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Hillsborough election chief's public service radio ads sounded like endorsements

TAMPA — Buddy Johnson hired a consultant last year to advise him on voter education and outreach in Tampa's black neighborhoods.

But it's unclear exactly what Thomas Huggins did in the 10 months his company billed taxpayers a total of $90,000.

His invoices to the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office were so vague that Johnson's successor, Phyllis Busansky, stopped paying Huggins until he could provide more detail. He has yet to do so, leaving unclaimed more than $3,100 he first billed in December.

Johnson paid Huggins from the same pot of federal and county voter education money that he paid community activist Michelle Patty. The Times reported this month that Patty, a onetime critic of Johnson, became one of his campaign supporters about the time he made two payments to her company that totaled more than $16,000.

How Johnson spent this voter education money became the subject of state and federal scrutiny after he left the supervisor's office with a $3 million deficit. Auditors say he mishandled the money and broke the law by overspending his budget. The FBI is investigating his expenses, and two more audits are under way.

The money that Huggins and Patty received makes up most of the $150,000 spent by Johnson that was officially identified for "outreach" in black neighborhoods. Johnson ran stronger in those areas than he did in 2004.

If it's determined that this money was used to boost Johnson's re-election efforts, Hills­borough could be forced to return much of it to the federal government, with taxpayers footing the bill.

Huggins, 49, was e-mailed a list of questions for this story, but declined to answer them.

"In light of the ongoing investigation of the Supervisor of Elections' Office," Huggins said, "I do not feel it would be appropriate to comment at this time."

• • •

Huggins was board chairman of the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League before he resigned in 2005 amid emerging debt and fiscal accountability problems with the nonprofit. A year later, IRS liens, delinquent mortgage payments and mounting bills for renovation of its headquarters in the Centro Espanol forced the Urban League to go out of business.

Huggins is now owner of the Ariel Business Group, which consults with public agencies and construction businesses so that they meet hiring requirements of minority-controlled companies. In 2004, Ariel was paid $80,000 to provide names of minority contractors to the Front Porch program, which is overseen by the state's Department of Community Affairs, to revitalize urban cores. The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, the Hills­borough County School District and the Aviation Authority have all used the company.

Johnson hired Huggins, who, like Johnson, is a Republican, to coordinate an outreach campaign targeting black neighborhoods. Officials at the Supervisor of Elections Office say they can't find any record that Johnson bid for the job. The contract stated that Huggins would plan outreach events and a media campaign to educate the public about voting, plus "miscellaneous services."

The contract required Huggins to keep daily records of his activities and make them available upon request. None of these records are on file at the supervisor's office. Huggins hasn't answered Busansky's request for these records to justify the payment of his December invoice for $3,100.

Huggins started getting paid in February 2008 when he began attending meetings with Johnson's outreach staff.

During those meetings, Huggins, Johnson and his staff talked about how best to reach churches, community groups and the NAACP, said Ella Coffee, who worked for Johnson before leaving last spring to work in the Barack Obama campaign.

It's unclear what role Huggins had in forming an African-American advisory board that advised Johnson about election issues in black neighborhoods. He attended two forums that board members had with residents in October, but people who were there say he didn't speak.

In 14 invoices Huggins submitted to Johnson's office, his description of what he did are limited to "outreach and training services" and "voter education services."

• • •

The one job Huggins did do, according to records and interviews, was coordinate radio announcements.

Huggins helped set up at least six get-out-the-vote public service announcements that aired about 400 times on Tampa's black-oriented radio station WTMP between mid September and Election Day.

City Council member Tom Scott, who is a pastor, said Huggins is a longtime ally who supported him the first time he ran for office in 1996. He said Huggins was asking pastors last year to participate in these ads because "pastors kind of get heard in the black community."

Scott told Huggins that he supported Busansky, Johnson's opponent, and could not endorse anyone in the ad. Huggins said that was fine, telling Scott the messages were supposed to be nonpartisan. Huggins then faxed him a script. The gist of the script was that it encouraged people to vote, Scott said.

Scott never heard the ad. He said it was his understanding that at the end, it stated that it was paid for by "Buddy Johnson, Supervisor of Elections." In his case, that didn't cause confusion. But Scott said he did hear that in a couple of cases with other ministers, listeners were confused.

The Rev. Charles Davis agreed to do an ad in September. He said he was careful not to endorse any candidate.

So after his message aired, the pastor of East Tampa's College Hill Church of Christ was surprised when a listener asked him why he was endorsing Johnson.

"I called the radio station, and they were running something after the ad I didn't want," Davis said. "I never heard what it was, but it gave people the impression that I was endorsing Johnson."

A similar thing happened with the radio announcement made by the Rev. James Favorite, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, who chaired the African-American Advisory Board. He said he met Huggins at WTMP before he gave his statement. Huggins gave him a script, but he said he didn't use it. Favorite said he didn't endorse anyone and gave a general statement about the importance of voting.

As with Davis, someone later contacted Favorite and asked him why he was endorsing Johnson.

"Something was added at the end of what I said that made it sound like an endorsement," Favorite said. He didn't hear the ad, but was told the tagline was that it had been paid for by the "Supervisor of Elections, Buddy Johnson."

Name dropping in a public service ad is a gray area that blurs public awareness with self-promotion, said Bob Sweat, Manatee County's supervisor of elections.

"It's in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder," Sweat said. "But I've never used my name in a radio ad unless my campaign is paying for it. You're better off that way, so there's no question of impropriety."

Orange County's elections supervisor, Bill Cowles, said he'll do a voiceover in a public service announcement — if he's not on the ballot. But in the ads leading up to last year's election, when he was seeking re-election, he did no voiceovers or name dropping.

"I made the decision, just to make sure because of the very story you're doing now," Cowles said.

The ads by Favorite, Davis and Scott ran about 25 times each after Labor Day on WTMP. Another ad, which ran on other radio stations as well, had a voiceover by Johnson. The total cost to taxpayers for the ads that ran on WTMP was nearly $40,000.

Officials at the supervisor's office say they don't have any records about the ads or their scripts. The WTMP salesperson who handled them was Angela Brewton, who sat on the African-American advisory board with Favorite. She didn't return phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment or copies of the scripts or recordings. WTMP station manager Chris McMurray also didn't return phone calls.

Why no one could find these recordings and scripts was unclear.

"I would think if you did a public service announcement and it was paid for with taxpayer money," Sweat said, "someone should have a copy of it in the office."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough election chief's public service radio ads sounded like endorsements 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 10:28pm]
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