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Buddy Johnson's misspelling and selective memory line his path to financial ruin

TAMPA — The unsettling story of Buddy Johnson's personal finances came out in dribs and drabs: mounting debt, unpaid taxes, foreclosures, and a lawsuit by an elderly couple who say the former Hillsborough elections chief swindled them out of their retirement nest egg.

But now, with new documents and Johnson's sworn testimony in the lawsuit made public, the story can be told whole.

New details show that Johnson deceived Cecil and Nita Bass, who sold him the 20-acre tract held in their family since the Great Depression.

A newly released internal memo at the Plant City bank that loaned Johnson $400,000 shows he misled officials there, as well. And Johnson's credit report suggests an answer to the mystery of why his name was misspelled on other loan documents.

The story begins more than three years ago, when Johnson had his profile posted on MillionaireMatch.com, where aspiring tycoons meet eligible singles.

"I'm an intelligent, red-blooded, well-traveled, wine-enjoying Baptist boy,'' Johnson said in his profile, with a photo of himself in jeans and rolled-up shirtsleeves. "You get the idea."

The elections boss and millionaire wannabe must have figured he could strike it rich in real estate.

Jan. 1, 2006

Seeking re-election, Johnson lists Floyd Hall, president of Sunshine State Savings in Plant City, as his campaign treasurer. His campaign account is also at Sunshine State.

Hall won't have much to do as campaign treasurer because Johnson won't collect his first contribution for 19 months. But in the meantime, Johnson will turn to Hall's bank for a $400,000 real estate loan.

Jan. 29, 2006

Johnson and the Basses sign their first contract, calling for the couple to sell Johnson their homestead and surrounding acreage off Thonotosassa Road for $1 million.

Johnson is to pay $20,000 down and finance the balance, including a second mortgage from the Basses for $650,000.

Dec. 8, 2006

Johnson buys a 13th-floor condo at Rivo at Ringling in downtown Sarasota. He pays 5 percent down, $23,840, and signs for two loans from WMC Mortgage totaling $452,907.

The loan papers misspell Johnson's name. His legal name is Phillip E. Johnson, but the documents misspell his first name, Philip, with only one L.

The notary public notes the discrepancy between the spelling on the documents and on Johnson's driver's license. Johnson's initials are scribbled on the document indicating the incorrect spelling as correct.

On the same date, in Plant City, Sunshine State requests a credit report on Johnson, who needs a loan to buy the Bass property.

Jan. 18, 2007

A credit report lists $176,000 in consumer debt and $238,000 mortgage debt on Johnson's home on Cherry Tree Lane in Plant City. But the credit reporting agency did not pick up the $452,907 mortgage debt that Johnson signed for in Sarasota under his misspelled name.

The Sarasota loans would have more than doubled Johnson's liabilities, impairing his credit-worthiness as he sought financing from Sunshine State.

In his deposition last month, Johnson was asked if he disclosed the Sarasota debt to the bank. His answer: "I feel pretty sure I did.'' Did he do that verbally, or in writing? Johnson couldn't recall.

If he never mentioned the Sarasota loans, how might the bank know about them? "Public records,'' Johnson answered. "People do have ways of finding things out by public records."

(To this day, a public records search under the correct spelling of Johnson's name does not reveal Johnson's loans for the Rivo at Ringling condo.)

Also this date, Paul Hackney, a senior loan officer at Sunshine State, files a memo to the bank's loan committee. The memo makes no mention of the Sarasota loans.

Almost every statement in Hackney's memo that relied on information supplied by Johnson turned out to be incorrect.

• Johnson was approached by the Bass family to buy the property "under favorable terms," Hackney wrote.

The Basses say their property was not even for sale until Johnson approached them. They say he persuaded them to finance most of the purchase, saying they would fare better by loaning him money at 6.5 percent than by putting cash they would get at closing into a savings account.

• The memo said the large second mortgage from the Basses would allow Johnson to "walk away from closing with enough liquidity to make the payments for approximately two years" to the bank and to the Basses.

Instead, just a few months passed before Johnson could not keep up with his payments. In his deposition, Johnson acknowledged he told Hackney that money would be available for two years of payments. But, "I never said that's what I was going to do."

• The memo said Johnson already had surveyed the property, platted it for up to 21 lots and received approval by the county.

In fact, the survey was not filed in county records until six months later. It was not divided into 21 lots, but six. Johnson said in his deposition, "There was never an intent'' to do 21 lots.

