Florida GOP's challenge: Assure donors money goes to elections, not jet charters

Jim Greer's exit from the Republican Party of Florida could be almost as tumultuous as his three-year tenure as state chairman.

The former Oviedo city councilman has been taking flak for a while now over lavish spending on air travel, fine food and posh resorts, even as the party's deep-pocketed donor base was being squeezed by the economic downturn.

Greer supporters maintained he was being vilified by those who don't share the views of his political benefactor, Gov. Charlie Crist, or who resented how the governor plucked him from obscurity in 2006 to lead the party.

But in the last two months, his critics' perception of Greer became reality.

Al Hoffman flew to Tallahassee in December to deliver the message to Crist, who had stood by his chairman throughout the barrage of bad press and intra-party bickering, that Greer had to go.

Hoffman, a Fort Myers developer, former U.S. ambassador to Portugal and onetime national Republican finance chairman, said the governor refused to budge.

"A number of people had that conversation with Charlie, and Charlie had said 'I want facts,' " Hoffman said. "He thought it was politically inspired."

The facts are now flooding out in embarrassing detail, with a report in the Orlando Sentinel of credit-card bills showing hundreds of thousands of dollars for chartered planes, fancy dinners and big-time meeting costs. There was also the Sentinel story detailing former RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson's $408,000 in compensation, thanks in part to a secret fundraising contract he signed with Greer.

In two weeks, the RPOF executive committee will meet in Orlando to choose either Broward National Committeewoman Sharon Day or state Sen. John Thrasher to finish out Greer's term this year.

Greer may or may not show up. But either way, Lee County GOP Chairman Gary Lee plans to push a resolution to appoint a "blue ribbon" panel of major donors to oversee an outside forensic audit of party finances — as a way to convince supporters their donations are going toward elections and not charter jets or greens fees. Others are demanding that Greer not be afforded any severance package.

"This whole episode has eroded the confidence of the major party donors," Lee said. "My hair stood up, and I have no hair."

Day and Thrasher have pledged financial reforms in response to last week's revelations. GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Bill McCollum has rolled out a multi-point plan for improving financial controls. State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican running for governor, has gone further and asked the party to open up all the records pertaining to party credit cards.

"We have a great chance this election," Dockery said. "Are we going to continue to prolong this and sweep it under the rug and let it linger until August? We need to put it out, accept it and move on, and that needs to happen ASAP."

Greer seems to have tried to give himself some 11th-hour legal cover on the matter.

After Hoffman got a dozen angry major donors to sign an anti-Greer letter in late December, House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R- Winter Park, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, and McCollum had seen enough.

Cannon and Haridopolos were livid that the RPOF was essentially paying its bills and salaries with "millions of dollars" they had raised to support House and Senate candidates. After convincing Thrasher, a former House speaker and lobbyist, to serve as the placeholder chairman, they pressed Greer to resign.

In a hastily arranged conference call on Jan. 5, Greer announced he would leave and accused his critics of trying to "burn the house down" to drive him out.

But at the same time, Greer had RPOF Treasurer Joel Pate and Vice Treasurer Allen Miller travel to Tallahassee to sign off on a one-page document dated that day attesting that "all expense reimbursements of any kind, American Express account expenditures, consultant fees, fundraising fees, agreements, service fees, traveling and dining expenses were proper and authorized and otherwise ratified by RPOF."

Reached at his home in St. Lucie County, Miller, a financial planner, would say only he had looked through the books "in conjunction with the chairman's resignation." He declined further comment. Pate, a Washington County commissioner, would not comment either.

Party spokeswoman Katie Betta said she thought the two men had spent "at least a couple of hours" going over the books that day.

Another Greer supporter summoned to sign the paper was Gerald Braley of Orlando, who is chairman of the RPOF audit committee. But after driving to party headquarters in Tallahassee, he was left sitting in the lobby for over an hour with no explanation.

"I waited an hour and no one came out. I had business back in Orlando, and I finally told Delmar Johnson I was leaving," he said.

In hindsight, Braley is glad he wasn't asked to sign on the dotted line. "I knew nothing about any of this," he said. "To say I'm shocked by all this, I am."

For more insider information and insights on Florida politics, go to Central Florida Political Pulse at OrlandoSentinel.com/pulse. Aaron Deslatte can be reached at adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com or 850-222-5564.
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