TAMPA — In newspaper ads bought with tax money, Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson announced in late October a voter education rally and introduced his new partner, "community empowerment organizer" Jarvis El-Amin.
El-Amin had little in common with Johnson, a Plant City Baptist and restaurateur who won three terms in the Florida Legislature as a Republican, was appointed to head the Florida Real Estate Division and the Hillsborough Elections Office by a Republican governor, then was returned to the elections office for a second term under the Republican banner.
El-Amin, who picked cotton with his mother in rural Georgia, is a Muslim activist in Tampa's African-American community, owner of a security company and a longtime Democrat who worked for the election of Democrats like Barack Obama.
It isn't clear if Johnson knew it, but El-Amin has a history of financial and legal problems, including three bankruptcy filings, five failed marriages, two foreclosures and four arrests, including one for selling counterfeit Social Security cards and birth certificates to a federal undercover agent.
Once appointed outreach coordinator, El-Amin worked hard to get out the vote, and — according to those who observed him at election rallies, polling places and community meetings — El-Amin poured his energy and enthusiasm into getting out the vote for Johnson.
If tax dollars from Johnson's office were used to promote his candidacy, it would violate laws prohibiting the public's money from being used for partisan purposes.
El-Amin declined to discuss whether his activities crossed that line, citing an FBI investigation into Johnson's office.
Johnson did not return calls.
Last month, the FBI seized papers related to an audit of Johnson's office by the Tampa accounting firm Ernst & Young. The auditors found that Johnson's administration broke Florida law by overspending its annual budget by $942,022. The audit also criticized Johnson for improper handling of federal grant money earmarked for voter education activities.
Johnson raised $76,800 in his re-election campaign, but he spent $2.3 million in federal and county tax money for an avalanche of radio spots, TV ads and mailouts that kept his face and name in front of the electorate.
About $155,000 of that tax money was dedicated to a voter education program in Hillsborough's African-American community. El-Amin, along with Michelle Patty, a former business partner in a company called Help LLC, were Johnson's organizers in that effort.
Kevin Beckner, a Democrat who waged a successful campaign for a seat on the County Commission, used his own campaign money to hire El-Amin to round up workers for the general election.
Beckner said it was obvious that El-Amin wasn't neutral about Johnson's candidacy. "He did voice support for Buddy, that was pretty evident," Beckner said.
At the College Hill early-vote site, El-Amin talked up Johnson and bad-mouthed his opponent, Phyllis Busansky. With Patty, whom Johnson's office paid more than $16,000 to coordinate voter education rallies, El-Amin warned voters that Busansky refused to support Obama for president.
That was fiction. Busansky, a lifelong Democrat who championed liberal causes as a county commissioner, was fully behind Obama.
"I didn't think that misinformation would get any traction," said Mary Repper, a political consultant who worked for Busansky. "But it did, and we had to beef up a strategy to fight it off."
At a community meeting at the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, black residents assailed Johnson for taking precinct addresses off voter ID cards. El-Amin stood to fend off the criticism. "When (Johnson) was taking all that heat, El-Amin jumped to his feet and got right to the podium to defend him," said Tampa City Council Chairman Tom Scott, who attended the church meeting.
In the weeks before the general election, El-Amin and Patty helped stage voter rallies in the black community that included free food, gospel entertainment and Johnson as the featured speaker. And on election eve, El-Amin and Patty briefed about a dozen people on how to galvanize support for Johnson with campaign fliers and slogans, including one that sounded familiar to an Obama slogan.
Towanda Speights said she was instructed to wear a Johnson T-shirt and hand out Johnson campaign literature outside an East Tampa precinct on Election Day. She said she was advised to tell voters, "Buddy Johnson is a Republican for change."
Speights said she was paid $100 in cash for her work.
Beckner said his campaign paid $2,800 to El-Amin's consulting company, Enhancement Enterprises, and from that, El-Amin paid 16 volunteers to hand out Beckner campaign literature on Election Day.
Although El-Amin had been introduced in Johnson's newspaper ads as a get-out-the-vote "community empowerment organizer," El-Amin also was a paid campaign worker for Johnson, though that did not become clear until after the election.
In his campaign's last report, filed Feb. 10 — three months after the election — Johnson reported that El-Amin's Enhancement Enterprises was paid $2,000 and $500 on Nov. 3, the day before Election Day.
Beckner said El-Amin came well recommended and did "a great job" working for his campaign. Beckner said he was unaware of El-Amin's arrest record.
In 2000, El-Amin was charged with misuse of a Social Security number and fraudulent use of identification documents after he sold a counterfeit Social Security card, a phony birth certificate and a false driver's license to an undercover agent for $2,500.
The agent, alerted by a stream of Social Security cards mailed to El-Amin's Tampa home, posed as an international businessman with immigration status problems. El-Amin showed the agent a stack of counterfeit Social Security cards and birth certificates in the trunk of his car, telling the agent that he himself used three identities. El-Amin pleaded guilty, agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities and was sentenced by a federal judge to six months of home detention, placed on probation for 36 months and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
In 1996, El-Amin was charged with possession of a fraudulent ID card and making a false statement to try to obtain a $1,000 loan. He pleaded no contest, was placed on probation for a year, ordered to perform 75 hours of community service and had adjudication withheld.
In 2000, El-Amin was charged with battery after a teenage daughter reported that he choked her with both hands and slammed her head against the floor. The charge was dismissed after El-Amin completed an anger management program.
El-Amin, 49, reached by phone last week, declined a second time to be interviewed. "I have nothing to say to you," El-Amin said. "Have a nice day."