TAMPA — Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson was a hard man to find when lawyers for the NAACP wanted to question him as part of a federal voting rights lawsuit.
For 18 days, process server Dan Neatherly tried in vain to find the elections chief and serve him with a subpoena.
He couldn't find Johnson at either of two county elections offices. His messages to Johnson were not returned. Johnson's staffers said they had no idea where he was or when he might be in. They said they didn't know how to reach him.
Neatherly concluded Johnson was ducking the subpoena when one elections staffer said Johnson wasn't in, even though Johnson's Mercedes-Benz was in the parking space designated for the elections supervisor.
This was not a personal lawsuit where Johnson was accused of wrongdoing. Nor was he a defendant. The subpoena was to secure testimony about Johnson's duties as a public official: NAACP lawyers wanted to learn more about how his office handled voter registrations.
The St. Petersburg Times asked Johnson if Neatherly was correct: Was he avoiding the subpoena, and why? He did not respond. The legal counsel for the Supervisor of Elections Office, Kathy Harris, answered for him.
"Mr. Johnson did not evade service and was a willing participant in the proceedings,'' Harris wrote. If the NAACP lawyers thought he was evading service, they could have sought court sanctions against him.
Harris wrote that it is wrong to assume that because Johnson's car was in his parking space, he was in the building. "Often, he is out of the office educating the community about voter registration and voter participation and leaves his personal car at the office.''
The NAACP lawsuit, filed in federal court in North Florida in September, named Secretary of State Kurt Browning as defendant. It challenged a provision of state law prohibiting the registration of voters who gave personal identifying information that could not be matched precisely with existing driver's license or Social Security records. The case has not been resolved.
Johnson was one of six county elections supervisors from around Florida subpoenaed for testimony. He was the only one who could not be immediately located. For much of October 2007, according to Neatherly's records, Johnson was a missing man.
Neatherly, a process server for Bales Security Agency, declined an interview. But he kept detailed notes on every attempt to find Johnson, every explanation Johnson's staff gave for his absence, every message left with his office that was not returned. Here's an edited version of his notes:
Friday, Oct. 5, 12:30 p.m.: Attempted service at elections office at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. Receptionist said Johnson was not in the office but would be in on Monday.
Oct. 8, 10:40 a.m.: Tried again at downtown elections office. Johnson not in. A staffer tried to contact him and his assistant, Lisa, but could not reach either one.
Staffers told Neatherly that Johnson "is never in this office,'' and suggested he try the Elections Service Center near Brandon, at 2514 N Falkenburg Road.
Oct. 9: Tried Falkenburg elections office. Johnson not in and "no one knows when he will be." Left message with his assistant.
Oct. 9, 1 p.m.: Reached Johnson's assistant, Lisa, who said, "I'm not sure where he is, but I'll give him a message."
Neatherly wrote: "This writer inquired, if you're his asst. can you call him on his cell? She stated 'I do not have his cell number.' In the opinion of the writer at that point I believed Mr. Johnson was avoiding service. I stated to her that this is only a witness subpoena.''
(Harris told the Times that Johnson's cell number is on a staff phone roster, available to all elections office employees. She said she could not provide the full name of "Lisa,'' Johnson's assistant, because she was a temporary employee who no longer works at the elections office.)
Oct. 10, 10:47 a.m.: Neatherly wrote that he again spoke to Lisa, who again said she did not know Johnson's schedule. Neatherly tried both the downtown and Falkenburg elections offices but could not find Johnson.
Later, Neatherly knocked on the door of the home at 2815 Cherry Tree Lane in Plant City. The woman who answered said she and her husband bought the home from Johnson three months ago and believed he was living with his mother at an unknown address.
Oct. 12, 7:30 to 9:15 a.m.: Conducted surveillance at the Falkenburg elections office but "no sign of Mr. Johnson.''
"Made multiple attempts over the next 7 to 9 days with no contact.''
Oct. 17: Neatherly found a silver Mercedes-Benz in the parking space reserved for the elections supervisor at the Falkenburg office. He spoke with Kevin Connell, a former New York police officer working as a receptionist there. Connell said Johnson wasn't in.
Neatherly went back outside, verified the registration as Johnson's and returned to Connell. "I know that is Mr. Johnson's vehicle and need to see him." Neatherly wrote that Connell said he couldn't help, that he was "just following directions."
(Connell declined to comment to the Times.)
Neatherly wrote that he went back outside, "positioned where I could see the vehicle and the front entrance. At 4:45 p.m. a white male approximately 6' 2'' exited the property, got into Mr. Johnson's vehicle and drove it around to rear of the building where this writer lost visual and assumes Mr. Johnson exited the rear and left the property to avoid service again.''
Oct. 23: Neatherly learned of another deposition in progress at the Falkenburg office. He called and asked the attorney handling it to have Johnson step outside for a moment. At 3:07 p.m. — 18 days after Neatherly tried to serve Johnson — he handed him the subpoena.
The next day, as Johnson's testimony in the NAACP deposition wound down, an attorney asked him why he tried to avoid the subpoena, even having "a staffer pull the car around from the front of the building to the back of your building to avoid a process server."
Harris instructed Johnson three times not to answer the question.
Johnson's reply, and his last comment taken down in the deposition, was, "I'm going to follow my counsel's advice."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or [email protected]