Tampa black activist Michelle Patty took to the airwaves earlier this week to dispute a St. Petersburg Times investigation. The report found she had gone from a onetime critic of Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson to an active campaigner after he funneled $16,000 in taxpayer dollars to her firm for "voter education." What Patty was hired to do for Johnson is far from clear. But her defense — surfacing days after the story ran and after she had declined to answer Times reporters' questions — makes it all the more important that federal investigators broaden their inquiry of Johnson to determine if he illegally paid Patty and others.
Johnson's spending of tax dollars is already the focus of an FBI investigation and at least two ongoing audits by state and local officials. But as Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Jeff Testerman laid out in a March 11 article, the malfeasance may go deeper. Johnson hired Patty — who has a following in Tampa's black neighborhoods — after she criticized him Aug. 26, the day of the primary election, saying he botched voter notification in a black-dominated precinct. But county employees cannot find a contract for Patty or any memo that explains why or how she was hired. Several associates told the Times that Patty campaigned for Johnson — urging friends to vote for him, setting up meet-and-greets, handing out yard signs and organizing people to stump for Johnson on Election Day. The about-face coincided with the first of two payments to her business from the elections office, the Times found.
Private citizens have every right to sell out their name and credibility. If Patty wanted to talk up Johnson, a Republican, in black, Democratic precincts, that's fine. But Johnson paid Patty with tax funds, not money from his re-election account. The money came from more than $2 million in local and federal tax money Johnson had at his disposal to promote voter turnout. In the first two weeks of October, Patty received more than $16,000 for "outreach" work, aided, at times, by a business associate who was a paid consultant to Johnson's campaign. One person told the Times Patty paid her and others $100 each to stump for Johnson outside polling sites on Election Day.
If Johnson used tax money to campaign, it would violate laws that prohibit public money from being used to promote partisan purposes. The payments to Patty came during a critical time in his failed re-election bid. Johnson polled poorly in black precincts in 2004 and he shared a ballot in 2008 that featured the country's first black major-party presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Johnson's challenger, Democrat Phyllis Busansky, was a former county commissioner who had made inroads with Republicans. The Times had published stories about Johnson's ethical lapses, mismanagement and wasteful spending. Though Obama won in Hillsborough, Johnson — who lost — still did better in seven black precincts than he did in 2004. Patty refused to answer questions from the Times about her activities. But in a letter to the paper dated Friday, after the story was published, she wrote there was "no such evidence which suggest campaigning for Mr. Johnson."
The FBI needs to examine what Patty did and why Johnson paid her tax money. It also needs to investigate why several other "consultants" were paid tax money to reach out to voters in black neighborhoods. The lack of a paper trail, the "no comments" and the serious sums spent on African-American outreach — at least $155,000, records show — demand an accounting. One certainly has not been forthcoming from the people involved.