Let me get you non-Floridians up to speed: the Republican Party in Florida is imploding - Fast. Every day this week has revealed another layer of a growing scandal of corruption, greed and unlawful activity that has burst out into the open sunshine, bringing the possibility of a federal investigation and tainting just about every single Republican leader and top political candidate in the state - including the top candidates for open Senate and Governor spots. Jump down for the details and get out the popcorn.
The Florida GOP scandal revolves around Jim Greer, who was handpicked by Gov. Charlie Crist three years ago to lead the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF). Greer resigned his post in February amid a growing chorus of criticism by the state's Republicans for his lavish spending of party funds (where have I heard that before?) and for the feeling among the party's wingnut base that he was trying to snuff out Marco Rubio's Senate bid.
It was all downhill from there for the Florida GOPers. When RPOF auditors conducted their annual audit in March, they discovered that Greer had been skimming off RPOF donations through a stealth company. When Greer was ousted in February, another reason for his fall was that Republican leaders had discovered that he had made secret contract with party executive director Delmar Johnson, his loyal aide, to pay Johnson a 10 percent commission on all major donations to the RPOF. The skimmed funds were funneled to a company called Victory Strategies that was believed to be owned by Johnson. But last month RPOF auditors discovered that Johnson was not the sole owner of the shell company:
...party auditors conducted their annual review and discovered that (Greer) owned 60 percent of the company — Victory Strategies LLC — and Johnson owned 40 percent. The audit revealed that the company received $133,005 in fundraising commissions and another $66,250 for consulting services in 2009.
That revelation led the current party chairman, John Thrasher, to refer the matter to Attorney General (and current candidate for governor) Bill McCollum, who has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to investigate.
But wait, it gets better! On Wednesday, as RPOF officials had been piling on Greer for weeks, the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald dropped another bombshell: RPOF officials had offered Greer a questionable secret severance package that appeared to absolve him of any financial wrongdoing and pay him $124,000 to remain as a consultant for a year.
The previously undisclosed severance documents, obtained Wednesday by the Times/Herald, were signed by top party officials, including current party chairman John Thrasher and leading lawmakers who helped oust Greer amid intense concerns he used the party coffers as a personal slush fund.
"All RPOF expenditures made during Chairman Greer's term as RPOF Chairman were proper, lawful, appropriate," the Jan. 4 severance document states. It also specifically clears Greer of any questionable purchases put on the party's credit card.
Jason Gonzalez, the party's lawyer, said Greer never signed the agreement, so it is invalid. Internal party documents show party officials revoked the severance offer Feb. 17. Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, argues the agreement is binding, and the documents obtained by the Times/Herald include Greer's signature.
Greer has also accused associates of incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Speaker-designate Dean Cannon of offering to pay him $200,000 of "hush money" to stay quiet about the severance agreement, and yesterday he sued the Republican Party of Florida, alleging that the party violated the terms of the secret severance agreement. (!)
Greer's suit seeks unspecified financial damages for breach of agreement and names as defendants the party and current chairman John Thrasher, a state senator from St. Augustine.
But the stain from Greer's criminal probe, and the revelation by the Times/Herald that party leaders signed the golden parachute agreement to oust him, seeps deep into the party's ranks.
"Wait until the IRS gets in it," said Allen Cox, the party's vice chairman under Greer. "Who knew what, and who agreed to it? There's a smoking gun here."
There are many more allegations flying around too, including revelations of lavish spending on RPOF credit cards by Dean Cannon and Marco Rubio. And yesterday, Charlie Crist and Florida's Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (who will likely be battling with AG McCollum in the governor's race) called to bring in the feds. The move by Crist, who had steadfastly stood by Greer, marks his clear decision to throw his pal under the bus.
The prospect of a federal investigation will intensify the scrutiny of the state GOP, which is reeling from the discovery this week that Greer siphoned party donations to a shell company he owned, and the disclosure that top officials planned to pay him a $125,000 golden parachute if he resigned.
At the same time, new records obtained by the Times/Herald expose how another top GOP lawmaker — incoming Speaker Dean Cannon — used a party credit card to charge $200,000 in a 2 1/2-year period ending in early 2009. The charges include more than $3,000 in personal expenses, some of which he didn't reimburse until just weeks ago as controversy swirled around the use of party credit cards.
