Gov. Crist, Alex Sink call for federal prosecutors to look into GOP controversy

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist asked federal authorities Friday to investigate the Republican Party of Florida amid growing concerns about secret deals and misspent money.

"It's a mess," he said. "This thing stinks."

In an interview, Crist said the U.S. Attorney's Office needs to take over the criminal investigation of former Chairman Jim Greer and examine the use of party credit cards by top GOP lawmakers.

"A federal comprehensive investigation is . . . fully appropriate," the Republican governor said. "Particularly because of the significant IRS implications throughout this thing."

Crist's call for federal intervention followed a similar request from Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in a letter to the state attorney general Friday.

The prospect of a federal investigation will intensify the scrutiny of the state GOP, which is reeling from the discovery this week that Greer siphoned party donations to a shell company he owned, and the disclosure that top officials planned to pay him a $125,000 golden parachute if he resigned.

At the same time, new records obtained by the Times/Herald expose how another top GOP lawmaker — incoming Speaker Dean Cannon — used a party credit card to charge $200,000 in a 21/2-year period ending in early 2009. The charges include more than $3,000 in personal expenses, some of which he didn't reimburse until just weeks ago as controversy swirled around the use of party credit cards.

For Crist, his statements represent a reversal from his ardent support of Greer, who he handpicked for the chairmanship and supported to the end, despite demands dating to December for Greer's dismissal and a thorough investigation.

Crist said he took "responsibility" for putting Greer at the helm, and that he became disillusioned after the recent revelations.

Greer filed a civil lawsuit against the party Thursday, alleging the state GOP leadership failed to honor a severance package. The party disputes its validity.

"As the facts continue to come out, more and more knowledge is gained," Crist said. "The more knowledge you have, the more opportunity one has to evaluate and re-evaluate and determine what the appropriate action should be."

The state's top law enforcement agency launched a criminal investigation of Greer on March 15 at the behest of Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Greer authorized a secret contract through a shell company that paid then-Executive Director Delmar Johnson a 10 percent commission from all major donations to the state party. An internal party audit released Wednesday uncovered that Greer was the majority owner of the company, Victory Strategies, unbeknownst to party officials who said he denied any involvement.

Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, made the first official move to call in the feds in a letter to McCollum. Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, raised a potential conflict for FDLE investigators because the agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, most of whom are top Republican officials.

"It is only through a completely independent investigation that Floridians can have confidence that any criminal activity that may have occurred in the Republican Party will be properly addressed," she wrote.

McCollum, Sink's likely GOP rival in the governor's race, said Friday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was the proper agency to investigate but added that he had "no objection" to the involvement of federal prosecutors. He stopped short of referring the matter to them.

Kelli Dougherty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District in Tallahassee, said no formal notice is necessary for federal prosecutors to step in, but she anticipated receiving one.

The requests for a more thorough accounting of Republican party dollars are only likely to increase as the previously undisclosed party credit card statements continue to become public.

Cannon, who is set to become leader of the Florida House after the November election, used his party American Express for a variety of expenses, ranging from a $24.90 baby toy for a donor and a $47.47 Hooters charge to $945 at a popular sushi restaurant in Tallahassee and a $1,786.43 dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, according to itemized records.

The reports, though incomplete, show Cannon spent the most in a single month in December 2006, when he swiped $41,245.48 in charges. About half — $19,151 — came from a single expense: a chartered jet service to New York for a party fundraiser. The same month he also racked up more than $26,000 in limousines, taxis and rental cars.

A birthday dinner at Hot Olives in Winter Park cost $2,530 — a charge he later reimbursed to the party because it was a personal expenditure, party officials said.

But Cannon didn't reimburse another nearly $500 of personal expenses until just recently when party officials found the questionable tabs. He said they checked the records at his request, and it involved four purchases, for which he promptly reimbursed them.

Cannon released a statement saying all the charges were appropriate and a small part of the thousands he raised for the party.

"I have always been careful to use the party's credit card for party business purposes like raising money, recruiting candidates and helping elect Republicans to the Florida House of Representatives," he said.

The expenses are similar to the pricey purchases made by other current and former GOP officials, including indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom, Crist and his U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio, in addition to Johnson and Greer.

The scope of the criminal investigation concerning Greer is unknown. But legal experts suggest investigators are likely looking at fraud and theft.

J. Larry Hart, a former state and federal prosecutor not connected to the case, said the Republican Party situation suggests the possibility of a number of violations, regardless of the circumstances.

"Even thieves can be victims of theft," he said.

With the impending entry of federal authorities, the situation is likely to get worse for Greer and other Republicans, said Charles Rose, who teaches at Stetson University College of Law.

"Once the federal government gets involved, they have infinite resources," said Rose, a former prosecutor and defense attorney. "You can't win."

Times/Herald Staff Writers Marc Caputo and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Gov. Crist, Alex Sink call for federal prosecutors to look into GOP controversy 04/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 11:29am]

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