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Underling blamed for tax lien

The party moves to pay the IRS as the ex-chairman says a bookkeeper kept him in the dark about problems.

Published June 23, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Democratic Party rushed to pay $200,000 in back taxes to the IRS Wednesday as former party Chairman Scott Maddox blamed an employee for not telling him about the problem.

The party will use most of its cash on hand to pay the debt and lift an IRS lien that had frozen party assets, and the national party put up money in case a loan is needed. The state party also is investigating whether $926,000 is missing, or the result of bookkeeping errors as Maddox contends.

Maddox scrambled to contain the damage to his fledgling campaign for governor. He was the party chairman when, the IRS said, the party failed to pay its employees' payroll and Social Security taxes for 2003, but said the IRS lien came as a "total surprise."

He blamed a party bookkeeper - whom he hired - for not telling him.

"She didn't tell her superiors. She didn't tell me," Maddox said outside a campaign fundraiser in Palm Beach County. "It was a total surprise but I take responsibility. I believe that's part of leadership."

Maddox identified the employee as Debbie Griffin-Bruton, a bookkeeping specialist he recruited from the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department, where he said she oversaw a $15-million annual budget. Griffin-Bruton could not be reached for comment.

Maddox hired employees and signed financial reports, and when he announced his departure in March, he noted with pride that the party ended the 2004 elections with money in the bank.

Told of Maddox's remarks, party Chairwoman Karen Thurman said: "I have in my possession documents that say that management was informed about this, but I am not ready to release anything."

As Maddox campaigned in South Florida on Wednesday, Thurman met with IRS collection agents. Accompanied by two tax attorneys, Thurman agreed to pay a tax liability of $200,752.94.

"I have that money," Thurman told the party's budget and finance committee in an afternoon conference call. "I will pay that. That will be the end of that issue."

However, Thurman said earlier, more troubling was a system that allowed a major tax liability to fester for two years.

"I can tell you that, according to the audit that was done, the internal controls in this office were absolutely, unequivocally the worst," Thurman said in a separate conference call with county chairs.

Party leaders praised Thurman for moving quickly to resolve the tax issue, and they discussed how to conduct a credible audit to reassure donors, activists and candidates.

"What we don't want to do is turn this into a two-year story about Democrats," said Allan Katz, a Tallahassee city commissioner who supports Maddox.

"Maddox is going to take the biggest blow on this. We all know that."

The criticism of Maddox was well under way Wednesday. "If he couldn't manage the party, how does he propose to manage the state?" said Bob Poe, Maddox's predecessor. "He now has the party embroiled in a very serious and embarrassing crisis. The first job of the chairman is to protect the party and he didn't do that."

The IRS slapped the lien on the party May 12. Four days later, Maddox, a former mayor of Tallahassee, entered the governor's race, touting his work as chairman and calling himself the only Democrat with executive experience to lead Florida.

Maddox ridiculed as "poppycock" claims by Democratic national committeeman Jon Ausman that $926,000 in party funds are unaccounted for. He blamed it on a "coding error" in a financial report.

Thurman said she was unsure whether money is missing, but is implementing changes such as requiring that every letter be logged, designating one person to handle all faxes, and designating two people to sign for overnight packages or return-receipt mail.

The party had about $220,000 in the bank, so paying the IRS lien wipes out most of its available cash. The Democratic National Committee put up a $100,000 certificate of deposit the state party can use as collateral for a loan if needed.

County activists agreed to help with party donations or personal checks of $500 to $1,000 each in a conference call Wednesday.

"It was as heartwarming a day as anybody has had in this position," said Thurman, a former congresswoman from Dunellon who took charge of the party a few weeks ago. "The chairs were very supportive and said we know you're going to do the right thing. They started pulling out their wallets."

Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used.

[Last modified June 23, 2005, 00:44:09]

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