TAMPA — Late last August, on primary day, community activist Michelle Patty got on the radio. She trashed Hillsborough elections chief Buddy Johnson for doing a poor job of alerting voters in a black-dominated precinct about a change in a polling location.
"We don't know how many votes have been lost here today," Patty told a WMNF radio reporter. "If this is a commentary of the job he's going to do, we're in trouble."
A month later, Patty was campaigning for Johnson. This about-face coincided with Johnson making the first of two payments to her business that totaled more than $16,000.
Johnson didn't pay Patty from his re-election campaign account. Instead, the St. Petersburg Times has learned, he used taxpayer money meant for voter education.
After Johnson paid Patty, she behaved like one of his campaign managers. She told friends and acquaintances to vote for him. She set up neighborhood meet-and-greets and a political rally with Johnson as the featured speaker. She handed out "Vote for Buddy" yard signs. One person said Patty paid her and several others each $100 cash to stump for Johnson outside polling sites on Election Day.
Johnson spent $155,000 of taxpayer money between August and November on "African-American Community Outreach,'' records show. Most of that was spent on Patty and two other consultants who specialize in promoting minority businesses and making connections in black neighborhoods.
If taxpayer money paid to Patty's business or the other consultants was used to promote Johnson's political ambitions, it would have violated laws that prohibit public money from being used for partisan purposes.
"It's wrong on many levels," said Christa Slaton, an associate dean who runs the elections administration program for Auburn University — where Johnson received a certificate in 2006 after taking classes, including one on ethics.
"I don't know the specifics of this case," Slaton said, "but generally, taxpayer money should not support the campaign of someone, especially one who is supposed to conduct the elections office in an evenhanded manner. It undermines the whole voting process, leaving the public with a cynical perception that elections aren't fair."
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Federal money is given to the state under the Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed after Florida's troubled 2000 election. Along with county matching dollars, it is to be used to develop publications, radio spots and other promotions to support smooth elections. It is not to be used to campaign for office.
Hillsborough's portion of this money was $2.3 million. Johnson spent 20 percent of it in 2006 and 2007, during elections when he was not running for office. He spent 80 percent in 2008, when he was on the ballot.
His spending spree included a media blitz that some say publicized Johnson more than it educated voters.
Johnson's spending has become the subject of multiple investigations since he left office in January. Auditors say he mishandled voter education money and broke the law by overspending his budget — to the tune of $3 million, a deficit that taxpayers will have to plug. The FBI is investigating his expenses, including how he spent federal money.
Records that should document how this money was spent are incomplete. Elections office employees can't find a contract for Patty or any memos that explain why or how she was hired.
Invoices filed by Patty and the other two consultants, Thomas Huggins and Sherryl Cusseaux, don't specify what services they provided. None of them responded to the Times' questions about their expenses.
"I don't want to talk to anyone if it isn't about business," Patty said. "You have a blessed day."
Johnson did not return calls seeking comment. His chief of staff and general counsel, Kathy C. Harris, declined to respond to questions. Records show Harris approved the payments and was responsible for how the voter education money was spent.
"As you know the FBI is currently conducting an investigation into the Supervisor of Elections Office," Harris wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "At this time it would be inappropriate for the General Counsel during the period under investigation to comment."
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Patty's support helps candidates win votes in Tampa's black neighborhoods, where she has been a community activist since the 1980s. Across Tampa's central neighborhoods, bus benches emblazoned with her image tout her referral service, which recommends clients and patients to lawyers and doctors.
She criticized Johnson on the radio on Aug. 26, primary day, as he was entering the stretch run to hold onto his job in a tight race with challenger Phyllis Busansky.
This was not a welcome development for Johnson, a white Republican trying to win black votes in an election with Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Complicating matters were stories the Times had published about how Johnson had dodged a subpoena in a federal voting rights case filed by the NAACP. "A slap in the face of African-Americans" is what one NAACP member had called Johnson's behavior.
On Oct. 2 — 37 days after Patty rebuked Johnson — Harris approved paying her business $5,000 for "Community Outreach for the African American Community."
Dwight Bolden attended Blake High School with Patty and knows her well. He planned to vote for Busansky but changed his mind after three discussions with Patty in October.
