and the political campaigns themselves — not Johnson's outreach program —that got voters to the polls.
"I would have to give him an F," White said. "I don't consider his office was a success at all."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org.