Florida Republicans Brace for a Fraud Trial, and an Airing of Old Grudges

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The surroundings are far from opulent and the cocktails will have to wait, but as political events go, this one is expected to draw a who's who of present and past Florida political notables: a former governor, a former State House speaker and a former State Senate president are all expected to drop by, and the current State House speaker, too.

But none of the name-brand politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, are actually eager to attend the gathering, which will require swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and answering hostile questions, all from a chair inside an Orlando courthouse.

This Monday begins the long-awaited trial of Jim Greer, 50, a flamboyant former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Mr. Greer, who was chosen for the job by Mr. Crist, was indicted in 2010 on charges of fraud, money laundering and theft. Prosecutors accuse him of steering $125,000 of party money to a personal account in 2009 through a shell fund-raising company, Victory Strategies, of which he was a secret co-owner.

But Mr. Greer maintains that politics, not criminal wrongdoing, is to blame for his downfall. His ouster, he has said, was engineered by a cabal of Republican conservatives who despised Mr. Crist and resented Mr. Greer's steadfast support of the governor during his unsuccessful 2010 run for the Senate -- first as a Republican, and then as an independent -- against Marco Rubio.

Damon Chase, Mr. Greer's lawyer, said that Mr. Greer's fund-raising actions were legal and aboveboard, and that Victory Strategies was no secret. Florida Republican officials were aware of its existence, he said. Those officials are now being called to testify for both the defense and the prosecution.

"This case is outrageous," Mr. Chase said. "It would have never been brought had it not been just a political vendetta against Greer for supporting Crist over Rubio."

The trial is expected to rummage through the messy -- some say unethical -- inner workings of the party from 2007 to 2010, back when Mr. Crist still called himself a Republican (he is a Democrat now) and when Mr. Rubio was an underdog candidate.

The prosecution's main witness in the case is Delmar Johnson, who was Mr. Greer's top aide in the Republican Party. Prosecutors say Mr. Johnson set up Victory Strategies with Mr. Greer and also benefited from it. He will receive immunity for his testimony against Mr. Greer.

"This trial won't be good for anybody," Mr. Greer warned in an interview with The Miami New Times last month. "People need to know what goes on behind the curtain in the Republican Party, and before the Republicans tried to destroy me, they should have thought about what the consequences were going to be."

Among the people who Mr. Greer said knew of the Victory Strategies contract was Mr. Crist, his onetime stalwart ally.

"Three of Crist's closest friends have given sworn testimony that Crist not only knew about it but authorized and approved of it," said Mr. Chase, Mr. Greer's lawyer.

Mr. Crist, who is on the witness list and is said to be considering another run for governor, has said he did not know anything about Victory Strategies or that Mr. Greer was taking a cut of the money for personal use.

"Mr. Crist says this is not true; he has been pretty clear about it from the very beginning," John Morgan, Mr. Crist's lawyer, said of Mr. Greer's accusations. "Charlie doesn't have anything to worry about."

The trial is bad news for most politicians on the witness list -- some of whom suffered from hazy memories during depositions -- mostly because it dredges up a deeply painful period for the Republican Party.

"This has been the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' for the Republican Party," said Jason Steele, who as the party's executive chairman in Brevard County in 2009 was highly critical of Mr. Greer. "We knew something was wrong, that something was earth-shatteringly wrong with the way the Republican Party was being run. The chairman would show up in limousines to every event, traveling in the highest style. It became a laughingstock. And the rank-and-file Republicans across the state got very, very angry."

Yet what most galled Mr. Steele and many others in the Republican Party about Mr. Greer -- in addition to his spendthrift ways -- was his open support of Mr. Crist during the 2010 Senate race against Mr. Rubio. In Florida, conservatives dominate the party and were pushing hard for Mr. Rubio, a former State House speaker and Tea Party favorite.

"We had a chairman who was absolutely in bed with the governor of the state of Florida, and they were helping each other," Mr. Steele said.

But the trial is bad news for Republicans in general because it is expected to allow Mr. Greer to shine a spotlight on the free-spending ways of Republican leaders at the time. As chairman, Mr. Greer charged nearly $2,000 for a two-day car rental in California and nearly $3,000 for one dinner at the Capital Grille in Orlando, just two examples of his credit card charges. He chartered planes. He spent party money to travel to Las Vegas to attend a Wayne Newton concert and to help pay for his son's birthday party in Florida.

But Mr. Greer, who was ousted as chairman over his spending practices, said he was not alone in racking up expenses.

"That's how political parties do business," said his lawyer, Mr. Chase, adding that as chairman, Mr. Greer raised record amounts for the party in 2008. "They spend money to woo big donors, and as a result, they raise a lot of money. The money is not public money or tax money. It's private money being spent by a private organization."

Mr. Greer's dubious spending tainted top lawmakers, whose credit card expenses also suddenly became suspect. Among them was Mr. Rubio, who was investigated during his campaign for using a Republican Party charge card for personal expenses from 2005 to 2008, including for groceries and flowers. Mr. Rubio has said that the use of the card was accidental and that he paid those charges.

The trial is also expected to delve into an unpleasant dust-up over Mr. Greer's severance pay. Mr. Greer said three top state Republican lawmakers drew up a secret agreement to pay him $130,000 if he resigned. The agreement made mention of fund-raising contracts, which meant that the lawmakers knew about Victory, Mr. Chase said. The payments, though, never arrived and Mr. Greer sued the party.

Party leaders initially denied the existence of the contract. Mike Haridopolos, the incoming State Senate president at the time, later acknowledged under oath that he had signed the pact and had not told the truth.

The Republican leaders say they knew nothing about Victory Strategies or Mr. Greer's role in it. "I would use the old adage for this," said Mr. Morgan, Mr. Crist's lawyer, referring to Mr. Greer's claims. "Desperate men do desperate things in desperate times."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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