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Buddy Johnson's banker also his campaign treasurer

Johnson borrowed $920,000 for an $800,000 land deal.

Johnson borrowed $920,000 for an $800,000 land deal.

TAMPA — Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's finances were already stretched last year when he decided to seek a hefty loan to buy a 19.98-acre tract off Thonotosassa Road.

Johnson had one mortgage on a Plant City home, two more on a luxury Sarasota condo and unpaid back taxes on two properties. Now, he wanted to borrow money for an $800,000 purchase.

Johnson took his financing request to Sunshine State Savings and Loan in Plant City, where he had an important ally. The president at Sunshine State is J. Floyd Hall — who also happens to be Johnson's re-election campaign treasurer.

At Sunshine State, Johnson got all he needed — and more. After a second mortgage from the sellers of the Thonotosassa land, Johnson needed $280,000 to finance the full purchase price. Instead, he got $400,000, or $120,000 more than 100 percent financing.

The St. Petersburg Times submitted written questions to Johnson, including why he received a loan of that size, what happened to the extra $120,000 and whether Hall's positions as Sunshine State president and campaign treasurer created a conflict of interest.

Johnson declined to answer the questions, but wrote:

"These transactions are perfectly legitimate, meeting all banking standards, and are sensible on a simple reading to most people. I am proud to have Floyd Hall, a well respected and honorable man, serve as my campaign treasurer."

Hall had agreed to be interviewed but canceled after the Times published a story about Johnson being delinquent on his property taxes, including the Thonotosassa property. He did not respond to written questions.

• • •

Johnson, 55, cofounded BuddyFreddy's restaurants, served three terms in the Florida Legislature and was appointed elections supervisor in 2003. Elected to the post in 2004, he's seeking re-election.

Johnson appointed Hall as his campaign treasurer on Jan. 1, 2006, and designated Sunshine State as his campaign depository.

In early 2007, Johnson approached Sunshine State with a contract to buy the Thonotosassa property, a parcel with pasture land, mature live oak trees and an old, 884-square-foot home.

This was Johnson's financial situation:

His income was $132,128 as elections boss, plus $10,000 a year as a director for Star Buffet, the company that bought BuddyFreddy's.

But Johnson also owed a lot of money.

He owed Sunshine State most of a $213,000 loan he had gotten in April 2005 to build a home on Cherry Tree Lane in Plant City. He also owed more than $3,000 in delinquent taxes on that home and an adjoining lot, where he had failed to pay the property taxes in 2005 and 2006.

There was a big new debt: two mortgages totaling $452,907, which Johnson signed for in December 2006 when he paid 5 percent down to buy a $476,800, 13th-floor penthouse at the Rivo at Ringling condos in Sarasota.

Yet, Sunshine State liked what it saw.

Using the newly incorporated name, Fort Bully East, Johnson on March 14, 2007, signed a note agreeing to pay $520,000 to Cecil and Nita Bass, who were selling him the Thonotosassa tract for $800,000.

The same day, Johnson signed a mortgage agreeing to repay Sunshine State $400,000 to complete the sale.

"How he borrowed that much is a good question,'' Mrs. Bass said after the sale last year. "The market has hit bottom, and that's a concern for us."

Johnson surveyed, platted and subdivided the property into six lots and renamed it Oak Creek Estates, but he denied having any plans to put improvements or homes on the new lots.

Mrs. Bass said last week that Johnson has continued to keep up with his payments.

He has not, however, kept up with his property taxes. He has not paid a $1,682 tax bill on the Thonotosassa property; neither has he paid a $7,338 tax bill on the Sarasota condo. Both bills became delinquent April 1.

The Hillsborough tax collector says he still owes $2,052 in back taxes on the Cherry Tree Lane home and lot, both sold in 2007.

The unpaid taxes on the Thonotosassa land could endanger the collateral on Sunshine State's loan. If taxes are not paid by May 1, tax certificates — interest-bearing instruments purchased by investors to assure taxes get paid — would be issued on the property. If the taxes are still unpaid after two years, the tract could be auctioned off to investors.

Sunshine State's mortgage includes language allowing the lender to pay delinquent taxes and charge the borrower. Would Sunshine State take that step when its president is treasurer for the re-election of the borrower?

Marion Smith is a director at Sunshine State, a community institution with about $184-million in assets. She said that question would have to be handled by Sunshine State's staff.

Smith, the president of the Plant City Chamber of Commerce, is very familiar with Johnson, one of the area's favorite sons. Last election, she contributed $200 to his campaign.

She said board members routinely review loan submissions, but she could not remember details of Johnson's $400,000 loan request from last year.

Smith said she was not aware that at the bank where she is a director, the bank president had been working as Johnson's treasurer in the current campaign.

"Floyd's the most honest person you could deal with,'' she said. "But you've caught me off guard with this.''

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

Buddy Johnson's banker also his campaign treasurer 04/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 1:06pm]
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