TAMPA — In the weeks leading up to Election Day, one advertiser kept buying up space in La Gaceta, Ybor City's tri-lingual newspaper.
The ads touted Hillsborough County's new optical scan voting system as safe, reliable and easy to use — and supported by the man buying the space, Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. At the time, Johnson was fighting for his political life in a close re-election battle he would lose Nov. 4.
Patrick Manteiga, La Gaceta's publisher, said he had never seen so much spending.
"The frequency of the ads certainly piqued everybody's interest," Manteiga said. "People speculated on whether the ads benefited the office or Buddy Johnson."
Some, like the person who beat Johnson, Phyllis Busansky, said the taxpayer-financed media blitz blurred the lines between public service and self-promotion. It also dwarfed what other large Florida counties spent.
Reports obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show that Hillsborough spent three times more on "voter education" than Orange, Pinellas, Sarasota and Duval counties.
Johnson, who declined to return phone calls, spent $1.3-million — more than half of the allotted voter education money — on media advertising in newsletters, radio, TV and newspapers. He spent another $23,000 on 100,000 pens with his name on them that were handed out to voters.
In all, Johnson's spending in those areas was more than double what the four other counties spent — combined.
And for all that, Hillsborough's voter turnout was still lackluster. Only Pinellas had lower turnout.
As county and state officials await the results of an audit that will help explain how Johnson's office racked up an overall deficit of at least $2.3-million, Hillsborough's spending of federal get-out-the-vote money is getting scrutinized by auditors at Ernst & Young. Their report is expected next week after they complete a review of how Johnson spent the money, Busansky told the Times.
What they come up with could illuminate a mystery that has so far puzzled county officials.
"Some of the stuff I have from (Buddy Johnson's office) is handwritten," said Eric Johnson, the county's budget director. "This could best be described as sloppy."
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The money Buddy Johnson spent on voter education and turnout last year came from the Help America Vote Act, which was passed by Congress after Florida's muffed 2000 election. The idea was to educate voters through publications, radio and TV spots, and other promotions so that elections would run more smoothly.
But how this money gets spent is a thorny issue because the people who spend it often hold partisan offices. When Pam Iorio resigned as supervisor of elections in 2003 to run for mayor of Tampa, her opponents charged that she benefited from education pieces printed before her campaign began.
In California, the secretary of state resigned in 2005 after an audit criticized how he handled millions allocated under the federal program. Auditors concluded there were too few controls over how the money was spent.
"This is the difficult thing about having partisan races for supervisors of elections," said Charles Stewart, an MIT political science professor. "Everything they print or produce to educate the voter will have their names on it."
Last year, Busansky singled out a brochure paid for with taxpayer money that showed a smiling Johnson underneath the words, "A new vote of confidence." She also criticized two vans emblazoned with the words "Voting with a paper trail," along with Johnson's name and title.
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Reports compiled by the state's secretary of state raise fresh concerns about how Johnson used his $2.3-million in voter education money.
Hillsborough spent more than other large counties, and also spent the money differently.
For instance, Duval, Orange, Pinellas and Sarasota counties spent between one-third and two-thirds of their voter education money on sample ballots, which are considered one of the most effective tools to educate voters, said MIT's Stewart.
"Radio and newspaper ads can't go into the type of detail that a sample ballot provides," said Linda Tanko, a deputy supervisor of elections for Orange, which spent 64 percent of its voter education money on sample ballots.
Hillsborough spent just 13 percent of its voter education money on sample ballots. By contrast, it spent 24 percent of this money on "public appearances/media events," while the other four counties spent next to nothing.
And Johnson's media spending didn't end with public appearances. Hillsborough spent $712,000 on newspaper ads, mailers and newsletters. The next closest county in this category was Duval, which spent $174,000. Hillsborough spent $72,000 on miscellaneous promotional materials and $420,000 on publications — both more than the other counties.
There also was a category called "other."
Hillsborough spent nearly $100,000 for a consultant who "assisted with the creation and management" of media promotion, publication, ads and promotional material.
The amount the other counties spent in this category: Zero.
Times reporters Jeff Testerman, Bill Varian and Janet Zink and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.