TALLAHASSEE — Florida GOP leader John Thrasher engaged in damage control Thursday when he hosted a conference call with top Republican Party officials to explain why he didn't promptly inform them of a federal subpoena seeking party financial records.
A number of the executive board members said they were miffed that they first learned about the month-old subpoena in Thursday's editions of the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald. But, Thrasher said, the subpoena wasn't that big a deal, and the party didn't appear to be the target of the investigation.
Instead, he suggested, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office are interested in former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who has been indicted in state court for his handling of the state budget.
"The subpoena came from the United States attorney in Fort Walton Beach — I'll leave it at that," Thrasher said, alluding to the fact that the Fort Walton prosecutor's office includes Sansom's hometown of Destin.
"We understood where the emphasis of the subpoena was going," said Thrasher, a St. Augustine senator. "We didn't think the subpoena rose to the level of importance considering everything else that has been requested from this same United States attorney."
Sansom faces trial on grand theft charges stemming from $6 million he inserted into the 2007 state budget for an emergency operations building at Destin Airport that a developer and political contributor to Sansom wanted to use as an aircraft hangar.
But the Sansom case isn't the only criminal investigation targeting a once-high-ranking Republican with close ties to former party leaders.
Ousted GOP chairman Jim Greer, chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist for the post, has been accused in state court of defrauding donors and the party by steering contributions to a dummy corporation. Like Sansom, Greer has pleaded not guilty.
A top Crist fundraiser, Scott Rothstein, was sentenced this summer to more than 50 years in federal prison for masterminding a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. And Hollywood, Fla., ophthalmologist Alan Mendelsohn, another fundraiser tied to Crist and numerous other lawmakers, is scheduled to plead guilty in an unrelated federal fraud case Wednesday.
With all of the cases swirling around state Republicans, agents and attorneys with the IRS, FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office throughout Florida have interviewed numerous lawmakers, consultants and party donors in an ongoing, wide-ranging criminal investigation that, Republicans suspect, is a fishing expedition.
In the wake of the Greer scandal, Thrasher was elected chairman nearly 10 months ago. He pledged to usher in a new era of transparency and open communication, and said he would work hand-in-hand with grass roots leaders of the Florida GOP.
But his failure to inform party leaders about the subpoena, at first, seemed eerily reminiscent of the Greer era.
"I'm on the board and I didn't know anything about these subpoenas," fumed Pinellas state committee member Tony DiMatteo, echoing others. "I'm just upset that there's no transparency at the party level, after it was promised. … It's like the Who song (Won't Get Fooled Again): 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.' "
After the Thursday conference call, though, DiMatteo said he had a better understanding of Thrasher's reasoning. After all, Thrasher said he planned to bring up the subpoena as part of his regularly scheduled legal briefing to party higher-ups at a quarterly meeting Dec. 10. Thrasher instituted the legal briefing to make sure all the party elders stayed informed.
Still, DiMatteo said, when the Times/Herald began asking questions, Thrasher should have said something or sent out an e-mail.
"He made an honest assessment that it didn't rise to a level of importance," DiMatteo said. "But when the media — i.e., you guys — make it a story, it becomes important."
DiMatteo is running to replace Thrasher, as is Palm Beach County Republican chairman Sid Dinerstein and Sarasota County Republican chairman Joe Gruters. Dinerstein and Gruters both said they would have preferred a heads-up about the subpoena before reading about it in the newspaper.
Dinerstein also wondered about the party's legal bills.
State and federal campaign finance records filed from 2009 through October indicate the party racked up bills totaling more than $700,000 from lawyers representing the party and several individuals and an auditor who examined credit card use by various public and party officials. The FBI subpoena also sought information in the audit, which is publicly available online.
Included in the total are unpaid debts of $170,000 to two Tallahassee law firms and $39,000 to an Atlanta auditor. The records available do not include spending in the last three months of this year.
Thrasher said most of the bills were for regular legal work, but he said the party hired lawyers to represent House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who were sued in state court by Greer in a contract dispute.
A judge recently dismissed Greer's suit, which claimed the Republican leaders tried to pay him "hush money'' — an allegation they vehemently deny.
Thrasher has won praise from most rank-and-file Republicans for stabilizing the party and leading it to one of its most successful election seasons ever. He confirmed Thursday that he declined incoming Gov. Rick Scott's request that he remain party chairman beyond January.
"I would leave tomorrow if they would let me," Thrasher laughed, noting he was joking. "I'm ready to finish my term and let the new leadership take the party wherever we go."