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Audit: Buddy Johnson overspent more than $2M in 15 months

TAMPA — In an effort to appeal to taxpayers during his campaign for re-election last year, Buddy Johnson boasted that he had cut his office's budget by 10 percent.

Instead, according to an audit released Friday, Johnson overspent his budget in the final 15 months of his administration by $2.35 million. It breaks down to $942,022 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and another $1.41 million for the period from Oct. 1 to Jan. 5, when Johnson departed and Phyllis Busansky took office.

Busansky said she asked for the special purpose audit, performed by the Tampa Bay firm of Kirkland, Russ, Murphy & Tapp, to get "a complete financial picture of what happened before I took office." The audit results are being forwarded to Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, whose office is seeking a separate accounting of how Johnson spent grant money on his ambitious voter education program.

Johnson, a former state legislator and co-founder of BuddyFreddys restaurants who was appointed elections supervisor in 2004, declined to cooperate with the latest auditors. The Kirkland Russ group said Johnson would not provide written explanations to questions raised by their financial review, and Busansky said Johnson refused to sign off on the audit.

Johnson did tell auditors that the state-mandated change to optical scan voting machines, new election requirements and increased voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election placed "unanticipated financial impacts" on his office budget.

Johnson did not return a reporter's call Friday.

An audit by the Tampa office of Ernest & Young, which initially showed Johnson had violated Florida law by overspending his budget, was released in February. It noted improper handling of grant money and lack of internal financial controls, and sparked a federal investigation, with the FBI obtaining documents from Ernst & Young days after the audit was released.

The second, special purpose audit echoes the criticism to Johnson's poor handling of finances, saying his office lacked the necessary budget controls to prevent overspending and co-mingled grant funds that were required to be segregated in separate bank accounts.

The Kirkland Russ audit also found insufficient documentation for payment for services provided by vendors and the failure to reconcile the record of payments to pollworkers.

Before last year, financial services at Hillsborough's elections office, such as payroll and vendor payments, were handled by the clerk of the circuit court. Johnson broke from that tradition last June, taking on all those duties and embarking on a multimillion-dollar voter education campaign that now appears to be the focus of investigators from the FBI. Busansky has moved financial services back to the clerk of court.

Federal agents have obtained not only audit work papers from Ernst & Young, but also the work product of Schifino Lee, a Tampa advertising firm paid $630,000 to handle an elections office education program of print, TV and radio ads that prominently featured Johnson's name or image.

The FBI has also interviewed persons associated with Johnson's African American outreach program, where contracts were not always bid out, where vendors' invoices were paid with scanty documentation and where certain tax-paid contractors ended up doing campaign work for Johnson.

Busansky has received an infusion of cash from the County Commission and is confident her office will need no additional bailout money to get through the fiscal year that ends in September. Asked Friday how Johnson managed to overspend his budget by $1.41 million in his last three months in office, Busansky said, "The general election occurred in this period, so there was obviously expense associated with that. But I think he spent a lot of that money on his public education program."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.

Audit: Buddy Johnson overspent more than $2M in 15 months 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 11:26pm]

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