• The memo said Johnson would reduce his debt by selling his home on Cherry Tree Lane, a home in which he had "substantial equity.''

In fact, Johnson had so little equity that when he sold it five months later, he received nothing and had to pay more than $35,000 at closing.

• Johnson's credit report showed a score of 591, considered poor, and that was with the $452,907 in loans for the Sarasota condo nowhere in evidence. Hackney alluded to "some slowness" Johnson had in paying other debts, but his memo said Johnson had "hired a bookkeeper to help keep up to date on the bills."

In fact, Johnson never made any such hire. In his deposition, he said Hackney "may have misunderstood."

• The memo said rent from a house on the Bass property would cover taxes and insurance.

In fact, Johnson never rented to anybody, and his property taxes for 2008 haven't been paid.

Noting Johnson's work as founder of the BuddyFreddys restaurants and his tenure as a state legislator, Florida real estate division director and elections chief, Hackney wrote: "Mr. Johnson has a good history in business and also in elected office.''

Hackney said it was a safe loan, a $400,000 mortgage on property worth twice that much. (If Johnson defaulted, the bank would be protected by taking the property. The Basses, second in line, would be out of luck.)

Hackney's memo concluded: "Our loan-to-value will be relatively low. Mr. Johnson has done his due diligence and verified that the property is developable at a reasonable cost. I recommend approval."

The loan was approved, at 7.25 percent with a three-year balloon.

Johnson did not submit a written loan application to Sunshine State, nor did he provide a personal financial statement. Bank officials said Johnson was treated like any other Sunshine State customer.

Feb. 21, 2007

Johnson incorporates a limited liability company called Fort Bully East, with himself as managing partner.

March 14, 2007

Fort Bully East buys the Bass property. A revised contract reduces acreage, lowers the price from $1 million to $800,000 and sets the total financing at $760,000. At closing, Johnson signs the paperwork and leaves before the Basses arrive.

Johnson signs for loans of $520,000 from the Basses and $400,000 from Sunshine State Savings. The $920,000 financed is $160,000 more than the agreed upon figure in the contract the Basses had signed.

At closing, Johnson receives $158,117.57. Instead of depositing the check into a Fort Bully corporate account, he puts it into his personal checking account.

"To me it's easier if you have one checking account,'' Johnson said at his deposition.

He testified that he didn't know how he spent all the money.

Aug. 15, 2007

Johnson sells his home on 2913 Cherry Tree Lane.

At deposition, he acknowledged that the $35,380 he paid to unload the home came from the funds Fort Bully got at the Bass closing.

Aug. 19, 2007

The St. Petersburg Times publishes a story headlined, "Official Knee-Deep in Debt," noting Johnson has taken on new debt of $1.3 million, about 10 times his elections salary of $132,128 a year.

Three weeks earlier his development company had filed a survey and plat of a six-lot subdivision Johnson called Oak Creek Estates. Asked if his plans might interfere with his duties as elections chief, Johnson says: "I am not in the development business nor am I moving into the development business.

"My priority and focus is on the successful implementation of the election systems transition and full schedule of elections in 2008."

He said he planned to live in the 77-year-old, 884-square-foot home there and hoped his three children might build homes on adjoining lots.

The Times asks Nita Bass how Johnson could borrow $920,000 for the $800,000 purchase. "How he borrowed that much is a good question," she said.

She laughed when told that Johnson said he planned to move into the small frame house, formerly a $125-a-week rental. It's surrounded by knee-high weeds and without air conditioning. Said Mrs. Bass: "When he said he'd move in there, I said, 'I'll have to see that before I believe it.' "

December 2007

Johnson can't keep up with his real estate debt. He is bringing home about $7,700 a month from his elections job; his monthly payments on the Sarasota condo and the Bass property total $9,747 a month.

Johnson asks the Basses for relief. They agree to modify his payments to interest only, reducing his monthly payments from $3,953 to $1,000.

An attorney is paid $200 to prepare the modification of the loan terms, and the modification is notarized for both parties.

Such documents are routinely recorded in county records, but this one was not. One effect: With Johnson's re-election campaign in full swing, his deteriorating financial situation is not reflected in the public record.

Asked in his deposition if he directed anyone not to record the modification, Johnson replied: "I don't recollect."

February 2008

Johnson misses his $3,066 payment on his Sarasota condo. He will make no more payments. Nor does he pay his condo association dues or his property taxes on the unit.

March 2008

Johnson uses a $20-a-year lease to a Plant City cow exhibitor to seek a "greenbelt" tax exemption on the Bass property. Said Johnson: "I love supporting agriculture in our community. That's what I intend to do with my land."

