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Florida GOP chairman's promised 'forensic audit' of spending stuck at start

TALLAHASSEE — Six weeks after newly elected GOP chairman John Thrasher promised an immediate "forensic audit," the state party has yet to hire a firm to conduct the exhaustive review.

Once on the job, it is easy to know where to start: the portion of $14 million in expenses last year that the Republican Party can't adequately justify.

Those questionable expenses were largely incurred on party credit cards by former chairman Jim Greer and former executive director Delmar Johnson, according to internal party documents.

When the Tallahassee firm of Thomson Brock Luger & Co. finished the party's routine annual audit this year, it could not certify the GOP's 2009 financial statements "due to lack of adequate documentation for certain cash disbursements."

It's unclear how much of the $14 million in total expenses is considered dubious. The red flags are tucked inside the party's annual report to state election officials — the same report that launched the criminal investigation of Greer for allegedly diverting a portion of party dollars to a consulting firm he secretly owned.

Gov. Charlie Crist made a formal request Monday for Tallahassee-based U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirwin to take control of the criminal investigation, citing the "potential credit card abuses and financial irregularities" at the Republican Party.

Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, dismissed the significance. "He's in a campaign and he's got to do what's popular," Chase said.

Crist handpicked Greer as chairman, so some party activists believe he deserves as much blame as anyone.

"I'm hopeful the U.S. attorney will question Charlie Crist carefully about what he knew and when he knew it. I think he's a co-conspirator," said Miami political consultant Roger Stone, a former Crist supporter who began calling for the party to conduct a forensic audit 18 months ago. "Charlie Crist is personally responsible for everything Jim Greer did. Greer's transgressions were brought to his attention over and over again, and he said he had full confidence in him."

The forensic audit — promised by Thrasher minutes after he took the helm on Feb. 20 — will likely cover the same ground as state and federal investigators once it starts. Thrasher said the delay is not hurting the party. He said he hopes to hire a firm by early next week and complete the investigation within a month.

The party approached the Big Four accounting firms without success. Apparently leery of being dragged into a volatile GOP scandal, none of them bid on the job.

"I'm not sure they want to get involved in something that is this politically oriented," said Thrasher, a St. Augustine state senator.

Thrasher said in reviewing the records it appeared that during Greer's three years as chairman, each year about two dozen lawmakers and party staffers had GOP credit cards. He believes a "high percentage" of charges were appropriate and those deemed otherwise will be reimbursed to the party. Even though party credit cards were commonplace before Greer was elected chairman in 2006, Thrasher said the review will not touch party activities before Greer's tenure.

"I'm not going back any further. You guys may beat me up over that, but I want to get this done so we can put this behind us," he said. A forensic audit can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and be much more exhaustive than a regular audit.

The party did expand its mandatory annual audit this year, and the findings prompted Attorney General Bill McCollum to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate a contract between Greer and Johnson. The disputed arrangement paid Johnson, through a shell company, a 10 percent commission on major party contributions. Auditors later discovered that Greer was the majority owner of the company, Victory Strategies.

But a new Times/Herald analysis shows the Republican Party wasn't the only source of cash for Greer's company. To help him become chairman, Greer wined and dined politicos in 2006 through a federal 527 political committee, so-called for its designation in the tax code.

A who's who of special interests, from Florida Crystals to insurance companies to convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, gave money to the political committee, which Greer used to reimburse himself $150,079. Johnson received $51,330 in compensation and reimbursements and Victory Strategies earned an additional $40,000 — an expense listed on Feb. 4, 2009, the day the corporation's papers were filed with Florida officials.

Thrasher brushed off questions about why he and other legislative leaders signed a secret severance agreement with Greer before Thrasher was elected chairman. "It was what it was. People were trying to get the guy out," Thrasher said. "The bottom line is, this guy abused his trust with the party by entering into a secret agreement with the executive director that nobody else knew about to take money out of the party for their own gain."

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida GOP chairman's promised 'forensic audit' of spending stuck at start 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 11:25pm]

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