TAMPA — The federal probe of former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson led agents two months ago to the chic, South Tampa offices of Schifino Lee Advertising & Branding.
This is where Johnson and the firm's top ad representatives put together the voter education campaign that's now part of an FBI investigation into whether Johnson illegally spent millions in taxpayer money during his fight for re-election.
The contract signed by Johnson and one of the firm's presidents, Ben Lee, limited the firm to no more than $40,000 of work. Yet the company billed taxpayers $643,016 — or more than 16 times what the original contract allowed.
The spree paid for a lavish effort that ranged across the media spectrum, from TV and radio to trinkets like lapel pins, church fans and pens —most of it with Johnson prominently featured. Its impact on voter education, however, appears minimal: Hillsborough led the state in the number of voters whose eligibility was deemed questionable, a sure sign of voter confusion.
Schifino Lee executives have handed over records related to its advertising campaign to federal investigators. Lee says his firm has nothing to hide and made those same records available to the St. Petersburg Times.
Taken together, they depict a campaign that promoted Johnson's re-election as much as, if not more than, voter education — the only reason it was taxpayer-subsidized to begin with.
The Times found:
• Schifino Lee won the contract in a no-bid process that let Johnson choose whichever firm he wanted, regardless of its qualifications, experience or cost.
• Many of the ads were political in nature, trumpeting Johnson's "achievements'' as supervisor. Some included false claims, while others had little or nothing to do with educating the public about how to vote.
• Several pieces were identical or nearly so, yet Schifino Lee charged taxpayers creative costs for them each time they were recycled.
• Some of the pieces were never used, and some of the work had little or no value. An article by Johnson that was ghost-written by the firm was never published. A two-page flier cost $1,854, but there is no indication it was ever used. Another flier told voters how to fill the oval on the ballot. "Completely," it advised, a tip that cost taxpayers $765.
Lee said all of the work was done at the behest of the client — Buddy Johnson.
"It was all done to our client's approval,'' Lee said in an e-mail response to Times' questions. "And it was quality work billed at competitive rates and costs."
The Times asked five marketing and elections experts to review the work produced by Schifino Lee. Some questioned the costs. All of them criticized the campaign for promoting Johnson's image at taxpayer expense.
"Too many of these pieces have the truly good information buried in a swamp of congratulatory Buddy-backslapping info," said Patrick Scullin, a founding partner of an Atlanta advertising firm.
"If this is voter education, I assume the educational objective is really 'Vote for Buddy Johnson the next time he runs.' "
• • •
Federal investigators are taking a hard look at several aspects of Johnson's management of Hillsborough's elections office, where he overspent his budget by $2.35-million in the 15 months before he was voted out.
The FBI has seized audit papers, county financial records and interviewed people associated with Johnson's African-American outreach program.
But the tens of thousands Johnson spent on minority outreach was dwarfed by the $640,000 in taxpayer money he directed toward Schifino Lee, much of which ended up in the firm's Bayshore Boulevard coffers.
Since its opening in 1993, Schifino Lee has assembled a gilt-edged client list that includes many of the area's biggest players: WellCare Health Plans; the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino; LazyDays RV; DeBartolo Holdings.
Its resume is thin, however, when it comes to government work. When the county invited firms to negotiate for a voter education contract two years ago, it listed two important qualifications: experience managing a public information campaign and familiarity with elections organizations.
Schifino Lee listed no such qualifications in its proposal. The only "elections" experience the firm mentioned, in fact, was a campaign it did for a losing City Council candidate in 2007 and a losing U.S. Senate candidate in 2006.
All of which makes Johnson's decision a year later to hire Schifino Lee something of a mystery.
"Schifino Lee earned the account because we were the most qualified firm to handle the wide range of needs this client was going to have," Lee said in an e-mail.
Soon after he signed a $40,000 contract with the firm, Johnson learned he was in a tough fight for re-election.
In February 2008, former County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky filed to run against him. By the end of March, she had passed him in campaign contributions.
Schifino Lee, which was supposed to complete its contract by March 13, 2008, got an extension instead. Now the firm could keep working on voter education right up to Election Day.
And it did, with Buddy Johnson front and center.
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The vast majority of Florida's elections supervisors saw no need in 2008 to hire an advertising firm to educate voters. Most got the job done with available staff, mailers and sample ballots.
"When you go through an agency, the cost triples," said Bob Sweat, the Manatee County supervisor of elections.
"Why would I need to hire an ad agency?" asked Kathy Dent, the supervisor of elections in Sarasota, which had the same new optical-scan system as the one introduced last year in Hillsborough. "There's not a whole lot to learn when it comes to these systems. You fill out the oval and take it over to the scanner. It's a no-brainer."
