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Jim Greer trial may expose Florida Republican party's inner workings

ORLANDO — When former state Republican party chairman Jim Greer goes on trial next year on charges of fraud and money laundering, plenty of prominent politicians may be squirming as the inner workings of the party are exposed.

There's former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who recommended Greer for the post and earned $150,000 consulting for the party while Greer was chairman. Now a candidate for U.S. Senate, LeMieux is trying to distance himself from his part in the Charlie Crist-Jim Greer political team, while Greer says LeMieux knew about most everything Greer did that led to his indictment.

Current and former legislators, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, could see their freewheeling spending of state party money put back on display.

And there's Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and former state party chairman and current state Sen. John Thrasher. They signed a secret $124,000 severance package with Greer, so he would resign and keep his mouth shut.

"They just destroyed my life for no reason," a tearful Greer said of the legislative leaders last week on WTSP-Ch. 10.

Greer knows the secrets of the state party like few others. As legislative leaders are deposed by Greer's attorneys, there's every indication the former high-flying party boss is looking not just for vindication, but also payback.

But no political figure in Florida has a more complex relationship with Greer than former Gov. Crist. Once the closest of friends who vacationed together with spouses, their bond has reached the point that Crist contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement this summer after receiving a pair of messages from Greer apparently perceived as a threat.

"It was a little cathartic, and he was able to vent," Greer attorney Damon Chase said of the voice mail and text messages Greer left for Crist. "But there's not a single threat in there anywhere. It's merely: 'I don't want to be friends anymore; stop calling and pretending you're my friend.'"

To understand how dramatically the relationship has deteriorated and how intertwined their political fortunes are, rewind the clock more than two years.

• • •

In May 2009, Gov. Crist basked in approval ratings of more than 70 percent while Rubio was an obscure former Miami legislator on a quixotic campaign to challenge the leader of his party for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Still, Rubio was generating buzz in national political circles, and Crist's media consultant urged a strategy meeting as soon as possible in an e-mail to Crist's top political advisers — Greer, chief of staff Eric Eikenberg and Washington lobbyist Mitch Bainwol.

"This has the feel of becoming a cause,'' consultant Stuart Stevens e-mailed. "I am flat out concerned about this spinning into a nasty dynamic. I've done a zillion primaries. ... There is nothing I like about this dynamic as presently constructed. If MR represents Hispanics and conservatives, those are two key groups CC needs in 2010 and beyond. It complicates everything."

Greer, according to internal Crist campaign e-mails exclusively obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, quickly jumped into action. The state party chairman, though restricted under federal campaign finance laws from mingling state party resources with a federal campaign, assumed the role of de facto Crist campaign manager, the e-mails suggest.

"Fundraising will of course be our No. 1 priority," Greer e-mailed Crist's political director Pablo Diaz and finance director Dane Eagle two days after receiving Stevens' anxious message. "But we will need to begin putting together a political plan (Pablo), and when the time is right, a media plan. This will be a team endeavor, so it will be good to start meeting each week to see where we are and what decisions need to be made and where we need to be. How about each Monday at 6 p.m.?"

The next day Greer e-mailed advisers including Eikenberg, Stevens, Bainwol and LeMieux (then a private practice attorney) that he had hired an opposition researcher, presumably to dig up information about Rubio.

In the coming months, even after Eikenberg moved from the governor's office to lead Crist's Senate campaign and state GOP leaders had rebuked Greer for taking sides in the Crist-Rubio primary, Greer was e-mailing campaign consultants and advisers about plans for polling and TV ads. He wrote the script for Crist's debut radio ads touting the governor's conservative credentials and opposition to President Barack Obama's agenda.

"Not sure Gov. would be receptive on this," Greer responded that fall, when Stevens suggested halting radio ads to save money.

In December 2009, Crist's Tampa Bay field operative, George Riley, e-mailed campaign officials to say Crist had received a rousing welcome at a GOP gathering in Sarasota, though local party leaders had been surprised to see Greer there.

