TAMPA — Buddy Johnson: That's the name most everybody uses for the former Hillsborough elections chief and the co-founder of BuddyFreddys restaurants.
His legal name is Phillip E. Johnson, and over the years, that's the name he has used to sign scores of legal documents.
But when he signed for $452,907 in loans to buy a condo in Sarasota in late 2006, the documents had him as Philip, one "L" instead of two. And when he signed, he used only a first initial "P" instead of spelling out "Phillip," as was his routine.
When the document was notarized, the Bradenton lawyer who acted as the notary specified that Johnson identified himself using his driver's license. The correct spelling of Phillip — two "L's" — was handwritten above the notary's signature. One of the "L's" was crossed out, and Johnson initialed the change, signing off on the incorrect spelling of his own name.
Why would he do that? Johnson did not return messages seeking comment.
The change from Phillip E. Johnson to Philip E. Johnson separated him from his new debt, at least as far as the public records of Florida go.
As it happens, when Johnson signed under his misspelled name, he was in the process of negotiating more than $900,000 in financing to buy a 20-acre tract in Plant City.
In January 2006, 11 months before purchasing the Sarasota condo, Johnson signed a contract to buy the family homestead and surrounding acreage from Cecil and Nita Bass for $1 million. The contract said Johnson would need loans of $950,000.
In March 2007, three months after Johnson's name was misspelled on the Sarasota papers, he and the Basses came to new terms on the sales contract. The acreage was reduced, and the price lowered to $800,000. The Basses agreed to loan Johnson $520,000. Johnson would borrow $240,000 from a local bank and put up $40,000 cash.
It was a huge debt for Johnson to take on, according to financial disclosure statements he filed with the state. As 2007 opened, he owed $240,000 on a home he had built in Plant City two years earlier. He had $170,000 in debt on an equity loan and credit cards. There was the $452,907 mortgage on the Sarasota condo under the name "Philip."
The loans to buy the Bass property would bring Johnson's debt to $1.62 million — all supported by annual income of about $142,000, from his job as elections chief and a modest stipend from Star Buffet, the company that bought BuddyFreddys and made Johnson a director.
Using a new company he had set up called Fort Bully East, Johnson was able to borrow all he needed — and more — from Sunshine State Federal Savings and Loan, a Plant City bank where Johnson had connections.
The same month that Johnson originally signed his real estate contract with the Basses — January 2006 — he filed papers to open his re-election campaign account at Sunshine State, and he named the bank's president, Floyd Hall, as his campaign treasurer.
There wasn't much for Hall to do when appointed: Johnson would not collect his first campaign contribution until 19 months later.
In March 2007, when Johnson completed his purchase of the Bass property, Sunshine State loaned him not the $240,000 originally envisioned, but $400,000.
When all was said and done, according to the closing documents, instead of putting $40,000 of his own money into the deal, Johnson walked away from closing with title to the 20-acre tract and more than $158,000 in cash.
In the months after the purchase, the St. Petersburg Times raised conflict-of-interest questions concerning Hall's dual role as bank president and Johnson campaign treasurer. Hall subsequently resigned the campaign post.
Johnson couldn't keep up with all his debt.
In January 2008, he stopped making payments on the Rivo at Ringling condo in Sarasota. The lender foreclosed, and last week a judge entered a $415,878 judgment against Johnson.
Cecil Bass, 80, and Nita Bass, 77, say Johnson fell behind on payments to them last fall and let Fort Bully East go into insolvency. They hired attorneys and last week filed suit against Johnson, Sunshine Savings and Platinum Title Co.
The lawsuit says that the three parties conspired to defraud the Basses and that Johnson secretly altered the sales contract to borrow more from the bank than he disclosed so he could take $158,177 in cash from the closing.
It's not clear if Johnson has kept up with his payments to Sunshine State Savings. Hall, the bank president, isn't talking, and bank attorney Conrad Swanson said he couldn't comment because of privacy laws.
Defeated in his re-election bid in November, Johnson's office finances are still being sorted out. An audit showed he illegally overspent his budget by nearly $1 million; this week, county commissioners voted to have criminal investigators review the office records.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3422.
Sources: Property records, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties