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FBI investigating Buddy Johnson's former office

TAMPA — The FBI has opened an investigation into the office of former Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, hauling away documents related to a blistering audit that revealed Johnson had overspent his budget by almost $1 million.

Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson in November, said a subpoena was served Wednesday on the office of Tampa accountants Ernst & Young, whose audit was highly critical of the way Johnson handled tax money during his last year in office.

Busansky said she called Ernst & Young to inquire about a second audit she wants done and was told by executive director John DiSanto that another audit might be difficult, since "the FBI just came and took away all our working papers."

Ernst & Young officials declined to comment.

FBI spokesman David Couvertier said his agency was "not in a position to comment on the matter."

"I think (the FBI) would be very interested in looking at what went on,'' Busansky said. "They evidently think something was wrong in this office."

The audit released last week revealed that Johnson broke Florida law by overspending his 2007-2008 budget by $942,022. The audit also said Johnson handled grant money improperly and failed to establish appropriate procedures to monitor finances.

Johnson did not return a reporter's call Thursday. He has insisted that he did nothing wrong and has characterized being targeted for continual scrutiny as "like I'm walking around the inside of a Salvador Dali painting."

But when Busansky took over the elections office last month, she found financial records in disarray. On top of the nearly $1 million budget deficit, Johnson left behind a $2.1 million bill to Premier Elections Solutions for new voting equipment. The bill remained unpaid even though the county had given Johnson the full purchase price.

After his election loss, Johnson sought employment from Premier even as that $2.1 million bill remained outstanding.

Last week, after reviewing the Ernst & Young findings, county commissioners voted unanimously to provide bailout funds to pay the Premier invoice and to forward the audit to several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

It isn't clear what happened to the $1 million Johnson spent that he didn't have or to the $2.1 million that should have been used to pay Premier.

But in the run-up to the election, Johnson authorized the expenditure of $2.5 million in tax money to pay for a blizzard of TV spots, radio ads and printed literature for "voter education," according to records reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

Johnson also paid $23,000 for ballpoint pens, $10,000 for church fans and $6,000 for coloring books. All the ads and merchandise prominently featured Johnson's name or image, and some, including Busansky, thought the expenditures blurred the line between educating voters and outright campaigning.

Johnson, who was paid about $135,000 a year as supervisor, had a host of financial problems in the months preceding his re-election try.

He stopped making payments in January 2008 on two mortgages on a luxury Sarasota condo, and a foreclosure judgment of $415,878 was entered against him last month.

He was months late paying 2007 property taxes on properties in Hillsborough and Sarasota. And he fell behind in the month before the election on payments on a $520,000 mortgage held by Cecil and Nita Bass, a Plant City couple who sold Johnson a 20-acre tract off Thonotosassa Road in 2007.

The elderly couple sued Johnson, claiming he defrauded them by secretly altering terms of a sales contract so he could walk away with the title to the Bass property and more than $158,000 in cash.

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

FBI investigating Buddy Johnson's former office 02/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 10:58am]

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