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FBI looking at real estate dealings by former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson

TAMPA ­— The FBI, which already is looking into the office of former Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson, has opened a parallel inquiry into Johnson's real estate finances.

This month, federal agents contacted Jack T. Gibbs, a Plant City appraiser who examined a 19.98-acre tract off Thonotosassa Road that Johnson bought in March 2007. Gibbs declined to discuss the appraisal, which was ordered by Sunshine State Savings, but he confirmed the FBI inquiry.

"At this time, I prefer not to discuss anything about the Buddy Johnson issue," Gibbs said. "But I know he is involved in a lawsuit" about this property, and "I am aware that there is a criminal investigation going on concerning him."

The retired couple who sold Johnson the property, Cecil and Nita Bass, sued Johnson in January, claiming he conspired with Sunshine Savings and a local title company to defraud them. The Basses allege Johnson secretly altered the terms of the sales contract to obtain additional financing, enabling him to walk away from the closing with the deed to the Bass property and $158,177 in cash.

To finance the $800,000 land purchase, Johnson persuaded the Basses to lend him $520,000, then borrowed $400,000 from Sunshine State Savings. At the time the mortgages were made, Sunshine State's president, Floyd Hall, was Johnson's re-election campaign treasurer, and Hall's Plant City bank was where Johnson kept his campaign account.

Sunshine State attorney Conrad Swanson would not discuss whether the FBI has been in touch with bank officials or obtained any loan documents.

"I can't comment on that, if it were true," said Swanson. "I'm not telling you one way or another."

The loans used to buy the Bass property brought Johnson's mortgage debt to more than $1.6 million while his annual income was about $142,000. His earnings came from his salary as Hillsborough elections chief and from fees for serving as director of a restaurant holding company.

Johnson had signed in late 2006 for some of that debt, two mortgages totaling $452,907, to buy a 13-floor condo in downtown Sarasota. Johnson took out those loans as he was negotiating to buy the Bass property, and under a misspelled name. In the Sarasota mortgage papers, Johnson's first name, Phillip, is spelled with one "L."

The misspelling separated Johnson from his new debt, at least in the public records of Sarasota County.

The lawyer who notarized Johnson's signature at the Sarasota condo closing, Joseph Venable, checked Johnson's drivers license, but documents show that Johnson initialed that the drivers license spelling, showing two "L's" in Phillip, was not correct.

Venable said Monday he could not recall what happened regarding the name spelling at Johnson's condo closing. Venable also declined to answer a question about whether he had been contacted about the issue by the FBI.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that," Venable said.

William M. Stainton, a Tampa lawyer representing Johnson in the Bass case, said in an e-mail that "Mr. Johnson does look forward to all the facts coming to light" in the matter of the lawsuit, but declined further comment.

Although Johnson said he was able to afford the Sarasota condo because he kept the unit rented, he stopped making his mortgage payments in January 2008. A foreclosure suit led to a judgment against him last month of $415,878.

Johnson fell behind on his payments to the Basses in the fall, at the height of his re-election campaign, and the couple then hired attorneys to prepare the lawsuit alleging fraud.

In November, Johnson lost narrowly to former County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky in an election marked by missing ballots, undermanned polling places and voter complaints. But after Johnson departed, problems remained, particularly in the area of elections office finances.

On Feb. 11, FBI agents used a subpoena to seize documents related to an audit of Johnson's election office from the Tampa accounting firm, Ernst & Young.

The Ernst & Young audit, released just eight days before the FBI hauled off the firm's audit work papers, was a denunciation of Johnson's money handling while at the helm of the elections office during the fiscal year ending in September 2008.

In that time, the audit said, Johnson broke Florida law by overspending his budget by $942,022 and missed a statutory deadline to turn in a year-end report and any unused funds to the county. The audit also criticized Johnson for improper handling of federal grant money and for failing to establish internal safeguards to monitor finances.

In addition to spending almost $1 million more than he had in his budget, Johnson left behind an unpaid $2.1 million bill from Premier Elections Solutions for new optical scan voting machines — even though the county commission had provided full funding for the equipment.

The Ernst & Young audit did not explain where the misappropriated millions ended up. But records show in the months before the election, Johnson put his name, voice or picture on $2.5 million worth of TV spots, radio ads, print materials, church fans, ballpoint pens and coloring books, all bought under the line item, "voter education."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

FBI looking at real estate dealings by former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson 02/23/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2009 12:35pm]
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