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Buddy Johnson double dips for county trips

TAMPA — In one of his last official acts as Hillsborough elections supervisor, Buddy Johnson filed a request to be reimbursed for almost 11,000 miles he says he drove in his personal vehicle during the past 14 months.

At the county's reimbursement rate of 37.5 cents per mile, that amounts to a going-away check of more than $4,100.

But expense records examined by the St. Petersburg Times show that Johnson already has been paid for hundreds of those miles.

In one case, he already was reimbursed for flying Southwest Airlines to Fort Lauderdale and back to Tampa; now he has asked taxpayers to pay him for driving the same trip.

In another instance, he already was reimbursed for driving to Tallahassee and back; now he wants to be reimbursed a second time for the same trip on the same dates.

The records show Johnson also is seeking reimbursement for a number of local trips that he could not have made — because he was out of town at the time.

In all, the Times found 1,400 miles for which Johnson is not entitled to the reimbursement he is seeking.

Johnson did not return calls to comment on the inch-and-a-half thick stack of mileage forms he filed Jan. 7.

"This is such a misuse of the public's trust — and the public's money,'' said Phyllis Busansky, the new elections supervisor. She said she will urge Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank to put Johnson's mileage records under a microscope before paying him.

Even if the mileage is valid, Frank said, she's not sure Johnson is entitled to be reimbursed because he submitted his requests after the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

"Since these go back to the previous fiscal year, they may not be able to be paid,'' Frank said. "You have to remember, he overspent his budget and there was no money left when the fiscal year ended.

"It may be too bad for him."

• • •

The last two years in office, Johnson filed only one mileage expense report.

That was for October 2007 — the same month that a process server said he was unable to find Johnson at his downtown or Brandon offices for 18 days. Trying to subpoena Johnson to testify in an NAACP federal voting rights case, the process server said Johnson's staffers told him they had no idea where he was or how to reach him.

In May 2008, as the Times was preparing to publish a story about the process server's inability to find Johnson at work, Johnson filed a mileage report for October 2007 that put him in his offices every day the process server was looking for him.

Johnson did not file another mileage report until the one he filed two weeks ago that covers the last 14 months.

Included is a request to be reimbursed for a 558-mile round trip to the federal courthouse in Miami, where he testified in the NAACP voting rights case. His request shows him driving the round trip Feb. 5.

But records show that Johnson already has been reimbursed for flying there on Feb. 4, renting a car, staying two nights in hotels and flying back to Tampa on Feb. 6. He put everything on his personal credit card and was reimbursed $735.60.

Another example: Johnson asked to be reimbursed $195.75 for a 522-mile round trip he made to an elections conference in Tallahassee on March 18 and 19.

But Johnson already was paid for that same trip, according to clerk's records. He got a check for $177.75 a few weeks after the conference, estimating the trip at that time at 474 miles.

• • •

Johnson has had trouble with budgets, both in his office and at home.

After his electoral defeat, Johnson asked the county for $2.3-million for "unanticipated'' election expenses, a request he dropped when asked for backup. He also left the county with an overdue bill of $2.1-million for new voting equipment —- even though the county funded the equipment's full price.

On the personal front, he signed for $1.3-million in real estate mortgages, taking on debt 10 times higher than his elections salary. He fell behind last year on property taxes on all his properties. His $476,800 Sarasota condo went into foreclosure.

As the Times reported on Johnson and his money problems, he stopped responding to questions, usually leaving it to his chief of staff and general counsel, Kathy Harris.

Asked last year about Johnson's frequent absences from the office, Harris explained that Johnson was often "out of the office educating the community about voter registration and voter participation and leaves his personal car at the office."

That's not what Johnson's mileage filing shows. On most working days each month, according to his reports, Johnson was driving on official business in his silver Mercedes, even if it was just to motor the 20 miles from the downtown elections office to the Brandon elections center and back.

Indeed, after his election defeat, Johnson wrote that he made that same trip on 38 days, including every work day in December.

But Johnson could not have made all the office round trips he claims.

He says he made such trips from Jan. 9 to Jan. 12, 2008. But an expense form at the clerk's office shows Johnson wasn't in Tampa then but in Washington, attending a Joint Election Officials Liaison Committee meeting.

Johnson also wants to be reimbursed for daily round trips between his elections offices from Nov. 26 through Nov. 29. But according to a voucher for which he has already received a $98.15 reimbursement, on those four days, Johnson was at a conference of the Florida State Association of Elections Supervisors. It was held in Lake Mary, north of Orlando.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Buddy Johnson double dips for county trips 01/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 6:29am]

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