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Why were officials kept in dark about contract for Buddy Johnson aide?

TAMPA — The contract that Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson gave his top assistant, extending her high-salaried job beyond his term in office, surfaced in mid December, as if by magic.

Johnson and Kathy C. Harris, with their signatures, said the agreement had been sealed seven months earlier. But no one witnessed their signatures, no one notarized the document and, until it turned up, the county could identify no official but them who had seen it.

Ordinarily, such contracts are filed within personnel jackets or other county records. Not Harris' contract.

It was never filed with the clerk of the circuit court or the County Commission. It was not placed in Harris' personnel file. Election workers responsible for personnel records say they had never laid eyes on it or heard of its existence.

To this day, no one is aware that there is an original, signed copy of the contract in any county office. Meanwhile, county taxpayers continue to pay Harris.

• • •

Dated May 12, 2008, the contract extended Harris' employment as Johnson's general counsel and chief deputy for a year, even though Johnson faced an uncertain re-election attempt six months later. It required that even if Johnson were defeated or removed, the new elections chief would have to keep her on until May 12, 2009, or terminate her before then and provide 90 days pay and benefits.

After Johnson lost the November election to Phyllis Busansky, he gave Harris a 21/4 percent raise that boosted her annual salary to $178,963. A 90-day paycheck would amount to $44,740.

Harris' contract first came to light Dec. 17, the same day Johnson dispatched Harris to ask the County Commission for $2.3 million for emergency funds for "unanticipated" election expenses.

By then, Commissioner Rose Ferlita had heard some "scuttlebutt" about a contract Harris might have negotiated to stay on after Johnson's election loss. Ferlita asked the county attorney to look into it, and Assistant County Attorney Mary Helen Farris asked Harris about it.

Harris e-mailed a copy back. By the time Harris stood to address the commission on Dec. 17, Ferlita had a copy in hand. As the public meeting got started, Ferlita complained at length about the request for the bailout money, and she complained about Busansky being forced to keep on a top lieutenant the new supervisor did not want.

"When you come in, you bring your own team,'' Ferlita said. Why should Busansky have to absorb Harris's salary "that she's going to pass on to the taxpayers?"

Gene Gardner, Hillsborough's director of civil service, said Harris' contract was out of the ordinary. Other employment agreements — including those of County Administrator Pat Bean, County Attorney Renee Lee and Gardner himself — all were signed by two witnesses. All included a signature by a representative of the county clerk. All were affixed with the county seal. All were stamped with a document number and filed in county records.

None of that was done on the Harris contract.

"I think that would be unusual,'' Gardner said. "It's a public record. Why wouldn't you do it? You have these things witnessed and so on for the protection of both parties."

Lee, the county attorney, said that although Harris' contract lacked all the normal formalities, it is binding.

• • •

About a week after Johnson was defeated, the former chief financial officer of the elections office says Harris grumbled that she had no provision for severance pay if she were forced to leave.

Stacie Poppell, an elections office CPA, says Harris told her that Johnson wanted to provide severance for Harris, Poppell and chief deputy of information technology David Parks. It was believed Busansky would not keep any of the three top aides.

According to Poppell, Harris said, "Stacie, you have to find a way to get severance for you, for David and for me. I don't have any severance.''

Poppell says she refused to consider it, saying there was no way it could be done.

The contract that came to light six weeks after the election did not include severance, a provision that could provide as much as 12 months pay upon termination.

But the contract did obligate Busansky to keep Harris on until May 12, 2009, and it provided for 90 days "notice.'' That meant if Busansky decided to terminate Harris, the contract required her to continue Harris' pay and benefits for 90 days.

Why did Harris need additional severance as well?

Harris declined to answer that and a series of other questions about the contract. Johnson also declined to comment.

In her initial effort to find the Harris contract, Commissioner Ferlita said she got "a little bit suspicious" when she learned there was no copy filed anywhere.

"I thought, something stinks,'' Ferlita said.

