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Hillsborough County's Buddy Johnson improperly spent $401,000 as supervisor of elections, audit says

Federal elections officials will determine how much money Hillsborough County will have to repay to cover the amount that former elections chief Buddy Johnson misspent.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Federal elections officials will determine how much money Hillsborough County will have to repay to cover the amount that former elections chief Buddy Johnson misspent.

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson improperly spent $401,000 in federal grant money that was supposed to be used to educate Hillsborough voters, according to a new audit released Friday.

Most of the inappropriate spending was money paid to Schifino Lee, a South Tampa advertising firm that produced a public campaign last year for Johnson's office. A St. Petersburg Times analysis of that campaign showed it promoted Johnson's image and re-election efforts at least as much as it helped people with voting.

The audit was done by Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, which was hired by Florida's Department of State to review Johnson's spending. The county must reimburse the grant money, but it will be up to federal officials to decide how much. The Deloitte audit said about $300,000 of the money it flagged could be offset, reducing what Hillsborough owes to about $97,000.

Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning, said the $97,000 figure was a "happy middle ground" for county officials. But Hillsborough's current supervisor of elections, Earl Lennard, said he didn't know where he was going to find that much for the reimbursement.

"We're in a tight budget year," Lennard said. "A happy middle ground for me would be zero."

Federal officials could decide the county owes the entire $401,000, making Lennard's job even harder.

Members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which oversees how this money is spent, will review the audit and decide in coming weeks how much Hillsborough will pay back.

Over several weeks, Deloitte auditors reviewed how eight federal grants, totaling more than $3.3 million, were spent from Oct. 1, 2007, to April 30, 2009. Johnson lost a re-election bid in November and left office in January.

The bulk of the questionable expenses was spent on a voter education campaign. Auditors flagged 127 invoices, the vast majority from Schifino Lee. These expenses were deemed by Deloitte as not allowed by the terms of the grant or missing necessary information so auditors could determine how the money was used.

The federal money was spent on a wide range of media: banners, direct mail pieces, calendars, tablecloths, photos, signs, TV and radio spots. Most of the material prominently displayed Johnson's name or image. Since Johnson was at the time fighting for re-election, the material was seen by many as a way for Johnson to subsidize his political fortunes with taxpayer money.

The Deloitte findings are the third revelation of financial troubles in Johnson's office this year.

An audit by the Tampa office of Ernst & Young showed Johnson violated Florida law by overspending his budget by $942,022 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Released in February, that audit 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.

A second audit, requested by then-Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky, was completed in June. It showed Johnson exceeded his budget by $1.41 million from Oct. 1 to Jan. 5, when Johnson departed and Busansky took office.

That audit said Johnson's office lacked necessary budget controls to prevent overspending and mingled grant funds that were supposed to be in separate bank accounts.

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

He did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment.

In addition to seizing audit documents, the FBI has interviewed people associated with Johnson's African-American outreach program, where contracts were not always bid out, where vendors' invoices were paid with scant documentation and where some tax-paid contractors ended up doing campaign work for Johnson.

In addition, the Deloitte audit cost $130,000. That tab will be covered by withholding future federal grants from Hillsborough. So the cost to the county for Johnson's spending of federal grants alone could fall between $227,000 and $530,000.

Lennard, who was appointed elections supervisor after Busansky died in June, said he will follow procedures that will prevent this type of spending in the future.

"This won't happen again," Lennard said.

Hillsborough County's Buddy Johnson improperly spent $401,000 as supervisor of elections, audit says 08/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:47pm]
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