TAMPA — Community activist Michelle Patty says a St. Petersburg Times story that reported she began campaigning for Buddy Johnson after he sent tax money to her marketing company was a "hatchet job" and "very inaccurate."
Her comments were published Friday in the black-oriented newspaper Florida Sentinel-Bulletin. On Sunday, Patty spoke for nearly an hour on WTMP, a black-oriented radio station, declaring that "nobody could prove I did any wrongdoing."
The Times story, published March 11, reported that Patty's referral service company was paid more than $16,000 by Johnson's Supervisor of Elections Office after she criticized him on the radio in late August for moving a voting precinct. According to interviews and records obtained by the Times, Patty publicly promoted Johnson after her company was paid.
If taxpayer money was spent on Johnson's re-election efforts, that would violate federal and local laws prohibiting voter education money from being used for partisan purposes.
How tax dollars were spent is at the center of an FBI investigation of Johnson's administration.
On Feb. 3, the Tampa accounting firm Ernst & Young released an audit that said Johnson's office had illegally overspent last year's elections budget by about $940,000. A week later, FBI agents used a subpoena at Ernst & Young to seize work papers related to the audit of Johnson's office.
In addition, Secretary of State Kurt Browning and Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson, are cooperating on a plan to audit more than $2.3 million Johnson spent in funds allocated under the Help America Vote Act.
Patty said she never worked for Johnson. She said she was paid for voter education that had nothing to do with Johnson's re-election campaign.
"The No Match, No Vote issue had the black community enraged during the elections last year," Patty told the Sentinel-Bulletin. "That's why I got involved."
But the Times interviewed people who said that in the month before the election, Patty told friends and acquaintances to vote for Johnson, handed out "Vote for Buddy" yard signs, and organized a rally with free food and neighborhood meet-and-greets with him as the featured speaker.
The Times quoted a 34-year-old woman named Towanda Speights who said Patty paid her and several others $100 each the night before the election to campaign in front of precincts for Johnson. Patty disputes this allegation.
"I never gave anyone money the day before the election," Patty said in the Sentinel-Bulletin. On the radio, Patty said she "had to laugh" when she read that Speights was paid the day before the election.
Speights says now that Patty paid her on Election Day, not the night before.
Before the story was published, the Times hand-delivered to Patty's home questions about the allegations against her, which she declined to answer. The Times contacted Patty by phone Monday. She again refused comment, directing reporters to a letter she had sent the newspaper demanding a retraction to the March 11 story.
"Ms. Patty has not demonstrated that she is entitled to any retraction," said Alison Steele, legal counsel for the Times.
During Sunday's radio show, Patty made no secret of her support for Johnson, lauding him for hiring African-Americans to his office, paying his chief of staff, an African-American, more than himself, and appointing a panel of black people to advise on election matters. Patty said she heard that Busansky disbanded the board. The panel remains active, however, and met last week with Busansky.
Patty told listeners that she was leaving town for a while because she was going to the Bahamas "for some rest." She ended the show saying Johnson deserved recognition for putting money into the black community.
"I think maybe Buddy Johnson did his job a little too well," Patty said. "I say, 'God bless him.' "
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or email@example.com.