tampabay.com

Election chief got bargain legal help

Buddy Johnson’s Hillsborough elections office used a politically connected law firm, and got a big price break in doing so.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published September 7, 2006


TAMPA — In March, Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson said he feared the county attorney’s office might have a conflict of interest involving an initiative to elect a county mayor.

So Johnson announced he was taking that one issue out of the county attorney’s office and hiring one private lawyer to handle the issue.

But elections office legal billings obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show that Johnson did something entirely different:

- He quietly moved not just the county mayor question but virtually every issue facing his office to the Tampa law firm of Broad and Cassel. Lawyers examined conflict of interest rules, evaluated procedures for purging felons from the voter rolls and analyzed the elections office budget, among many other matters.

- The elections office work went not to a solitary attorney but to as many as 10 Broad and Cassel lawyers and paralegals who racked up hundreds of hours of work.n Broad and Cassel provided tens of thousands of dollars of free legal work to Johnson’s office.

In May, for instance, the firm did $69,322 worth of work for the elections office, yet billed Johnson for $13,442.

- In funneling nonpartisan elections issues to outside attorneys, Johnson selected one of the most politically connected law firms in the Tampa Bay area.

Steven G. Burton, Broad and Cassel’s managing partner, has deep roots in GOP politics. He has provided support to Republicans at every level of government, from President Bush to Gov. Jeb Bush to Johnson himself.

In 2004, Burton was part of the legal team for the campaign to re-elect Bush-Cheney. In 2002, he was among the lawyers working for Gov. Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign. In 2000, Burton sued the county’s Canvassing Board — an arm of the elections office — on behalf of the Bush-Cheney ticket to seek validation of overseas military ballots.

Johnson, co-founder of BuddyFreddy’s restaurant and a former state legislator from Plant City, was appointed to the elections job by Jeb Bush in 2003. When Johnson ran for the office in 2004, he received three $500 contributions from companies controlled by Burton.

In recent campaigns, Burton’s firm contributed $500 checks to more than a dozen local Republican candidates. In the current election year, Broad and Cassel gave checks to GOP County Commission candidates Jim Norman, Mark Sharpe and Al Higginbotham.

Johnson and Burton said they saw no conflict in the legal services arrangement.

“I was laser-focused on finding the best election attorneys I could find,’’ Johnson said. “I got a powerhouse, a superior firm. The county was well served.”

“Choosing someone who has given to your campaign, that raises a red flag for me,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. MacManus also said she saw a problem in how Johnson changed course in defining the scope of work his outside attorneys would do.

“It sounds like Buddy is outsourcing all his legal services to the Republican Party,’’ said Rob MacKenna, Johnson’s Democratic opponent in 2004 and now a law student.

“It looks like the guys running the show for the GOP are now running the show for the elections supervisor, too.”

***

The County Commission provides the budget for the county attorney’s office, and constitutional officers like Johnson are not billed for the work. At $96 an hour, the county attorney is a bargain for taxpayers, compared to outside firms.

But Johnson sought a change after he and Assistant County Attorney Ken Tinkler, an election law veteran, clashed on March 22 over the possible use of outside counsel, records show.

Johnson then said he would seek proposals from other law firms to assist his office. Renee Lee, the county attorney, asked for the opportunity to bid. Johnson, however, did not seek competitive bids from anyone.

Billing records show Johnson placed his work with Broad and Cassel on March 20, two days before he clashed with Tinkler, who has since resigned.

Johnson’s public announcement involving a change in legal representation came March 28. In a press release, he said he had retained Broad and Cassel’s Veronica Donnelly to handle the county mayor issue. He said he saw no reason to make any other changes.

Within days, however, Donnelly’s colleagues were handling elections matters unconnected to the county mayor initiative.

Much of the work was provided free of charge.

From March through June, billing records show, Broad and Cassel provided $153,486 in legal services to Johnson’s office but billed for just $56,577 — a discount of nearly 64 percent. The reason? The firm had agreed to a flat fee of $13,000 a month, plus expenses, later rising to $20,000, regardless of how much work it did.

“Anyone with any common sense can see there’s nothing right about this arrangement,’’ MacKenna said.

“Whenever you’re getting free money in politics, it raises questions.”

Johnson, however, insisted he did not get free services.

“I don’t agree with that characterization at all,’’ he said. “I negotiated a $13,000 fee, and the arrangement was fee for services provided.

“There is no free lunch.’’

In announcing the hiring of Donnelly, Johnson said that she would work on the county mayor question at a rate of $200 an hour. For the month of March, she did. In April, her rate went to $300.

She said this week she was unaware her rate had been raised.

“Oh, really? I had no idea,’’ she said when a reporter told her what the billings reflected. She and her husband left Broad and Cassel on Aug. 31 to form their own firm.

