Memo details tensions in election office
Former assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Ken Tinkler describes his rift with Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson.
By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published September 20, 2006
TAMPA - After the deteriorating relationship between Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson and his lawyers hit bottom in March, Assistant County Attorney Ken Tinkler wrote a detailed memo to provide perspective on what had gone wrong.
The eight-page memo, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times through a public records request, paints a picture of a paranoid elections chief: temperamental in his dealings with subordinates, secretive and sometimes deceitful about his office strategy, distrustful of his highest advisers.
Johnson said Tuesday he was too busy with poll worker training and other elections matters to address questions about Tinkler's memo. He said in a written statement that he had much respect for Tinkler, but his recollection of events recounted by Tinkler differed significantly.
According to Tinkler, Johnson's distrust for his assistants began with Dan Nolan, a former U.S. Central Command Army colonel whom Johnson hired to be his chief deputy shortly after his appointment as supervisor in 2003.
The distrust of Nolan "ultimately led to a long, awkward period of time where I was forced to serve as intermediary between the two individuals," Tinkler wrote. Nolan resigned his $85,000 post following the 2004 election and started a management consulting company.
Johnson's next chief deputy, Helene Marks, fared no better. An attorney who had served as general counsel for eight years to Clerk of the Circuit Court Richard Ake, Marks also quickly came under suspicion. Relations between Johnson and Marks became strained, Tinkler wrote.
Under orders from Johnson, Marks spent the last few months of her $115,190-a-year elections job at home, compiling an employee policy handbook. She retired in July.
This spring, as elections officials worked with an initiative to put the question of a county mayor on the ballot, Tinkler himself became an object of Johnson's scorn.
Tinkler said in his memo that he was genuinely shocked to find that Johnson was abandoning representation by the county attorney's office and quietly bringing on Veronica Donnelly of the politically connected law firm of Broad and Cassel to handle the county mayor issue.
Shunted aside from a legal speciality he had handled since 2000, Tinkler resigned his $83,428 job with the county attorney's office in August and joined the Carlton Fields law firm in Tampa.
Tinkler was asked to write his memo by County Attorney Renee Lee.
The tenuous relationship between Johnson and the county attorney's office unraveled at a March 22 breakfast at the downtown University Club, according to Tinkler's account. He said Johnson asked him to breakfast to discuss the organization of the office. Joining them were Jim Reed, Johnson's longtime friend who had been elevated to top assistant in Marks' wake; Steve Holub, the office public information director; and a surprise guest - Donnelly.
Asked about the unusual guest, Johnson referred to her only as a friend. Tinkler said he directly asked Johnson if he had hired Donnelly. Johnson dodged the question, saying he was having discussions with other lawyers outside the county attorney's office.
In fact, according to legal billings obtained by the Times, Johnson already had hired Donnelly. She and a colleague at Broad and Cassel worked nearly 14 hours on the county mayor issue on the two days prior to the breakfast meeting. That work, billed to the elections office, added up to $2,115.
The day of the breakfast meeting, Donnelly put in another 2½ hours and billed Johnson $500.
In a conference call with Johnson and Donnelly later, Johnson ordered Tinkler to review the county mayor issue with Donnelly.
Tinkler was uncomfortable talking to Donnelly. He was still in the dark about whether she had been hired, and he feared he might run afoul of Bar rules governing confidentiality of client strategy.
Tinkler was still confused about something else: Why did Johnson feel he needed an outside firm overseeing the county mayor issue?
Tinkler posed the question late in the afternoon of March 22 at Sobik's, a sandwich shop on the first floor of the County Center. Tinkler raised ethics concerns about discussing elections office legal strategy with an outside attorney. Johnson accused Tinkler of calling him unethical.
Tinkler later wrote a letter of apology to Johnson, and Lee, the county attorney, met with Johnson to try to heal the rift.
But in an April 28 letter to Lee, Johnson wrote that "confidence in assigned counsel has been undermined by his conduct towards me." Johnson added that he would likely seek proposals from other firms to meet his legal needs.
Johnson never did seek outside bids. Instead, by that point, he had already steered all his office's legal business to Broad and Cassel.
[Last modified September 20, 2006, 01:07:15]
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