The curtain is finally rolling back on the rot left behind by former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson, and it isn't pretty. The best way to clean it up is for Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint a prosecutor to investigate Johnson's handling of the public's money. A county audit and the elections office's emergency request for more cash raise serious questions about where it all went and why Johnson was so secretive about it.
The county audit director told county commissioners last week he could not validate Johnson's rationale last month for seeking $2.3-million in emergency funds. Johnson's chief of staff, Kathy Harris, blamed the expenses on unanticipated costs from the November election. But the figures Harris used were all over the map. Commissioners said she failed to provide, as promised, an account of how much cash the office had on hand and its larger financial picture. Auditors said they could verify only $336,000 in overtime costs behind Johnson's $2.3-million bailout request, and that they were unsure what he did with the other $1.7-million he wanted to replace. Moreover, county auditors said Johnson's staff did not cooperate.
Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson and took office last week, said the office's financial records are in such "tremendous disarray" she is working to piece together a paper trail. A second, more exhaustive audit due by Feb. 1 should give the public some sense of where the money went. But the manufacturer of Hillsborough's new voting machines said Johnson still owes $2.1-million. County officials said they fear taxpayers may have to find millions of additional dollars to settle Johnson's unpaid bills.
The audit findings will help clear the financial picture, but there are more than financial questions to answer. Among them:
How did this financial crisis come about? Harris told the commission in December that most of the "unanticipated" costs became apparent only after the August primary. Yet her office had issued news releases dating to the previous January touting historic turnout in the 2008 election. Johnson boasted repeatedly from the summer that his "aggressive" turnout efforts would "result in higher voter participation" in 2008. The notion that Johnson's office was caught off guard is suspect, because the supervisor was predicting heavy turnout months beforehand.
Was Johnson's spending for so-called "voter education efforts" legitimate? The St. Petersburg Times has already detailed how Johnson used taxpayer money to plaster his name across the county during his failed campaign for re-election. The audit findings should clarify the scale of that spending, itemize expenses and make it easier to see whether those outlays were legitimate or part of a shadow campaign.
Where was the oversight? Johnson's office appears to have been a dynamic duo consisting of an absentee supervisor and a chief of staff who answered to no one but him. A forensic audit could reveal whether the lack of controls that caused the budget deficit also manifested itself in the integrity of the vote-counting operation. Johnson may be gone, but Busansky needs to know what she inherited.
One thing she has inherited is a golden parachute in Harris' contract that calls for Johnson's aide to receive three months' notice and pay. Busansky should cancel the contract. If Harris chooses to sue, fine. Deposing witnesses might be a good way to finally get some answers about Johnson's operation.
In the meantime, Crist should appoint a prosecutor to determine whether this is more than incompetence. The last governor, Jeb Bush, first appointed Johnson to the elections job. This one should see to it that Johnson is held accountable for his actions.