Just three weeks into the contract, Burton began lending his $375 per hour skills to elections matters. On April 5, he spent more than five hours conferring with the office and analyzing a Pitney Bowes contract. His bill: $1,912.50.

According to Broad and Cassel’s Web site, Burton has served as lead counsel for a number of Florida Fortune 500 companies, has experience in handling multi-million-dollar commercial and real estate litigation and served as outside general counsel to the Florida House of Representatives.

Thanks in part to his friendship with former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, Burton also landed a no-bid contract for Broad and Cassel to handle litigation related to a suit from Hayes E-government Resources, a Tallahassee firm hired by legislators to create a Web-based system to track legislative bills.

Hayes complained after the company wasn’t paid and when it was replaced by Jagged Peak of Clearwater, a Broad and Cassel client Burton hired without a competitive bid.

The House settled with Hayes last year for $3.75-million. Broad and Cassel’s legal fees on the case: nearly $3.8-million.

Johnson downplayed Burton’s services for the elections office, saying he did “a minimal amount of work.”
Yet records for April show that of the attorneys at Broad and Cassel, Burton billed Johnson the most: 35.9 hours worth $13,462.

He chipped in with another 30.6 hours in May, for a bill of $11,475. Burton analyzed vendor contracts for the elections office, reviewed e-mails from Johnson about the office’s software company, looked over correspondence about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the county mayor question and reviewed a May 31 letter from Donnelly to the county attorney saying Johnson “has the authority to work with Broad and Cassel in whatever capacity needed to accomplish the governmental purposes of the office.”

Johnson said his contract was with Donnelly, and elections work got doled out to other staff attorneys, including Burton.

Donnelly said otherwise. She was “not privy to any of the contract talks’’ with Johnson, she said, and knew nothing about any agreement involving free services.

“This was Mr. Burton’s client,” Donnelly said.

As Broad and Cassel handled more and more elections tasks, the county attorney remained in the dark about the arrangement.

Lee said it was her impression that Johnson was doing what he had said he would do: send only matters concerning the county mayor initiative to Donnelly.

Provided the details of the work as revealed by the legal billings, Lee said she was astonished. She declined further comment.

***

Last month Johnson made a second move to pare back representation from the county attorney: He sought to oust Mary Helen Campbell from her role as legal adviser to the county Canvassing Board.

The board approves or discards disputed ballots. It now includes Johnson, Republican County Commissioner Brian Blair and Tom Barber, appointed to a county judgeship by Gov. Bush in 2004.

After a meeting of the Canvassing Board last month, Johnson’s office sent e-mails to Lee saying that Campbell had been two hours late to a meeting and had not called or sent a stand-in.

In one e-mail to Lee, Johnson’s new general counsel and chief of administration, Kathy Harris, said she had to give Johnson “a real good explanation’’ for Campbell’s tardiness to the meeting.

Harris suggested that she take on Campbell’s duties to relieve the county attorney “from the stress and strain of the elections office.’’

Johnson hired Harris on July 10, paying her $165,000 a year, about 30 percent more than his own salary of $126,753.

Before signing on with Johnson, Harris was general counsel and director of administration at the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute.

The institute was formed by Byrd, the former House speaker. Burton served on the institute’s board and was its vice chairman.

Lee rebuffed Harris’ offer to take over the duties of the adviser to the Canvassing Board, saying Campbell’s qualifications were “unmatched.”

Harris suggested appointing another lawyer from the county attorney’s office, but Lee again demurred.

“I would never remove the best attorney from the Canvassing Board knowing that it has not covered itself with experienced legal counsel,’’ Lee wrote. “There is no room for a learning curve in the elections business at election time!’’

Harris responded: “Buddy is not sure he can count on your folks to show up,” and has decided he would like “to move on.’’

Harris said Johnson’s office was prepared to provide “experienced legal counsel to the Canvassing Board if needed,’’ and Johnson would probably not rely on Campbell any longer.

***

Johnson appeared committed to relying on outside counsel for fiscal year 2006-07. In a last-minute budget request on June 1, he sought an additional $240,000 for outside counsel, in line with the $20,000-a-month then being charged by Broad and Cassel.


But as the Times began examining Broad and Cassel’s legal billings, Johnson ended the election office’s arrangement with the firm. The contract was terminated Aug. 18, records show.

It isn’t clear how much work Broad and Cassel performed for Johnson’s office in July and August. Elections officials say they haven’t received the billings from Broad and Cassel. Burton, asked this week if the billings had been forwarded, advised the Times to see Johnson’s office “for any and all of our legal bills.’’

With Harris on board, Johnson says he no longer needs the services of Broad and Cassel. But he said he would go back to Burton and Donnelly if he needs their expertise.

“I really managed the taxpayers’ dollars well,’’ Johnson said. “I’d go to them again.”

 

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.