June 2008

Property Appraiser Rob Turner grants the greenbelt exemption. It reduces the taxable value of Johnson's land by more than $560,000. That slices almost $11,500 from Johnson's 2008 tax bill, to less than $3,000.

He does not pay the bill.

June 4, 2008

The first of several Sunshine State letters to Johnson says he doesn't have enough money in his checking account to debit his $2,728.81 mortgage payment.

July 2008

Johnson applies to refinance the debt on the Bass property. He asks Railroad and Industrial Credit Union for $700,000, enough to pay off his first mortgage at Sunshine Savings and part of what he owes the Basses.

"I ended up not qualifying for the loan,'' he said at deposition.

The reason? "My credit score.''

Aug. 12, 2008

Countrywide Homes Loans sues Johnson in foreclosure suit over six missed payments on his Sarasota condo mortgages.

October 2008

Johnson is having trouble making even the lower, interest-only payments to the Basses. The couple hires attorneys.

October 2008

Johnson puts seven acres of his greenbelted land on the market for $470,000, promising an upscale development of "exclusive residences" in the "deed restricted" Oak Creek Estates subdivision. No sale.

Two months later he will try to sell just three acres. Still no sale.

Dec. 4, 2008

A month after voters turn him out of his job as elections chief, Sunshine State warns Johnson he has missed his November and December payments.

Jan. 30, 2009

The Basses sue Johnson, alleging fraud and breach of contract. Also named as defendants are Sunshine State Savings and Platinum Title.

The Basses say Johnson's company, Fort Bully East, was nothing but an alter ego, a corporate name to hide behind so Johnson could use money borrowed in Fort Bully's name for personal expenses.

At his deposition, Johnson could recall little about his company's finances. He could not explain cash transfers from Fort Bully to other accounts. He said no financial statements were prepared for Fort Bully.

At the core of the Basses' complaint is the question: Did Johnson tell them how much money he had arranged to borrow?

The Basses — Cecil is 80, Nita is 77 — say Johnson never did.

The couple says Johnson signed documents saying he would put in $40,000 and finance $760,000. Instead, the Basses say, Johnson secretly changed the terms, put no money in and walked away with almost $160,000.

Now, if Sunshine State forecloses, the bank gets the land, and the Basses lose almost all of the $520,000 they loaned Johnson.

The bank's attorney says Sunshine State made a legal loan to Johnson and did nothing wrong. The title company has declined to comment.

So, did Johnson tell the Basses about the changed financial arrangement?

In his deposition, Johnson initially said he did. "I feel very comfortable we talked about that amount," he said. It was a "very open and transparent kind of situation."

But when the couple's attorney, Morgan W. Streetman, followed up by asking if the Basses objected to him borrowing more than the sales price, Johnson dodged the question. The attorney tried again.

Streetman said he needed to know "whether or not you discussed with them specifically the actual amount that you were borrowing from Sunshine State.''

Johnson: "I can't attest or warrant that statement. No.''

March 9, 2009

After Johnson misses five months of payments, Sunshine State notifies him that it will foreclose.

June 17 and June 23, 2009

Johnson is deposed. He testifies that he always had the couple's best interest at heart.

"If someone offered me $2 million for the Thonotosassa property the next day, I would have sold it and given a bonus to the Basses,'' he said.

After selling their land to Johnson, the couple moved to Lake Wales, and Johnson testified he went the extra mile and hand delivered his mortgage checks to them.

Johnson did "hand deliver'' the checks, the Basses' attorney says, but hardly in the generous way Johnson portrayed it.

As the Basses grew anxious that they stood to lose their nest egg, Streetman said, they started making the drive over from Lake Wales, often meeting Johnson at BuddyFreddys in Plant City. There, Johnson would "hand deliver'' their check.

Until late last year, when he stopped paying.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.

FAST FACTS

Where things stand

Buddy Johnson, 57, lost his $132,808 a year job as elections chief when he was defeated for re-election in November. He turned to selling Mona Vie, a nutritional drink.

• He has been sued for foreclosure by three lenders and stands to lose property he purchased for $1.27-million. His property taxes are delinquent in two counties.

• He faces potential damages in the lawsuit filed by the Basses.

• The FBI is looking into his personal money matters, as well as the finances of his elections office, where he illegally overspent his last budget by almost $1 million.

Buddy Johnson's misspelling and selective memory line his path to financial ruin 08/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2:38pm]

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