"She told me that Johnson had hired more black folks in the history of that office," Bolden said. "When I looked at his staff, that was an eye-opener. She convinced me that Buddy was the better candidate."
Johnson issued Patty's business a check for $11,204 on Oct. 15. Four days later, she started hosting Johnson at events in black neighborhoods.
Patty did this through "Soul Food Sunday,'' a group that black business owners started in 2007. Patty, Candy Lowe and Jarvis El-Amin are the weekly event's main promoters. They invite churchgoers to black-owned restaurants to promote them. On Oct. 19 and again on the 26th, the group featured Johnson as the lone speaker at the Kountry Kitchen.
A week later, Soul Food Sunday featured Johnson at Al's Diner in West Tampa. The day was filled with songs, prayers and servings of oxtails, baked chicken, green beans and meatloaf.
Throughout the early voting period in October, Soul Food Sunday provided voters rides to the polls.
Patty did what campaign consultants get paid to do, such as helping stage a political rally with Johnson as the main attraction.
She organized it for the Saturday before the election with El-Amin, her Soul Food Sunday partner, who was getting paid as a consultant by Johnson's political campaign. An ad for the rally published Oct. 24 in the black-oriented newspaper, the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, promised "free food and give-aways" and "live entertainment." The ad featured a smiling Johnson between photos of El-Amin and Patty.
Taxpayers footed the bill. Patty charged Johnson's office $1,204 for the event, calling it "Community Outreach African American Community Voters Rally" on the invoice. Harris approved the charge.
The rally was held on an empty lot wedged between Interstate 275 and Main Street in West Tampa, within two blocks of Pedrick Allen's building on N Albany Avenue.
Patty visited Allen the day before the event, he said, and gave him two yard signs that read: "Vote for Buddy Johnson."
Allen said he put the signs up on his property hoping to lure those attending the rally to his car wash. As Patty placed up to eight other signs along the street, Allen said he noticed her car was stuffed with more signs.
"She told me, 'We need Buddy to win. He's trying to support small business,' " Allen said. "That was it. That was the reason she gave to vote for Johnson."
Mary Repper, a political consultant who worked on Busansky's campaign, said Patty boosted Johnson's election chances by spreading the word in the African-American community that Busansky did not support Barack Obama for president.
At the early vote site at the College Hill Library, Patty challenged Busansky on who she was endorsing for president. Busansky said she replied that she did not want to say because she was involved in what she regarded as a nonpartisan race; she felt it inappropriate to publicly endorse a presidential candidate, though like Obama, she is a lifelong Democrat.
"After this, Patty starting spreading the word that Phyllis wasn't supporting Obama," Repper said. "It was a strategy that we had to spend a lot of time and money to fight."
The night before the election, Patty and El-Amin instructed a class of about a dozen people on how to campaign for Johnson, according to a 34-year-old woman who said she was there.
Towanda Speights has a long list of felonies, including a 1997 armed robbery conviction that got her prison time and a 2008 aggravated assault with a deadly weapon conviction that got her four years' probation. She is an unemployed single mother. When a friend called with news that Patty was paying $100 for one day, she couldn't refuse.
"That's a lot of money to me," Speights said.
She was told to go to an office plaza on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. The office is now being used by the Alhamdu Lillah Community Education Center, a nonprofit Muslim group.
That Monday night in November, Speights and the others, all African-American, were given Buddy Johnson T-shirts and brochures, Speights said. They were told to stand in front of black precincts between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Speights was assigned the precinct at Fair Oaks Recreation Center in East Tampa. She said Patty told them what to say: "Vote for Buddy Johnson: He's for you" or "Buddy Johnson is a Republican for change."
"Michelle Patty was so in for that man," Speights said. "She told us that Phyllis (Busansky) people were going to be out there, so we had to give people a brochure before they got to them."
After the class ended, she said, Patty and El-Amin gave everyone $100 each, in five $20 bills.
El-Amin attended a recent prayer service at the center where Speights said they met election eve and was asked about her account. "(Buddy Johnson) is under investigation,'' he said, "so I'm not giving comment."
Speights said that on Election Day, Patty drove around checking each precinct. She brought Speights lunch, a platter of fried shrimp and fries. All in all, Speights said, it was a fun day.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402. Jeff Testerman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3422.