For Crist, his statements represent a reversal from his ardent support of Greer, who he handpicked for the chairmanship and supported to the end, despite demands dating to December for Greer's dismissal and a thorough investigation.
Crist said he took "responsibility" for putting Greer at the helm, and that he became disillusioned after the recent revelations.
The calls for the federal investigation mean this GOP scandal is not going away anytime soon, which can be nothing but good news for Alex Sink and Kendrick Meek.
J. Larry Hart, a former state and federal prosecutor not connected to the case, said the Republican Party situation suggests the possibility of a number of violations, regardless of the circumstances.
"Even thieves can be victims of theft," he said.
With the impending entry of federal authorities, the situation is likely to get worse for Greer and other Republicans, said Charles Rose, who teaches at Stetson University College of Law.
"Once the federal government gets involved, they have infinite resources," said Rose, a former prosecutor and defense attorney. "You can't win."
It couldn't happen to a slimier bunch of a-holes!
How could I have forgotten this:
Here's a perspective on the growing scandal from jaded Republican Political Consultant Chris Ingram, who was an early backer of Marco Rubio's Senate campaign before he dropped his support recently in disgust over Rubio's lavish spending:
For the record, Charlie’s support helped move Greer from whatever used car lot or bowling alley he had been employed at to RPOF Chair, but the fact is, Chuckles did not appoint him to the position – the knuckleheads who make up the state committee of the RPOF did that (not once, but twice). This same bunch of dimwits then turned around and elected John Thrasher to sweep the mess under the rug – a task he has done splendidly.
The Greer/RPOF/contracts/Amex matter gets even better in as much as it now consumes virtually every "leader" within the Republican Party – a term I use looser than a rope of sand. Thrasher the new party chairman, Crist and Rubio the U.S. Senate candidates, Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, and even Bill "Howdy Doody" McCollum are now more involved in this matter than any of them would like to be.
And the list doesn’t stop there. Every other legislative "leader" in the state is also involved at least for as much as they have been absent in publicly calling for doing what’s right.
The incestuous nature of Tallahassee politics will be exposed by Jim Greer and his lawsuit, and for that we owe him our appreciation.
Aaron Deslatte, a politial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, says in his column today that the "ramifications are vast" for Florida Republicans from this growing scandal. He hones in on the lavish spending by the state's Republican leaders on the RPOF's dime - using RPOF-issued Amex cards like drunken sailors - something that has been part of this scandal and that he thinks could have the most longlasting damage and will touch nearly all Republican leaders in the state - once the feds get involved:
This can only get worse. For starters, look out for the Internal Revenue Service. Gov. Charlie Crist, in calling Friday for the scandal investigation to be turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tallahassee, cited "the potential IRS implications" of the probe...
In addition to the fundraising contract that paid $200,000 last year to the company owned by Greer and his former executive director, Delmar Johnson, the party has turned over other expense reimbursement documentation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Greer himself was reimbursed for $50,000 in expenses incurred last year for travel, food and supplies, according to the party's federal report.
An outside audit of the party books released last week stated that "management is unable to provide adequate documentation for certain disbursements" made throughout the year — which likely means a deeper scrubbing by another forensic auditing firm, and the potential of unveiling further inappropriate spending.
"This will trigger tax audits and a lot of problems for the people who personally benefited from party expenditures," says Robert Sechen, a respected Tallahassee lawyer and former general counsel and chief financial office for the RPOF under Gov. Jeb Bush.
Then there's the not-so-subtle threat that Greer plans to air all the party's dirty laundry. The former Oviedo city councilman has been attacked for two years over his penchant for charter flights, expensive meals, fine cigars, golf excursions and other expenses.
But Greer's lawyer, Lake Mary attorney Damon Chase, says if that's a sin, everyone's guilty.
Deslatte also points out that in the RPOF's Amex-gate scandal, Charlie Crist could benefit most:
The lawsuit and criminal investigation also may intensify Crist's attacks on Rubio, his U.S. Senate primary foe, premised largely on Rubio's use of a party credit card. Even though Crist's handpicked party boss put Rubio's spending to shame, the governor never had a party AmEx card, freeing him to point fingers at others who did.