TAMPA — In a stinging 28-page report released Tuesday, auditors said former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson mishandled grant money, failed to properly oversee finances within his office and broke state law by overspending his budget.
Florida law requires county constitutional officers, such as the elections supervisor or tax collector, to balance their budgets.
The Ernst & Young audit shows Johnson overshot his general budget by $942,022. That's on top of an unpaid $2.1 million bill to Premier Election Solutions for optical scan voting machines — despite the fact that the county and state had appropriated money needed to buy this equipment.
The audit was the latest indication that Johnson left behind chaos after more than five years as supervisor of the county's elections office. In addition to a growing financial deficit, Johnson's tenure was marked by lost ballots and Election Day mishaps that caused delays in voting and tallying.
"It's time for an investigation," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who learned of the audit results Tuesday. "Johnson has insulted taxpayers. It's got to stop."
Johnson's successor, Phyllis Busansky, said that she will seek another, deeper audit to determine where the money went. Also, today she will ask Hillsborough County commissioners for $2 million to pay Premier.
"As a taxpayer, I am appalled at the overspending of the budget," Busansky said. "And as the supervisor of elections, I am embarrassed at how this has all played out."
Johnson lost his re-election bid to Busansky in November in a close race.
After she took over on Jan. 7, Busansky discovered financial records in disarray, equipment that had not been inventoried, and a batch of uncounted ballots. Her staff has been working ever since to get a grasp of the financial challenge that awaits.
Tuesday's audit helped highlight how big some of the gaps are, but didn't go into specifics about how Johnson spent money.
A review of expenses by the St. Petersburg Times has turned up the following:
• Invoice records showing $23,000 for 100,000 pens; $540 for lapel pins; $10,000 for church fans; and $6,000 for coloring books. Many of these materials, such as the pens that were handed out to voters, prominently displayed Johnson's name.
• A previous Times analysis of federal and state grant records showed Johnson spent three times more on "voter education" than Orange, Pinellas, Sarasota and Duval counties.
• At least $1.3 million — more than half of the allotted voter education money — was spent on media advertising in newsletters, radio, TV and newspapers.
The audit notes that these grants are subject to additional audits by agencies with the state and the federal government. If these audits determine the grants were misused, the agencies could demand that the money be paid back. Johnson downplayed that possibility in discussions with auditors.
If the federal money wasn't spent correctly, the state would be on the hook, possibly for millions. That's not a welcome prospect for cash-strapped state officials.
"The Department is very concerned about any possible misspent federal … grant monies," said Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning in an e-mail Tuesday after the audit was released. "We will carefully review the audit findings and continue working with Supervisor Busansky and Hillsborough County to formulate the appropriate next steps to ensure full compliance with state and federal law."
The audit is also critical of Johnson's office for taking control of its own financial matters on June 1, and removing that authority from the clerk of the Circuit Court, which had overseen bill-paying, vendor contracts and payroll for the elections office for years. Johnson said he needed the change to make sure his poll workers got their $140 to $220 Election Day paychecks on a timely basis.
But Ernst & Young auditors said Johnson failed to use the necessary internal controls to prevent overspending his budget. Also, oversight of the election office's financial books "was not designed properly and was not functioning effectively," the audit says.
Busansky has already followed the recommendation of auditors to shift responsibility for all financial matters back to Clerk of Court Pat Frank's office.
"This is exactly why I decided immediately to move everything back to the clerk's office, where it belongs," said Busansky.
Auditors say Johnson's administration also violated Florida law by missing a deadline to make an annual report to the County Commission and to return any unspent money to the county 31 days after the close of the fiscal year.
According to e-mails reviewed by the Times, Stacie Poppell, the CPA hired to help oversee financials in the elections office, warned Johnson's $175,000-a-year chief of staff, Kathy Harris, about the importance of the impending deadline. Harris, in turn, took over the duty of getting the annual report and excess funds to the county, but missed the deadline.
"My name, my reputation and CPA license lend credence to the integrity of the financial reporting of this office," Poppell wrote to Harris in seeking information to close out the year-end books. "I am certain you would never want me do to anything to compromise the aforementioned."
Harris wrote back, "I'm not sure what this is, but obviously you are under a lot of pressure. It would probably be best for you not to worry about the year-end reports. Turn over all your financial records, reports and due dates and I'll handle preparing the reports."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3422.