TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Republican Party's political crisis exploded Thursday, as former chairman Jim Greer filed a lawsuit against the organization alleging it violated the terms of a secret severance agreement.
Greer's lawsuit came a day after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into whether he fraudulently siphoned party money into a consulting company he owned.
Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, said the state GOP wants to smear his client. The party requested the criminal investigation to avoid honoring the January severance contract that would have paid Greer consulting fees totaling $124,000, plus health care, upon his departure, he said.
"Instead of settling this, they are fighting," Chase said. "Get out your Shakespeare books, because everybody is dying."
Republican Party officials denied the contract is valid, saying Greer never signed the offer before it was revoked a month later.
"It is abundantly clear that Jim Greer has some significant legal problems, and appears desperate to do anything possible to deflect those legal challenges at the further expense of the party," said Ronnie Whitaker, the Republican Party of Florida's executive director, in a prepared statement.
The six-page civil suit Greer filed in Seminole County follows months of party strife under his leadership. It blames his ouster on the politics of the U.S. Senate race, where Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio are waging a bitter GOP primary campaign. Greer's endorsement of Crist led to "a vicious campaign of personal character assassination" involving accusations of misspent money and lavish purchases on the party credit card, the suit states.
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."
For the party faithful, these new disclosures and apparent double-talk from party leaders — who denied the existence of a severance agreement — are generating flashbacks to upheaval over party spending early this year.
"This digging out is just causing more pain for everybody," said Cox, calling for the release of all party financial records and credit card statements.
The most explosive: Incoming GOP leaders in the Legislature — future Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon — allegedly offered to pay Greer $200,000 in hush money, to remain quiet about the severance agreement. That was about $50,000 more than he would have gotten under the severance package.
A spokeswoman for Cannon said Wednesday that he denied the assertion, calling it outrageous.Haridopolos didn't return calls.
"They said, 'We want to pay Greer $200,000, but we don't want the money to come from the RPOF because of the all the bad publicity,' " said Chase, who represented Greer in the negotiations, which took place in February and March, weeks after the party denied the severance agreement existed.
Chase said the lawmakers considered funneling the money through a political committee but they denied the offer because "it didn't pass the sniff test."
The lawmakers sent associates to discuss the payoff with Greer's ally Jim Stelling, the former Seminole County GOP chairman, Greer's attorney said. He said the two emissaries were Marc Reichelderfer and Pat Bainter.
Reichelderfer, a political consultant to Cannon and Thrasher, denies the claim.
Bainter, a consultant for Haridopolos, didn't return calls. Stelling would not discuss the matter.
The suit will pivot on the validity of the severance agreement, which appeared to absolve him of any financial wrongdoing and pay him to remain as a consultant for a year. Greer signed it the same day as party leaders, Jan. 4 — the day before he resigned, his lawyers say.
But the party's attorney, Jason Gonzalez, said the GOP never received the executed agreement.
Experts on employment law said the dispute involves a number of legal factors, but the contract certainly doesn't prevent criminal charges for fraud or theft.
"What they are likely looking at is a trial, because these are fact issues a judge or a jury are going to have to determine," said Rob E. Larkin III, a contract expert at the Allen, Norton & Blue law firm in Tallahassee.
Another persistent question is what party leaders knew about Greer's ties to Victory Strategies, the consulting firm he owned with former party executive director Delmar Johnson. Without other party officials' knowledge, Greer authorized a lucrative contract through a stealth company for Johnson that paid him a 10 percent commission on all major donations to the state party. Johnson was able to pad his $103,000 salary with $260,000 and another $42,000 in expenses, party officials say.
Greer's 60 percent ownership in the company wasn't discovered until party auditors conducted their annual review. The FDLE launched an investigation March 15, the agency confirmed Wednesday.
Greer's attorney produced an early draft of the severance agreement that explicitly sanctioned Victory Strategies' contract.
But Gonzalez, the party's attorney, reiterated Thursday that they didn't know about Greer's involvement.
Times/Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard and Lee Logan and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.