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A Times Editorial

Tough inquiry needed now

The findings by auditors that former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson overspent his budget, mishandled grant money and illegally managed his office's finances should be the last straw for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. They have been far too reluctant to investigate, and they have no more excuses for dragging their feet. Regardless of the Hillborough County commissioners' timid call Wednesday for an investigation, law enforcement needs to get aggressive, subpoena records and ask some tough questions to people under oath.

Among the most basic questions that demand answers: What happened to millions of dollars in tax money that auditors cannot find? Did Johnson misuse tax money for campaign purposes? Was there an effort by Johnson or his staff to cover up the misconduct?

Johnson lost re-election in November, but the mess he left behind is very much alive. At least $3-million is unaccounted for, and that is public money that will have to be diverted from other public needs to pay Johnson's outstanding bills. Auditors said Johnson overspent his budget by $942,000, on top of an unpaid bill of $2.1-million for voting machines that the state and county had already funded.

County commissioners agreed Wednesday to supply the new supervisor, Phyllis Busansky, with the money she needs to survive until a new budget year begins in October. The board also voted unanimously to ask the "appropriate authorities" to investigate. That's helpful, but where was the outrage from commissioners who spent too long looking the other way while Johnson ran amok? The time has come for investigators to determine whether Johnson's spending was part of a larger effort to pervert the mission and legally required transparency of the elections office for his own political and personal benefit.

Busansky has commissioned a second, more thorough audit, and she wants to put off talk of a criminal probe until auditors obtain a fuller picture of what Johnson spent, where and why. But a criminal investigation needs to start immediately. It would be more instructive, anyway, to examine Johnson's spending in the context of his increasingly desperate political situation and the statutory obligations he faced as supervisor.

This is a supervisor, after all, who had a record of botching elections, losing ballots, paying hush money to a onetime aide, privatizing his agency's legal work and driving his financial operations in-house and away from the county clerk. His many embarrassments over the years made Johnson vulnerable in the months leading up to his 2008 re-election campaign — the same months when his spending went suspiciously off-track. Auditors said Johnson commingled grant money, broke Florida law by spending money he did not have and removed the very controls that prevent spending abuses. In one case, Johnson failed to report his office's shaky finances in the days before he faced Busansky on Election Day. Weeks later, he failed to disclose, as he sought a county bailout, that his office had lost votes on Election Day. In both cases, investigators need to determine whether the staff kept quiet to limit the political fallout to Johnson.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement should investigate and so should the Department of State, which oversees elections. The accountants have done a good job, but it's time now for more investigative firepower.

Tough inquiry needed now 02/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 7:12pm]
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