TAMPA — Buddy Johnson acknowledged Thursday that he sought a job from the company that sold Hillsborough County nearly $6 million in voting equipment while he was still supervisor of elections.
Johnson said he didn't see anything wrong with asking to work for Premier Elections Solutions, despite still managing a public office that owed the company $2.2 million.
"I lost the election and I was looking for a new career pursuit.'' There were never any "substantive conversations," Johnson said.
"I'm not ashamed to say at all that I was interested in the elections industry," he said.
His successor, however, called Johnson's interest in working for Premier "awful."
"What in the world is going on with this man?" asked Phyllis Busansky. "It's just unacceptable to ask for a job from people who you owe millions of dollars to, and who you're ultimately going to be paying."
Busansky needs to "focus on running the elections,'' Johnson said. "Sometimes when you criticize other people you feel like you're higher.''
Busansky defeated Johnson in a close race Nov. 4, but he remained supervisor another two months. After Busansky took control Jan. 7, she found an elections office in disarray: equipment that had not been inventoried, a batch of uncounted ballots and $2.2 million owed to Premier.
Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to seek a law enforcement investigation of Johnson after an audit concluded that he violated Florida law by overspending his office budget by nearly $1 million last year — which is on top of the $2.2 million owed Premier.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning wouldn't comment on Johnson's job search, but he said this week that he would consider action if an upcoming audit reveals Johnson misspent federal get-out-the-vote money.
Last year, Johnson spent about $2.5 million in federal grants on "voter education," including TV spots, radio ads, mass mailings and print pieces that featured his name and image prominently in the heat of a tight campaign.
Johnson, 56, is a co-founder of BuddyFreddys restaurants and a member of the board of Star Buffet, which now owns the chain along with a string of other family restaurants, and lives in Plant City. He served three terms as a state representative in the 1990s. He also directed the state Division of Real Estate before being appointed Hillsborough elections supervisor by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 when Pam Iorio ran for Tampa mayor. Johnson won the office outright in 2004.
Johnson confirmed seeking work with Premier shortly after a company spokesman told the St. Petersburg Times that Johnson asked twice for a job. He asked Dave Byrd, Premier's president, during phone conversations in mid November and early December.
Byrd, said company spokesman Chris Riggall, felt uncomfortable with the inquiries, even though they were vague and didn't specify a salary.
Byrd didn't feel it was appropriate partly because Johnson's office owed a large amount of unpaid bills to Premier, Riggall said.
It was certainly a nervy request considering Johnson blamed Premier for Election Day mishaps. Premier won a $5.8 million contract last February to provide Hillsborough with optical scan machines. In the August primary, Johnson said the company was responsible for a delay in tallying the votes. During the November election, there were even longer delays, and Johnson once again blamed Premier.
Thursday, he said he thought they have a "great product,'' although he wishes they had "stepped up a little sooner'' about the election glitches.
County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she couldn't believe Johnson tried getting a job with a company he had criticized in the past.
"I don't even know how you could take this man seriously," Ferlita said. "He wanted a job? What did he expect them to think they would get, except more of the same behavior they've already seen?"
Johnson definitely needs the money.
Last week, a circuit judge entered a $415,878 judgment against him in Sarasota County, completing a foreclosure on loans Johnson signed for in 2006 to buy a luxury condo.
That same week, a retired couple sued Johnson in Hillsborough Circuit Court, accusing him of defrauding them in 2007 in his purchase of their 20-acre Plant City property for $800,000. The couple say Johnson conspired with a local title company and Sunshine State Federal Savings and Loan, whose president at the time of land purchase was Johnson's re-election campaign treasurer.
Johnson said he also asked other elections companies if he could work for them, but he wouldn't name them.
"The abuse that I've taken from the media the last couple of months has not helped those prospects," Johnson said. "Right now, I'm just looking at different things.''
But his career in elections might have ended.
"I've had my fill of elections for right now," he said. "It's nasty, nasty witch-hunt politics. I just want to move on."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]