Later, in an effort to identify when the contract was created and by whom, the St. Petersburg Times submitted a public records request seeking the original computer file for the contract. Farris, the assistant county attorney, conducted a three-week search to try to locate it.

Harris told her it had to be on one of several elections office computers that Harris worked on. But technical specialists checked two laptops and three other computers Harris used and came up empty. The file creating the contract was not where Harris said it was.

The search ended; the computer file was not found.

• • •

Johnson, who last year told the County Commission that Harris was "one of the most brilliant women I've ever met in my life," told Busansky after the election that she would be wise to keep Harris on. But Busansky said Johnson never mentioned the extension contract.

"It was the biggest shock around here, because nobody knew anything about it,'' Busansky said of the contract. "But there's nothing I can do."

Though the county attorney's search did not find the computer file for the employment contract dated May 12, 2008, it did turn up something curious.

On Nov. 11, 2008, someone signed on to Harris' computer in the Brandon elections office and worked on a computer document strikingly similar to the contract signed by Johnson and Harris.

Nov. 11 was Veterans Day; the elections office was closed. That morning, the Times published a story quoting the newly elected Busansky saying for the first time that when she took office, she would no longer need Harris' services.

• • •

Language in the May 12 contract providing Harris a comfortable parachute out of Johnson's office linked the employment extension and 90-day payout to the resignation of Jim Reed, Johnson's chief deputy.

The contract states that after Reed resigned on May 10, 2008, Johnson asked Harris to assume "additional duties and responsibilities" previously handled by Reed.

A month earlier, however, Johnson had announced a different reorganization plan involving Reed's departure.

On April 15, Johnson announced that Reed was stepping down to take a job in Virginia. The press release, posted on Johnson's Web site, said Parks would assume Reed's "primary responsibilities." Tim Bridge, senior deputy of election operations, would assist with those duties, the press release said. The release did not mention Harris taking on any new work.

Bridge said in an interview this week that he, indeed, did take on some of Reed's responsibilities. Parks did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Busansky wasn't happy about the contract that Harris and Johnson signed but felt she had to honor it.

Harris, for her part, told Busansky in December that she intended to stay on to help with the Plant City election on April 7. That election was canceled in February when no challengers filed to oppose incumbents.

Busansky continues to pay Harris, sending her home to work on various reports, including one on what went wrong in the 2008 election, a report made public this week. She said she's having Harris work at home for staff morale purposes.

"She's not our player," said Busansky. "She's not on our team.''

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or [email protected]

Biography | Kathy C. Harris

Age: 50

Education: University of South Carolina, B.A., political science, 1980; Baruch College, N.Y., master's in public administration, 1987; University of Miami School of Law, J.D., 1994.

1982: At age 24, lost bid for state House seat in her native South Carolina.

1982-1985: Moved to Broward County; special assistant to Democratic state Rep. Bill Clark.

1985-1998: Worked for Broward government as an assistant county administrator, director of Office of Urban Affairs, director of Human Resources. Finalist for county administrator.

June 1998: Turns down Democratic Rep. Keith Arnold of Fort Myers, who wanted her as gubernatorial running mate. She considered him a long shot, saying, "I told him I don't like to lose. I'm not a good loser."

1999-2001: A corporate lawyer, a private consultant and executive director of a nonprofit that operated Broward homeless shelters.

2001-2003: Assistant administrator for Hillsborough County's human resources department. Left over differences with former administrator Dan Kleman.

2003-2006: General counsel and director of administration for Johnnie B. Byrd Sr.'s Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute.

July 2006: Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson hires Harris as general counsel and chief administrative officer. Paid $165,006, about 30 percent more than Johnson.

He gave her total authority, in charge of legal affairs, personnel, information systems, office management, contract negotiations, annual budgets, elections planning, community outreach and voter education. Annual pay as of Nov. 23, 2008: $178,963.

February 2008: Addressing County Commission about buying new voting machines, Johnson called Harris "one of the most brilliant women I've ever met in my entire life" and called her "indispensable to the success of this process."

Why were officials kept in dark about contract for Buddy Johnson aide? 03/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 7:46am]
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