Politics

GOP Mulls Suing Charlie Crist, Ex-Leaders, Over Spending

By: John Kennedy News Service of Florida | Posted: September 12, 2010 12:01 AM
The Florida Republican Party said Saturday it is considering suing Gov. Charlie Crist and the GOP’s former leadership team for hundreds of thousands of dollars in party spending that a new audit has shown was unnecessary.

Following a three-hour, closed-door meeting of the party’s executive board, Republican Chairman John Thrasher said leaders will decide within 10 days whether to pursue legal action against Crist, who defected from the Republican Party in April and remains the front-runner in a three-way race for U.S. Senate.

Also targeted by the party for possible repayment are Thrasher’s predecessor, Jim Greer, former executive director Delmar Johnson, consultant and Crist ally, Jay Burmer, and former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin.

Thrasher acknowledged the party would be accused of trying to sabotage Crist’s campaign, by going after him to recover what was described as inappropriate travel expenses, likely run-up on Greer’s credit card.

“They can say what they want,” Thrasher said. “I looked at the report … it’s done by a very competent firm, in great detail … And the board members, based on that information, felt it was appropriate that we get reimbursed for monies that were inappropriately taken away from this party.”

Thrasher acknowledged, “Whether we ever get a penny back, I don’t know. But it would be inappropriate for us as stewards of the money given us by donors, not to seek reimbursement for those expenses.”

Thrasher said the audit, conducted by the Atlanta-headquartered law firm Austin & Bird, spanned 2007-2009 – years the Florida Republican Party was led by Greer, Crist’s hand-picked party chairman.

Greer is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 18 on six felony counts of grand theft, money laundering and attempted fraud stemming from a consulting company he set up in 2009 that drew $200,000 from the Florida GOP.

Party leaders say they were unaware of Greer’s majority ownership of the firm, in which he partnered with Johnson, the party’s former executive director.

During Greer’s three years as party head, the Florida GOP ran up more than $7 million in American Express credit charges. AmEx records released earlier this year by the party show the spending included trips around the country and to Europe, limousines, liquor purchases, and other apparent excess.

Sansom, who stepped down as speaker after being indicted on unrelated grand theft and conspiracy charges and continues to fight reduced criminal charges, was among those who also traveled extensively on the Republican Party’s account.

Burmer, a longtime Crist adviser, received more than $300,000 in consulting payments from the state party during Greer’s tenure, although Thrasher on Saturday said it was difficult to determine what tasks were performed for the money.

Untouched by the audit, however, were others who carried state party credit cards. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio reimbursed the party for more than $2,000 in expenses later determined to be inappropriate, Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, a candidate for chief financial officer, repaid $1,600 in AmEx charges, and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, returned $400 to the party for his excess charges, party officials pointed out.

Lee County Republican Chairman Gary Lee, a former congressman, who reviewed the audit, described it as “thorough and exhaustive.”

Al Hoffman, a major Republican fund-raiser, also took part in the closed-door session. He emerged and described what he heard during the previous three hours as “sad stuff.” Thrasher said he planned to make the audit’s findings public in 10 days – after the executive board decides whether to pursue a lawsuit.

But a Crist campaign spokesman lashed back at the governor’s former party – saying Rubio could still warrant further examination of his spending.

“It’s probably best that the party bosses stop playing the same old political games and take a hard look at their own nominee before attacking the one truly independent candidate for U.S. Senate,” said Danny Kanner of the Crist campaign.

The audit report landed with a thud a day after the party’s first, post-primary fund-raising dinner collected $2 million for the fall campaigns. Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott, who Thrasher said was not told of the audit findings, attended Saturday’s meeting and assured officials he was eagerly raising money to help the entire GOP slate of statewide candidates.

Scott, who spent $50 million of his own family’s money in winning the nomination over Bill McCollum, the favorite of the party establishment, did not rule out again tapping his bank account. Scott’s reported net worth is $218.6 million.

“What I’m committed to doing is making sure we have the money to get our message out, just like I did in the primary,” Scott said. “We have a lot of support out there, so we’ll see what happens.”

Scott, whose wealth comes chiefly from his tenure as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which he left three years before the company paid a record $1.7 billion in fines and settlements to resolve accusations of Medicaid and Medicare fraud, also defended the GOP’s renewed attack on Democratic opponent Alex Sink.

On a website dubbed alexsinksflorida.com, the party labels Sink a “financial disaster.” It accuses the former bank executive of eliminating thousands of jobs a dozen years ago when Bank of America took over Nationsbank, where Sink headed the Florida operation.

“I think it’s a fair attack,” Scott said, adding, “especially at a time when we have so much unemployment in this state.”

By contrast, Scott insisted that at Columbia/HCA “we grew revenues. If you can grow the size of your company, you generally don’t have those kinds of issues.”

Scott’s focus on Sink, however, drew a rebuke from an ally of the Democratic candidate, John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, who said it dishonored those who died on 9/11.

“On this day, we call upon Rick Scott to put aside his negative and partisan attacks and instead show respect to the American lives lost and strength we have all shown to carry on,” Rivera said.

But any such hiatus appears unlikely. Scott  told party officials that he will keep “jobs” as the main focus of his campaign.

Underscoring that theme, party leaders were told Saturday that Republican National Chairman Michael Steele plans to take part in a bus tour of Florida on Sept. 18-19. Officials said the red-colored vehicle carrying the chairman will bear a message directed at the Democratic U.S. House Speaker: “You Need a Job? Fire Pelosi.”

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