TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson illegally overspent his budget, pouring hundreds of thousands of tax dollars into a "voter education" campaign that placed his name and image in front of the public during his 2008 re-election effort.
He used a cozy relationship to obtain a loan from a bank run by his campaign treasurer to purchase property from Cecil and Nita Bass, an elderly couple who say Johnson defrauded them.
But the federal government, which investigated both matters, says Johnson committed no federal crime, according to a statement released by the FBI.
"We have completed our review and closed our case," FBI spokesman David Couvertier said.
Johnson could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The co-founder of Buddy Freddy's restaurants and a three-term Florida legislator from Plant City, Johnson was appointed Hillsborough elections chief by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 after Pam Iorio decided to run for Tampa mayor. Facing a political newcomer in 2004, Johnson handily won a new term in office.
But the next four years were tumultuous. Top staffers departed. Johnson paid hush money to an ousted office spokesman. He botched the counting of a group's petitions, erasing a county mayor initiative. He forgot to notify voters after switching a pair of polling places.
Meanwhile, Johnson was racking up personal debt. He used two loans to buy a luxury condo in Sarasota, and two more to buy a 20-acre tract from the Basses. He fell behind in the payment of his property taxes. To ease his tax load, he rented cattle to qualify for a lucrative "greenbelt" tax exemption on his new property in Thonotosassa.
For four years, the media spotlight on Johnson was glaring.
Then, in 2008, as he prepared to seek re-election, a seasoned opponent appeared: Phyllis Busansky, a former Hillsborough commissioner who had served in county and state executive positions. To counter the challenge, Johnson launched a massive "voter education" campaign.
The elections supervisor spent $1.3 million, much of it from federal grants, for media advertising. His office also shelled out $23,000 for 100,000 pens, $540 for lapel pins, $10,000 for church fans and $6,000 for coloring books. Just about everything Johnson bought had his name, picture or recorded voice on it.
An examination of the expenses by the St. Petersburg Times also found Johnson used voter education money to hire consultants who later paid cash to workers to stump for him.
Johnson lost anyway.
When Busansky took over in January 2009, she found financial records in disarray, equipment that had never been inventoried and hundreds of ballots never counted from the general election two months earlier.
Then, in February 2009, auditors from Ernst & Young issued a blistering report saying that Johnson had illegally overspent his office budget by $942,022 and failed to pay a $2.1 million voting machine invoice even though the County Commission had allocated funds for it.
The FBI stepped in.
Agents used a subpoena to seize documents related to the audit. The FBI also obtained records of Shifino Lee Advertising & Branding, which had billed the office $643,016 for Johnson's voter education campaign.
Later, the FBI began interviewing people connected with the Bass land purchase. The FBI took an interest in the transaction after learning that Johnson, in order to make the $800,000 purchase, had used a $520,000 loan from the couple and a $400,000 loan from Sunshine State Savings in Plant City, where the president, J. Floyd Hall, was Johnson's appointed re-election campaign treasurer.
After Johnson fell behind on payments on the loan from the Basses, the couple sued, saying he had secretly changed the terms of the sales contract, enabling him to walk away from the closing with the deed and $158,177 in cash.
Facing the fraud suit from the Basses and a foreclosure on the loan from Sunshine State Savings, Johnson decided to abandon any claim he had in the 20-acre Thonotosassa property. He deeded it to Sunshine State, which sold it and reached a confidential settlement with the Basses.
While Johnson and the bank have been dismissed as defendants, a title company and Johnson's land company, Fort Bully East, remain. The suit is pending.
On Thursday, Couvertier, the FBI spokesman, said he was unaware of any other agency investigating the matters.