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Mortgage lender sues Hillsborough elections supervisor

TAMPA — A mortgage lender has filed a lawsuit against Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson to foreclose on a $381,396 loan he used to buy a luxury high-rise condo in downtown Sarasota in 2006.

The foreclosure complaint, filed by Countrywide Home Loans Servicing, says Johnson failed to make the mortgage payment due in February and all subsequent months, according to Edward B. Pritchard, the Tampa lawyer who filed the suit in Sarasota Circuit Court.

"This loan is almost brand new," said Pritchard. "I don't think it has been paid down that much."

Johnson said in an e-mail Tuesday evening that he had secured a contract "acceptable to Countrywide" to sell the condo in the near future.

"I am confident this issue will be resolved favorably for me and Countrywide and that the property will sell in the next few weeks," Johnson wrote. "Although this has been a long, drawn-out process, I'm confident that all the issues will be resolved favorably in the next few weeks."

Johnson is a co-founder of BuddyFreddy's restaurants and a three-term Republican legislator from Plant City. He was appointed elections chief in 2003, elected in 2004 and is now seeking re-election.

Johnson's Democratic opponent, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, said the foreclosure suit and Johnson's other money handling ought to raise doubts about his fitness to oversee the elections office's $7.8-million budget.

"It's always very sad when this happens to people, and it's happening to people all over the country,'' Busansky said Tuesday. "But the fact is when you are an elected official and you're overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget like Buddy is, you need to be held to a higher standard."

Johnson's personal finances have been in the spotlight since last August, when the St. Petersburg Times published a story saying he was "knee-deep in debt." At the time, Johnson had completed buying the 13th-floor Rivo at Ringling condo in Sarasota, as well as a 19.98-acre property off Thonotosassa Road in Plant City, signing for four mortgages totaling $1.32-million — 10 times the $132,414 he was paid as elections supervisor in 2007.

Johnson obtained a $400,000 loan on the Thonotosassa purchase from Sunshine State Savings in Plant City, where the bank president is J. Floyd Hall, a businessman Johnson had already appointed his re-election campaign treasurer. Hall resigned his campaign post after a Times story raised questions about a possible conflict.

Johnson was delinquent on his property taxes this year on the condo, the Thonotosassa land and a home and vacant lot he sold in 2007. He caught up on his back taxes in April and May by writing checks totaling $10,939.

Johnson got a tax break in June when he won an agricultural exemption for leasing his Thonotosassa land to a cow exhibitor for $20 a year. The greenbelt exemption could reduce the value of the property by $560,000 and lower his tax bill in 2008 from $14,300 to $2,820.

The Rivo at Ringling Condominium Association filed a lien against Johnson in June for maintenance fees of $1,474 due in April. The bill remains unpaid.

Johnson paid $476,800 for the Sarasota condo, putting 5 percent down and signing for two mortgages totaling $452,907. With the downturn in the real estate market, Johnson put the condo on the market for $460,000, reducing it to $440,000 and finally to $405,000.

Asked last year how he could handle all his new debt, Johnson said he had a tenant in the condo. In signing for the condo loans, however, Johnson signed an affidavit saying he would use the unit only "as a second home."

In a disclosure statement filed in June, Johnson listed no rental income for 2007, only his elections salary and a $12,000 stipend from Star Buffet, a restaurant holding company where he serves as a director.

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

Mortgage lender sues Hillsborough elections supervisor 08/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 4:52pm]
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