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Greer arrest records outline deception and greed at Florida GOP's top tier

Jim Austin Greer needed money.

With his personal bank account overdrawn by an average of $10,000 a month for much of last year, prosecutors say, the Republican Party of Florida chairman plotted to get his hands on some of the millions in special-interest cash that was flooding the party.

The scheme: set up a "shell company" called Victory Strategies LLC to secretly divert party funds to himself, according to prosecutors. He, along with then party executive director Delmar W. Johnson III made sure no one else knew about it. But Johnson, 30, struck a deal with prosecutors and told them everything.

Greer, 47, was arrested Wednesday morning at his Oviedo home just after he cut himself shaving. He was charged on six felony counts of theft, money laundering and orchestrating a scheme to defraud. He faces a maximum 30 years in prison for the money laundering and fraud charges. The theft charges carry a maximum five-year sentence each.

Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, called his client a victim of a "political assassination."

The arrest capped Greer's three-year reign as chairman, one marked by criticism from nearly every quarter — save from the man who chose him for the job, Gov. Charlie Crist.

"Sometimes, you're disappointed by people," Crist said Wednesday. Asked if he bore any blame for Greer's troubles, Crist said, "I do not feel complicit."

Crist did call for the statewide grand jury on corruption that snared Greer with this first indictment. The grand jury is examining other cases and could issue indictments in them soon, as well as recommendations for overhauling Florida's ethics laws.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement affidavit detailing Greer's alleged scheme exposes a lax culture of financial management at a party that harps on fiscal responsibility. The affidavit portrays a character, if not a caricature, of a shrewd, greedy insider shoving rivals out of the way, exploiting power and putting on phony public shows of austerity as he privately uses donor money for personal enrichment.

"This money," said statewide prosecutor Bill Shepherd, "was laundered through Victory Strategies LLC and then used by Mr. Greer to support his own personal lifestyle."

Greer is accused of diverting $125,000 in party money unlawfully. Johnson pocketed $65,000, but has not been charged.

On the day Greer and Johnson filed the paperwork to create Victory Strategies — Feb. 4, 2009 — another $40,000 was transferred to Victory Strategies from a campaign committee called Jim Greer for Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Shepherd said Greer pocketed that money, too. Greer also "pleaded for financial help" from an unnamed donor who sent him about $180,000 over 18 months, the search warrant affidavit says.

FDLE agents spent the day searching his home for documents related to Victory Strategies and his accounts at Sun Trust and United Legacy Bank.

A little known Republican from Oviedo, Greer catapulted to the top of the most powerful political party in Florida after serving on Crist's campaign for governor. Crist's campaign was fueled with at least $60 million in contributions under chief fundraiser Meredith O'Rourke, who portrayed Greer in unflattering terms to an FDLE agent.

"He realized there was a lot of money to be made in political fundraising," O'Rourke told Special Agent Travis Lawson.

Soon after Greer won his chairmanship in 2007, he met with O'Rourke about her $30,000 monthly party fundraising contract, Lawson's affidavit says.

Greer told her "he could provide big, national clients for her and then together they could make even more money," said the affidavit. But O'Rourke reportedly "rebuffed" him for trying "to take a percentage of her income."

In response, the affidavit says, she was "shut out" of meetings with donors. Greer then moved to cut O'Rourke's salary, even contacting her in while she was ill and in a Tallahassee hospital, demanding that she come to Tampa to sign her new contract. O'Rourke said she checked herself out, drove south and found herself facing an 85 percent pay cut. When she threatened to make a stink, she said, Greer yelled at her and she left.

"Before she got out of the parking lot,'' she said, ''her BlackBerry e-mail account controlled by Mr. Greer was already canceled."

By 2008, Greer's relations with top Republicans soured as Sen. John McCain's failed presidential campaign lost in must-win Florida. Republican operative Roger Stone started calling for Greer's ouster over the big charges on party American Express cards.

By early 2009, Greer was starting to go broke, despite persuading the party to boost his salary by 37 percent to $135,000, according to the affidavit. On average, he overdrew his bank account by $10,000 monthly.

About this time, Greer met with Johnson and devised a plan for Victory Strategies to split 10 percent of all major donor fundraising, the affidavit said.

Johnson said he was "instructed not to disclose Mr. Greer's involvement to anyone, to take steps to hide the truth about Mr. Greer's involvement from RPOF."

Greer and Johnson had the Gray Robinson law firm file the Victory Strategies paperwork in a way that hid Greer's identity, the affidavit says.

Greer, as chairman, then signed a fundraising contract between RPOF and Victory Strategies, allegedly making sure the general counsel never saw it.

Meantime, the party's finances were so bad that it borrowed $450,000 in July. At the same time, Johnson demanded that the party's chief financial officer issue a special $10,000 check to Victory Strategies "per the chairman," in addition to its fundraising fee, and Greer took a cut, authorities said.

Facing public pressure over party American Express cards, Greer held a news event where he cut up a credit card purported to be his. But Johnson told FDLE that a staffer "retrieved the cut card immediately because reporters were attempting to take pictures of it and would have discovered that it was, in fact, not Mr. Greer's card at all but that of an RPOF staffer."

The following month, the affidavit says, Greer directed Johnson to demand $30,000 from the party for a poll for Crist's Senate campaign. Johnson said the poll was never taken.

In December, RPOF board members called on Greer to resign. He responded that he was "a wealthy man" with a legal defense fund and a willingness to sue, according to the affidavit.

Shortly after the meeting, general counsel Jason Gonzalez said he was contacted by an executive board member about the Victory Strategies contract. Gonzalez said neither he nor his predecessor knew about it. Greer denied involvement in the company.

By February, Greer had been pressured to resign and persuaded party leaders to sign a document promising him $124,000 in severance. When they refused to pay, saying the agreement was void, he sued, and accused his successor, St. Augustine Sen. John Thrasher, future Senate President Mike Haridopolos and future House Speaker Dean Cannon of using intermediaries to offer him "hush money."

All denied Greer's accusations as "groundless" and "outrageous." They said they signed an agreement with Greer in an effort to get rid of him.

The grand jury did not call for an examination of the alleged "hush money."

Staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

What's next

State investigators said Wednesday no further arrests are expected in the specific case of Jim Greer's alleged theft and fraud through the use of a corporation called Victory Strategies LLC. But in an unrelated case, former House Speaker Ray Sansom still faces grand theft charges in state court for secretly putting $6 million in the budget as an alleged political favor. Also, federal authorities are examining party spending. And the statewide grand jury probe of corruption is ongoing. At some point the jury is expected to issue a report that could become the backbone of a special legislative session to consider an overhaul of Florida ethics laws.

Greer arrest records outline deception and greed at Florida GOP's top tier 06/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 3, 2010 12:40am]

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