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What $2.8 million in federal money bought Buddy Johnson's office is unclear

TAMPA — A federal elections board is asking new questions about financial irregularities in the office of former Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.

Officials with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission are concerned there was poor oversight of nearly $2.8 million in federal "get out the vote" money.

Commission officials in Washington spoke by phone on Tuesday with state and county officials to discuss an Ernst & Young audit released last week that reported federal money had been mingled with operating funds, making accounting for the grants difficult. The audit also reported that there was no backup material, such as receipts, to show what the money was spent on.

"(I) have concerns about whether Hillsborough County used (federal money) for only authorized purposes," Curtis Crider, the commission's inspector general, said in a letter last week to Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

Last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Johnson spent three times as much as other counties on voter education, which is paid for by these grants. Johnson spent about $1.3 million of that money in a media blitz that some said at the time helped his re-election campaign more than educating the public about voting.

Despite the spending spree, Hillsborough lagged behind other counties in voter turnout, and Johnson lost his re-election bid to Phyllis Busansky in November.

The findings of the Ernst & Young audit didn't resolve Crider's concerns. On Tuesday, he and other federal, state and county officials agreed to a more in-depth audit that will scrutinize receipts and invoices for the grant since 2007.

If this audit, which is expected to be done in two months, doesn't satisfy federal officials, then they will order another audit, said Sarah Litton, a commission spokeswoman.

Aside from the Ernst & Young audit, county commissioners voted last week to order an outside investigation of Johnson's office that could include law enforcement agencies. A Clearwater man also has filed an ethics complaint against him.

County taxpayers could pay if federal officials aren't happy with how the money was spent. Passed by Congress after Florida's botched 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act provides millions for equipment, training and programs to make it easier to vote.

It's the job of the commission to make sure this money is spent properly. If it finds inappropriate expenses, it can demand the money be repaid. In 2006, for example, California was forced to repay $2.9 million.

The state is technically on the hook for the money, because it disbursed it to counties. But the state wouldn't pay if the commission finds a violation, said Jennifer Davis, a spokesman for Browning. "Hillsborough County would be the one liable," she said.

Where that money would come from is unclear. The elections office already has a deficit of about $3 million.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

What $2.8 million in federal money bought Buddy Johnson's office is unclear 02/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 12:08am]

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