It was the debut of this "no-brainer" voting system that Johnson's office used to justify hiring Schifino Lee. The firm was to educate voters on how to navigate the process.
But getting Johnson's name and image in front of voters was a main goal from the outset, said the owner of a marketing firm who was hired by the elections office to conduct an outreach campaign for Hispanics.
Evelyn Hale remembers a February 2008 meeting with Johnson and Lee where much of the discussion veered away from how best to educate the public. Instead, Lee discussed a splashy campaign of commercials on radio and TV, Hale said.
What bothered her about that meeting and subsequent ones was that nobody talked about cost. When she told Johnson she was concerned about the direction Lee was headed, Johnson told her it would be okay, she said.
Then Lee and Johnson had a closed door meeting for 15 minutes, Hale said. Afterward, Lee let her know "he wasn't happy about what I said."
Hale said Schifino Lee's commercials made Johnson a focal point.
"(Schifino Lee) was trying to get his name and face on everything," Hale said. "What was it that they were trying to sell? Whatever the supervisor of elections was telling them to sell."
Lee directed all questions about the campaign's focus to Johnson or members of his former staff.
"(Their) representatives requested the content that appeared in all of the ads and materials," he said in an e-mail.
Lee declined to meet with reporters for an interview. Johnson, and his former chief of staff, Kathy Harris, did not respond to several requests for interviews.
• • •
The experts who reviewed the ad campaign for the Times were particularly troubled by pieces they consider politically oriented.
Schifino Lee, for example, billed taxpayers $4,860 for a logo that read, YOUth Vote. The logo adorned two brochures, which Schifino Lee charged taxpayers an additional $7,346 to produce. The brochures include text explaining how Johnson let 16-year-olds register to vote, even though they can't vote until they are 18.
The brochures also have a smiling photo of Johnson. Their tag line: "A Class Act, Initiated by Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson."
"The phrase 'class act' is very self-serving," said Walt Guarino, who teaches advertising at Seton Hall University. "This is much more about him than about educating people about how to vote."
An ad that ran in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin also got critical scrutiny. It's a large photo of a grinning Johnson, with the message "Happy 4th of July!"
The other message in the ad, "Get Ready to Make Your Mark," refers to changes in how ballots are to be filled out. But no further explanation is given. At the very bottom of the ad — in type that's a fraction of the size used for Johnson's name — is vague information about voting.
"This ad looks like an ad for Buddy Johnson," said Scullin, the Atlanta-based advertising executive.
Same with a brochure that Schifino Lee charged taxpayers $6,362 to produce, the experts said.
One side of the brochure is festooned with an image of Johnson, who, again, is smiling. His name, in larger type than the rest of the text, is on three other sides. So no matter how this is folded, Johnson's name or face will greet voters.
The piece also mentions that Johnson cut his budget by nearly 10 percent. That claim is false. After he lost the election, Johnson informed county commissioners he had overshot his budget by more than $2-million and needed an emergency transfusion of cash.
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There also are questions about whether taxpayers got a fair deal on Schifino Lee's work.
The current elections office says it has no way to tell. It can't find complete records showing what was produced from the concepts Schifino Lee developed.
"That's a big question mark," said Andy Alexandre, the office's new director of finance.
The records that do exist show some of the pieces never saw the light of day, and others generated charges for what appear to be minimal work.
The firm, for example, charged $980 for a letter "written" by Johnson that spoke mainly about how he reduced the budget and improved voter services. It was never published.
A booth flier intended to explain to voters how to fill in ovals on the ballot is simply a large oval that's blacked out. Yet the firm charged $765 for it, including $550 for "art direction." Typically, art direction includes the creative development of the piece.
"I wouldn't charge that much," said Guarino, the Seton Hall professor who is a partner in an ad agency.
Lee said even the most basic pieces sometimes had to go through several revisions. That cost the firm many hours of extra work, he said.
There also were several pieces that appear to be nearly identical, with many of the elements recycled. Schifino Lee charged taxpayers for the art direction on each of them.
For instance, a direct-mail piece titled "Good News for Democracy" cost $9,340 to produce. It lists important dates in the election season. Later, a nearly identical piece is produced, which costs an additional $4,515. Only two modifications were made, the addition of a calendar and Johnson's e-mail address.
Later, yet another similar brochure was produced. Its cost: $1,975.
"The charges seem much for essentially minimal design revisions," Scullin said. "I'm not saying the charges are not legitimate. But on the surface they seem questionable."
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402 and Jeff Testerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3422.