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New supervisor Busansky finds Buddy Johnson left Hillsborough elections office records in disarray

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's new elections supervisor, Phyllis Busansky, says she arrived for her first day on the job this week to find financial records in "tremendous disarray."

They sat in boxes stacked on the floor and in piles atop desks at the Falkenburg Road elections office in Brandon. Bank statements lay bundled with rubber bands.

She had it all rounded up Wednesday for transport to Hillsborough County Center in downtown Tampa where she and her staff hope to untangle it in coming weeks and months.

"We have no idea how much money has been spent and how much is owed," Busansky told Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday, describing her experience the day before.

Former Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said the records had been laid out for an ongoing annual audit.

And ultimately, he said, those records will prove that his office has been run on the up and up.

Commissioners have been questioning just that in recent weeks.

Busansky and Johnson's comments Wednesday came in reaction to a different audit. This one was requested by commissioners two weeks ago in response to an unexpected, last-minute request by Johnson for $2.3-million to cover expenses from the November election.

Commissioners wanted to know the money really was needed for things such as overtime and additional voting equipment, as Johnson asserted. And they also asked why he hadn't made the request sooner than the eve of his departure?

Busansky defeated Johnson in November.

In his presentation Wednesday, director of county audit Dan Pohto said he was unable to validate most of Johnson's stated rationale for the request. He was only able to verify $336,000 in unbudgeted overtime costs.

Pohto said the elections office that had generally not been very helpful. Former chief deputy Kathy Harris didn't return messages, and an accountant canceled an initial interview, he said.

His auditors had "very little access to records," Pohto said.

On Tuesday, Premier Election Solutions, which sold Johnson new voting machines last year, told the Times it is still owed $2.1-million. This, even though commissioners earmarked elections office money for the equipment early last year.

Pohto's audit suggests that money was spent on other things.

"The results of this audit are embarrassing," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said.

Ferlita and other commissioners had already been angered because Johnson didn't make his request for extra cash last month in person, sending Harris instead.

Commissioner Kevin White accused Harris Wednesday of being less than truthful in that presentation Dec. 17.

Commissioners, including White, had asked her whether the money being requested had been spent already or is due to be paid. Harris told them that almost all of the money had already been paid, and that she was seeking the money to leave Busansky on solid footing.

"It appears to me that was a blatant and apparent lie, or they didn't know what they were doing," White said.

Harris could not be reached for comment. She remains with the Supervisor of Elections Office for the next three months thanks to contract terms granted to her by Johnson last year.

Busansky said Harris has been sent home, essentially writing a paper on what went wrong in the past two election cycles, which were plagued with delayed vote counts and other problems. She is still being paid, and has an annual salary of more than $175,000. Busansky said she is obligated to honor the contract.

Johnson said he would not dignify White's "offensive" comment with a response.

While he said his office might have handled the request for extra cash better, he said ongoing reviews of his records will show expenditures were legitimate. He repeated earlier assertions that he prepared his budget for this year's election on best estimates of the cost for switching to new voting machines, as mandated by state law.

Pohto's review says Johnson is seeking reimbursement for about $1.4-million spent in the previous fiscal year. Asked if the late timing of the request was to avoid admitting he had blown his budget while campaigning as a conservative, Johnson said no.

He noted that he is requesting the money for things such as overtime pay and privacy booths, legitimate, unforeseen expenses.

Johnson said the questions he's facing are politically driven, or at least demonstrate a lack of understanding by commissioners and others of how his office runs.

"There sure is a lot of misunderstanding," he said, before quoting a former state legislator whose name he couldn't recall: "It's not that they're ignorant. It's just that they know so much that just ain't so."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

New supervisor Busansky finds Buddy Johnson left Hillsborough elections office records in disarray 01/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 12:12pm]
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