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Politics

A failed petition, a $64,000 question

On days that Hillsborough elections staff botched a count of citizen signatures, the boss was profiting from his stock trades.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published October 12, 2006


TAMPA - During the critical period when a citizens group was seeking more time to put a county mayor initiative on the ballot, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson said his office was too busy to grant an extension.

He did not answer the group's letters. Nor did he return their phone calls.

During this time, Johnson did accomplish something else: Beginning July 7, and every business day through July 17, Johnson sold blocks of his restaurant stock, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records.

His profit after selling 22,500 shares of Star Buffet stock, excluding expenses: $64,032.

The Taking Back Hillsborough citizens group now says its effort to get the county mayor question on the November ballot failed, in part, because of Johnson's neglect and mismanagement.

While keeping himself incommunicado from the group, Johnson assigned a 27-year-old clerical worker the task of validating the petitions. According to personnel records, she had no college degree or management experience. She was given no staff. She was forced to rely on temporary workers borrowed from another department.

After Johnson announced that the petition drive had failed, the citizens group conducted a private audit and discovered the count had been botched. Hundreds of petitions had been lost; others, bearing the valid signatures of registered voters, had been inexplicably rejected.

By then, it was too late to get the initiative on the 2006 ballot.

"If I was the supervisor of elections and I had an issue as important to the county as this one and had this many citizens sign petitions," said Mary Ann Stiles, the lawyer who chaired the campaign, "I personally would have been involved in the count and would have supervised this on a day-to-day basis.

"I think it was a matter of not supervising what was going on."

Johnson said Wednesday that his staff had done a "phenomenal job" of validating petitions, better, in fact, than any such job he had witnessed since becoming supervisor in 2003.

Of his stock trading, Johnson said he used an "automated process" to sell stocks that kept the time he devoted to the task at a minimum.

"None of my time as supervisor of elections was impacted by this process," he said. "Absolutely none."

Here's how events unfolded:

 

May 11, 2006

Johnson had set a July 10 deadline for the Taking Back Hillsborough group to submit its petitions. Stiles believed that Johnson legally could allow more time, and wrote the elections chief seeking an explanation for the deadline.

Stiles said she never got a reply.

The day Stiles' letter went to Johnson, he exercised an option to buy 22,500 shares of Star Buffet.

Johnson was named to the Star Buffet board in 1999, after he and his brother sold their BuddyFreddys restaurants to the company.

The stock options allowed Johnson to purchase Star Buffet stock for $5 per share, making for instant profit: The day Johnson bought the shares, they traded between $7.97 and $8.12 a share.

Thursday July 6

To get the county mayor issue on the 2006 ballot, along with a related question of giving the county mayor veto power, the Taking Back Hillsborough group needed 74,404 valid petitions.

Stiles believed she would reach her number but wanted a little more time to get extra signatures in case some were ruled invalid.

She called Johnson to discuss extending the July 10 deadline but could not reach him. She left a message on his cell phone.

 

Friday, July 7

The deadline looming, Johnson did not get back to Stiles. She reached his new attorney, Veronica Donnelly, who promised to convey Stiles' message when she met with Johnson on Monday morning.

Johnson sold his first block of Star Buffet stock: 5,000 shares, at $8.15 per share.

 

Saturday July 8

Desperate to reach Johnson, Stiles sought assistance from Fred Karl, a retired lawyer and volunteer for Taking Back Hillsborough.

Karl, 82, is renowned for his public service. He has worked as a state legislator, Hillsborough County administrator, Hillsborough County attorney, Tampa General Hospital administrator and Florida Supreme Court justice. If anyone could get to Johnson, Karl could.

He got through, but he said Johnson blew him off.

"He let me know he didn't appreciate my calling," said Karl. "He wouldn't talk to me. He was very abrupt."

 

Monday July 10

With the petitions due and having still not heard from Johnson, Stiles hand-delivered a letter to the elections office asking for an extension until Aug. 8.

Still no word. Midafternoon, out of options, Stiles filed papers asking a judge to extend the deadline.

Johnson sold 400 more shares of Star Buffet stock, at $8.15 a share.

 

Tuesday July 11

In arguments before Circuit Judge Sam Pendino, Stiles said the deadline was "arbitrary" and "the most restrictive deadline" Johnson could pick. But the judge ruled that it was up to the elections supervisor.

Johnson would not budge. He said his staff needed all the time it could get to verify petitions because staffers also needed to prepare for early voting, which started Aug. 21.

That was a problem because Johnson had designated the same person, Angeline Cunningham, as manager of petitions and early voting.

Johnson sold 1,450 more shares of Star Buffet Stock, at $8.02 a share.

 

Wednesday July 12

Nearly 50,000 petitions had been in Johnson's office since July 1. But only Cunningham and two temps had been working on validating them, according to Johnson's top assistant, Jim Reed.

The 30-day validation clock was ticking, posing a formidable task for Cunningham.

Hired in June 2002 as a clerk II, she was promoted in 2005 to a $26,303 office assistant II.

In December, one week after Stiles announced her petition drive, Johnson promoted Cunningham to manager of early voting and petitions. Her salary went to $37,518.

Though Cunningham had received exceptional marks for her work, she had never been a manager or overseen validation of an initiative.

After the Times requested an interview with Cunningham, Johnson's office asked that questions be forwarded to him. Then he declined to answer them.

Johnson sold 1,569 more shares of Star Buffet, at $8.01.

 

Thursday July 13

Johnson sold 1,009 more shares of Star Buffet, at $8 a share.

 

Friday July 14

Johnson sold 1,700 more shares of Star Buffet, at $8 a share.

 

Monday July 17

Johnson sold his remaining 11,372 shares of Star Buffet stock, at $7.62 a share.

Johnson paid $112,500 for his stock options, which he sold for a total of $176,532. Pre-expense profit: $64,032.

 

Aug. 8

Johnson announced that the Taking Back Hillsborough initiative had fallen some 3,000 petitions short on each of the two initiative questions.

The citizens group, which in early counting had its petitions validated at rates well above 90 percent, saw that percentage fall precipitously the closer it came to its threshold. The final count showed that Johnson's office rejected about 17 percent of the petitions submitted.

 

Sept. 29

Stiles and a 20-volunteer group audited photocopies of all petitions sent to Johnson's office.

The group verified what Stiles already had complained to Johnson about: An entire box of 1,457 petitions could not be accounted for. They had vanished.

The audit group also discovered that Johnson's office improperly rejected perhaps hundreds of valid petitions.

"I was sick about what we found," Stiles said. "To have worked so hard, to have spent so much money and have so many not counted. I was devastated."

With additional petitions handed in, Johnson announced that the two initiative questions would be on the ballot in 2008. But Stiles demanded a recount anyway, and Johnson agreed his staff would take a second look at the petitions.

Why do it, with nothing to be gained?

Said Stiles: "If they had not agreed to a recount, I was going straight to the Justice Department and let them investigate the matter."

Stiles was surprised to learn of Johnson's daily stock trades during the crunch time for the citizens group and wondered if it had any effect on the petition count. Either way, she feels the process could have been managed better.

"I truly believe it was not a high priority for Buddy," said Stiles. "I think every step we took to get this done, we were met with opposition and obstinacy."

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

[Last modified October 15, 2006, 10:43:19]


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