TAMPA — As the president of an advertising company, Ben Lee knows well the importance of a positive image.
So it wasn't good news when the FBI requested financial and work records from his firm, Schifino Lee Advertising & Branding, which last year created a $640,000 voter education campaign for then-Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson.
Lee is mostly mum about how the records might fit into the FBI's broader investigation into Johnson. His only public comment at the time was an e-mail that defended his firm's role, claiming it won the job in a "public request for proposal process."
Lee now says that was incorrect, acknowledging his company won the contract in a way that experts say is far from public.
To select Schifino Lee, Johnson used an "Invitation to Negotiate," a process characterized by a lack of transparency.
"Administrators don't have to articulate the particular criteria they will use for deciding who they will go with," said Jim Rossi, an administrative law professor at Florida State University. "It's a black box. You don't know what's being applied. It's left entirely up to the employee making the decision."
Florida generally requires government agencies to award contracts through a competitive selection process. The idea is to prevent cronyism. E-mails show Johnson's office intended to invite 14 firms to apply.
Of those, only Schifino Lee and Hill & Knowlton, which was hired in 2004 by Johnson for a different public education campaign, acknowledge getting the invitation.
Officials at most of the remaining firms say they didn't get anything.
"We never received it," said Jeff Tucker, a partner in the public relations firm TuckerHall.
"I've checked with various folks at our agency," said Deanne Roberts of Roberts Communications. "No one can recall receiving the request."
One of the four firms that eventually applied learned about the contract only through luck. Carl Warren, president of Warren & Associates, said he happened to have lunch with Ralph Hughes, an influential Republican businessman who died last year.
"Ralph had a good relationship with Kathy Harris," Warren said, referring to Johnson's former chief of staff. "He was plugged into everything in that office, and he told me I better apply."
The elections office said it has no records pertaining to how Schifino Lee was selected.
"Was it fair?" Warren said. "I really don't know."