TAMPA — When William M. Gaskin applied for a management job in the office of Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson last year, he listed some unusual credentials:
Convicted of cocaine possession.
Convicted of arson.
Convicted of violating probation, all adding up to a sentence of 45 months in prison.
He was hired.
Johnson's chief of staff and general counsel, Kathy Harris, selected Gaskin to be her special assistant, and approved paychecks to him for more than $21,000 for 31/2 months' work.
There was something else on Gaskin's resume: the ex-con had been a certified public accountant and had worked as an audit supervisor in the Tampa office of the accounting firm, Ernst & Young.
Harris was in charge of the elections budget and responsible for the spending of millions for voter education. At the time she hired Gaskin, she was facing an important audit by Ernst & Young.
What tasks Gaskin performed for Harris and why she hired him remain a mystery. Gaskin refused to talk about his duties at the elections office. Harris did not return phone calls or respond to e-mailed questions.
Harris' placement of Gaskin in a position of trust in the critical months before the general election raised the eyebrows of Hillsborough County arson investigators, who considered Gaskin a suspect in a series of Brandon fires that remain unsolved.
"I can tell you Gaskin was a person of interest in those fires," said arson investigator Dave Tucker. "And they did stop after he was arrested."
He said investigators were aware Gaskin had been released from prison and were monitoring his whereabouts.
Tucker said he was surprised to learn Gaskin had worked at the elections office. "You wouldn't think he would meet the moral and ethical standard they would want at an office like that."
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If Gaskin did provide audit advice for Harris, it proved inadequate.
Ernst & Young issued an audit report Feb. 3 that said Johnson's office had violated state law by overspending his budget by $942,022 and by missing a deadline to turn in excess funds and a year-end report to the county. The audit also criticized Johnson's office for mishandling grant money and failing to set up internal controls to monitor spending.
A week after the audit was released, the FBI launched an investigation of the elections office, using a subpoena to seize audit work papers from Ernst & Young.
Gaskin, now 50, worked at Ernst & Young for five years, leaving in 1988 to start his own accounting business, according to his job application. He later handled financial matters for the Riverhills Church of God.
His legal troubles started after he left the church in 2001.
After a traffic stop in 2002, Gaskin was charged with possession of 17.7 grams — over a half-ounce — of cocaine and some Xanax pills obtained without a prescription. He avoided jail by entering a pretrial intervention program.
Then the fires began.
In nine months beginning in November 2003, a half-dozen fires ignited in the 700 block of Forest Hills Drive in the Hillside neighborhood of Brandon. Gaskin shared a home with his mother in that block, at 709 Forest Hills.
One fire destroyed the home at 707 Forest Hills. Another gutted the home at 703 Forest Hills, where an 80-year-old woman lived. The homes at 704 and 710 Forest Hills suffered total damages of more than $120,000.
"We always felt it was someone who knew the neighborhood," said Tamra Lorenzo, who still lives at 712 Forest Hills. "And Mr. Gaskin always seemed to be one of the first ones out there after the fires started."
After the fifth fire, Gaskin was charged with violating probation when his urine sample revealed traces of cocaine and marijuana, and when he failed to complete a drug treatment program.
In August 2004, less than a month after the sixth Forest Hills fire, Gaskin ignited newspapers under the porch at 5576 Peach Ave. in Seffner, causing about $500 in damage. Gaskin failed a polygraph test concerning that arson, and later admitted that he set the fire "to get someone's attention."
Facing as much as 30 years in prison, he reached a plea agreement. He pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and arson of the Seffner home and was sentenced to 45 months. He was released after 371/2 months behind bars.
He worked briefly as a telephone solicitor before Harris hired him as her special assistant. He had been out of prison eight months.
Gaskin accompanied the elections general counsel to court, handled troubleshooting at early voting sites and acted as a gatekeeper for outsiders who wanted access to Harris, according to the elections staff.
"I knew nothing about his background, but I saw him during early voting at the College Hill voting site, and after early voting started, he was like a buffer between me and Kathy Harris whenever I wanted to reach her," recalled Sharon Samek, a Tampa lawyer with the Florida Democratic Lawyers Council, a voting rights organization.
Gaskin's employment ended Nov. 8, two days after a manual vote count determined that Johnson had lost the supervisor of elections job to Phyllis Busansky.
Lorenzo, who lived in fear while her neighbors' homes on Forest Hills Drive burned, thinks the elections office might have found someone other than a convicted arsonist to be Harris' top aide.
"It's unbelievable they'd hire a man with his background," she said. "There has to be someone else as qualified and with his skills out there in this job market, wouldn't you think?"
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or [email protected]