"Chairman Greer was not introduced. This irritated the Chairman and eventually he was introduced later into the program," Riley reported. "(Sarasota Republican Chairman Joe) Gruters was given the long bio of Chairman Greer and was not thrilled about reading it."

• • •

Antagonism to Greer and accusations of excessive and improper party spending had grown among rank-and-file activists throughout 2009. Crist, along with legislative leaders like Haridopolos and Cannon, stood by the party chairman and dismissed calls for his ouster or resignation until January 2010 when Greer no longer had the votes to hold onto his post.

On Jan. 5, Greer resigned, the day after then party chairman Thrasher, party lawyer Jason Gonzalez, Cannon and Haridopolos signed the confidential $124,000 severance agreement.

Then came revelations that Greer and top aide Delmar Johnson had quietly set up a fundraising company, Victory Strategies, which paid nearly $200,000 on top of their salaries. The legislative leaders backed off the severance package and by June, Greer was indicted on six felony fraud and money laundering charges.

"It's very suspicious that they didn't know about this relationship between Greer and Victory Strategies. Why the hell would they write it up in a severance agreement? That's evidence of their knowing," said Cheney Mason, another Greer attorney, who noted that Victory Strategies replaced another fundraising consultant who was paid much more — $30,000 per month.

"So what who knew? Greer saved the Republican Party a hell of a lot of money," Mason said.

Greer maintains that Crist knew about the Victory Strategies contract and that LeMieux suggested the idea in the first place. Crist and LeMieux deny it.

"Crist knew early on. Crist absolutely knew, and he could have come forward and said Jim saved (the state GOP) hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, he stayed quiet," said Chase, the attorney.

Greer's wife, Lisa, was close to Crist and former first lady Carole Crist, but on WTSP-Ch. 10 last week, she sounded disgusted with the former governor.

"I thought he was a part of my family. I named my youngest son for him," Mrs. Greer said. "I thought he would be part of my family forever. We had some wonderful times, but when it came right down to it, he sacrificed my husband on the altar of his own ambition and protecting his career."

• • •

Crist declined to comment on any alleged threat from Greer or call he made about it to state law enforcement.

"Not one iota," Crist said when asked if he's concerned about what might come out at Greer's trial. "Well, if it's truthful."

Unlike other party leaders who have attacked Greer as a crook, Crist has been circumspect.

"There's not been a trial, the jury is still out,'' he said last year, during his unsuccessful nonpartisan campaign for U.S. Senate. "We don't know what the conclusion is yet, and people in this country, thank God, are innocent until proven guilty."

Last week, Crist offered no regrets for plucking Greer out of obscurity and making him state party chairman.

"You make the best judgment that you can at the time," he said. "And any chief executive you try to recommend — which I did, in this case, not select — people that you think can do a good job. At the time, back to George (LeMieux), he was very instrumental in making that recommendation. I thought it was a good one, so I did recommend (Greer) to the committee. They made the decision to elect, not me."

Nor is the extent of Greer's bitterness toward Crist clear as the trial approaches.

In the interview with WTSP, he cast himself as persecuted because he stood by Crist, whom legislative leaders and the conservative wing of the party had come to despise.

"There is no doubt people would tell me frequently I needed to go out in a body bag, because I was the last person between the party infrastructure attacking the governor, because as chairman, I had to sign off on everything the party did," Greer said.

The trial is not expected to get under way until next year. Crist is listed as a potential witness for the prosecution, but he said he was unaware of any plan for him to testify.

Asked if he had been deposed, Crist was vague: "I've talked to people, but there's been no deposition," he said, declining to reveal whom he spoke to.

A Greer attorney said Greer's friendship with Crist is over. But it doesn't mean they're enemies.

"I don't think Jim wants Charlie to go through anything negative," Chase said.

Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Jim Greer trial may expose Florida Republican party's inner workings 09/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 12:35pm]

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