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Audit on Buddy Johnson's spending uncovers mysteries

TAMPA — County auditors aren't sure what former Hills­borough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson did with as much as $1.7-million earmarked for new voting machines.

They see no proof it went to Premier Election Solutions, the company that supplied the machines.

And so, after reviewing Johnson's books, they say they can't justify giving his office the $2.3-million bailout he requested last month.

"The question is, what other expenses were paid for with the Premier money, and were those expenses legitimate?" said Court Clerk Pat Frank, whose office oversaw the review.

In a two-page report released Monday, county audit director Dan Pohto recommended that county commissioners give the Elections Office just $336,000, enough to cover Johnson's blown overtime budget.

Johnson estimated this summer that he would need $32,120 to pay overtime costs in a year that included a presidential election. He spent 10 times that while telling voters in his campaign literature that he had cut expenses.

His office's accounting records failed to answer many of the auditors' questions during a two-week review.

"Obviously, the information we were given (from Johnson's office) is not clear and complete," Frank said. "So we have this recommendation that there be a partial payment, for the overtime that was spent, but not the rest of the money he was asking for."

Johnson did not return a phone call for comments. The report came out on his last day in office and paints a daunting forecast for incoming Supervisor Phyllis Busansky.

Busansky said she expects to review the report today, when she takes over the office.

"We are looking forward to making this Elections Office one of the best in the state," she said.

Much of the report focuses on Johnson's state-mandated purchase of new voting machines.

In February, commissioners approved giving Johnson's office $5.8-million to purchase an optical scan voting system. The report indicates Johnson may have spent a portion of the final installment — as much as $1.7-million — on other things.

Auditors could not determine fully where the money went or how much may be owed to voting equipment supplier Premier.

Commissioners requested the audit last month after Johnson stunned them with a request for a $2.3-million infusion on his way out the door. They had approved his $6.7-million budget request in September and expressed surprise that he was seeking an increase equal to more than a third of that little more than two months later.

To make matters worse, Johnson sent his top deputy to make the pitch. Kathy Harris blamed the need on unanticipated elections costs.

Johnson has since withdrawn the request, leaving Busansky to untangle the office ledger.

Frank said Stacie Poppell, the accountant Johnson hired to oversee financial matters after he had them transferred from Frank's office earlier this year, initially was instructed not to talk to Frank's auditor about the budget request. But later, Frank said, Poppell did cooperate and provide some backup material.

Johnson campaigned for re-election in part saying he had trimmed his budget by 10 percent.

His supervision of the fall campaign brought plenty of scrutiny. Voters received partial ballots in some precincts and other ballots were misplaced during a vote count that dragged on for days.

Critics also faulted Johnson for spending more than $300,000 in federal grant money on television spots and other advertising. Johnson said the money was used to educate voters, but some saw it as self-promotion in an election year.

Indeed, auditors were not able to determine how Johnson spent $693,600 in grant money.

County Administrator Pat Bean said the report reinforces why her office raised concerns.

"Clearly, there are issues or you wouldn't have seen the kind of report that (the Clerk's Office) put out," Bean said.

fast facts

Highlights of the audit released Monday

• Last year, the county allocated $5.7-million that Buddy Johnson requested for the Premier Election Solutions voting system. But the audit says Johnson never made the final installment on the Premier contract and estimates $450,000 to $1.72-million may still be owed.

• Johnson estimated he would need $32,120 in overtime costs last year. Instead, overtime-related costs totaled $336,000.

• Johnson asked for a $2.3-million bailout and failed to pay off the Premier contract even though $693,600 in money was available through Help America Vote Act grants. Auditors don't know what happened to that grant money, though Johnson spent more than $300,000 on TV and radio spots for "voter education" during his re-election campaign, including $23,000 for 100,000 pens with his name on them.

Audit on Buddy Johnson's spending uncovers mysteries 01/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 7:26pm]
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