tampabay.com

Memo details election office rift

Former Assistant County Attorney Ken Tinkler describes an atmosphere marred by deceit and distrust.

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 pollworker 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. By March 2006, "it was readily apparent that the Supervisor distrusted anything that came from her."

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. Tinkler said it was clear that Johnson had deceived him when Tinkler tried to determine if the elections chief had hired the private attorney.

"I had witnessed the Supervisor treat his own staff in a similar manner; it now appeared that he had shifted his distrust to me," Tinkler wrote.

Shunted aside from a legal speciality he had handled since 2000 - first for Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio, then for Johnson - 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. In its closing paragraph, Tinkler said he had "attempted to give frank, honest, polite advice" to Johnson and had never questioned his judgment.

Yet he also noted in his narrative that he believed Johnson not only "sandbagged" him regarding the hiring of Donnelly, but that Johnson undermined a fragile relationship by repeatedly accusing Tinkler of conspiring with Nolan to withhold election information from the elections supervisor.

"That's absolutely ludicrous," Nolan said this week. "We had a completely open process. There was never any conspiracy to withhold any information.

"I never made a move without Ken because he gave great advice, and no one knows election law better than Ken," said Nolan. "It's unbelievable anyone would disparage him."

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." But as a discussion about the county mayor issue ensued, Tinkler saw that Donnelly had "thoroughly prepared" for the meeting by studying the county mayor initiative.

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.

Tinkler said he was irritated. He was also puzzled about Donnelly's role in the elections office, and his own.

In a conference call with Johnson and Donnelly later, Johnson ordered Tinkler to review the county mayor issue with Donnelly, then hung up to go to a Rotary Club engagement.

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.

Donnelly did not reveal that she had been hired. She said this week that was Johnson's responsibility.

"It wasn't my place" to discuss that with another attorney, Donnelly said, nor was it appropriate for her to come between Tinkler and his client.

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, where Johnson, Reed and Holub again sat down with the assistant county attorney

Johnson said he kept hearing that the county attorney had a conflict of interest. Now, Tinkler demanded to know exactly who was complaining of a conflict. Johnson said it was Mary Ann Stiles, the head of the Take Back Hillsborough initiative.

"That's bull," Stiles said this week. "I never saw any conflict.

"I thought the county attorney was doing a great job. I liked Ken Tinkler because I felt he knew the law."

At the Sobik's meeting, Tinkler wrote, Johnson became testy and accusatory, and the discussion became "loud and vehement."

Tinkler greeted Johnson as "sir." Johnson snapped back that he was not to be called "sir" but "Buddy."

Tinkler raised ethics concerns about discussing legal strategy with an outside attorney. Johnson replied that he "was not a lawyer." He 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, whose managing partner, Steve Burton, had supported Johnson's 2004 candidacy, as well as the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Billings show the firm performed $153,486 worth of work for Johnson's office from March through June, but under a negotiated contract billed him for just $56,577.

In the written statement issued Tuesday, Johnson reiterated his belief that a clear conflict of interest within the county attorney's office required him to hire a private firm. Johnson said he stood by the decision to hire Broad and Cassel, a move he says saved taxpayers more than $96,000 in legal fees.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.