TALLAHASSEE — In an attempt to end the turmoil within the embattled Florida Republican Party, its leaders agreed Friday to disclose three years of credit card statements detailing the spending habits of elected officials and staffers under ousted party chairman Jim Greer.
The American Express statements, which party officials said will be made public in the next two weeks, will reveal about $7 million in purchases between January 2007 and Feb. 20 of this year, and offer a window into the culture of excess that the party has now ended, party chairman John Thrasher said.
The decision comes after two months of stories by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald and other news organizations that disclosed details of many of the documents.
But as party leaders agreed to make the documents public, new information emerged about the extent to which Greer and his deputies spent donor money.
Former executive director Delmar Johnson paid a North Florida artist $7,500 for oil paintings of Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist, party officials confirmed. And party funds would have paid for a third portrait, which Johnson commissioned of himself, if Thrasher hadn't stopped the check.
"I would not have authorized them," Thrasher said Friday during a break in the RPOF executive committee meeting. "There was a culture there that, in my opinion, was inappropriate. Now, we have turned the page and that's why we're having this meeting today."
The party's executive committee quickly concluded that Greer's behavior had "injured the name and status'' of the party. Members voted unanimously to remove Greer, who was replaced as chairman by Thrasher in February, from his remaining positions of power: executive committeeman from Seminole County and "immediate past chairman,'' an official position.
Greer did not attend the meeting but told the Times/Herald that the move underscores what he sees as a betrayal by party leadership.
Greer said the action Friday "only continues to show the new RPOF leadership's motives."
"I spent three years working hard to make our party grow and be inclusive of all voters. Today's action saddens me because of what is happening to the Florida GOP. But it is not surprising."
Thrasher said an independent audit of party finances concluded that Greer had "grossly interfered with the activities of the Republican Party." He did not accuse Greer of violating any civil or criminal laws.
Greer has sued Thrasher and the party in an attempt to recover a disputed severance package worth at least $123,000, the equivalent of his annual salary.
Greer's lawyer, Damon Chase, on Friday accused Thrasher of trying to scapegoat Greer for a pattern of spending that preceded him.
"He did spend more than his predecessor, but he raised more," Chase said. "They're trying to make him the fall guy."
The party's internal audit included a review of the fundraising corporation quietly set up by Greer and Johnson, named Victory Strategies, and nearly $500,000 in credit card expenses for Greer, Johnson and others.
Between late 2006 and 2009, the party charged $7 million on American Express cards but kept the details out of the public eye through a loophole in state election law.
According to American Express billing statements obtained this week by the Times/Herald, Greer charged nearly $500,000 to his card after he was picked by Crist in January 2007 to head the party.
The Times/Herald also obtained the AmEx statements of Senate President Jeff Atwater, who charged $44,116; former party executive director Jim Rimes, who charged more than $2 million; former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who charged about $100,000; state Rep. Dean Cannon, the incoming House speaker, who charged nearly $200,000; and former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who is now under indictment on corruption charges, who charged about $173,000.
Rubio and Sansom had credit cards before Greer came into office, but the party did not release those statements. Thrasher said Greer was responsible for the spending spree.
"He was chairman. He approved his own statements. He had total control of that apparatus of the party," he said.
Thrasher also blames Crist, but not party executives, for neglecting Greer's behavior.
"The governor's the guy that pretty much placed Chairman Greer in the position he did," Thrasher said. "Remember every one of these people are volunteers. This is not a corporate board where you are paid a fee. … I think this is a culture that evolved over a period of time."
He said that Greer's $500,000 in credit card expenses were never scrutinized "because he didn't let them be scrutinized."
Thrasher promised that the party has made a fresh start.
"Every expense that I incur — which is going to be on my own personal credit card — will be submitted and ultimately reviewed by the audit committee of the party before it's paid," he said. "I don't intend to travel outside the state unless it's absolutely necessary. I never intend to travel by private plane. I'll use my car or whatever airlines get me where I need to go in the state of Florida."
During the meeting at the Hotel Duval, the group of about 30 broke into groups to review four boxes of credit card statements from more than two dozen elected officials and staffers. The group then voted unanimously to release them to the public.
Thrasher said the party has received reimbursement checks for personal expenses charged on the cards: $2,417 from Rubio on April 22, $1,606 from Atwater April 14; and $495 from Cannon on March 17. "Others may want to act accordingly," he said.
Statements obtained by the Times/Herald showed that Greer's charges included spending on spas, flowers, flights, fine hotels and pricey restaurants. In a month ending in March 2008, for example, Greer dropped $41,421.31 in Las Vegas, Washington and Beverly Hills.
But it wasn't Greer who negotiated the deal with portrait artist D. Arthur McBride.
That was handled by Johnson, who saw the Crist portrait hanging in the artist's Havana, Fla., studio and offered to buy it as a gift for the governor. He also commissioned a Greer portrait.
The party paid McBride $7,500 out of its federal account on Oct. 8. 2009, listing it as photography and administrative expenses. Johnson then commissioned a portrait of himself.
By the time McBride tried to collect the fee, Johnson had been ousted and Thrasher wouldn't pay. Johnson ended up paying for it himself. Asked if she had any copies of the portrait, McBride said she'd look but sounded hesitant.
"I don't want to get into the middle of any dirt," she said.
Times/Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard, Marc Caputo and John Frank contributed to this report.