TALLAHASSEE — As forensic auditors scour the books at the Republican Party of Florida, new details have emerged about how much a former party boss made from a secret contract, and the existence of a second deal paying a close friend of Gov. Charlie Crist over $350,000.
The revelations further ignite the feud between the GOP and former chairman Jim Greer amid state and federal criminal investigations concerning misspent money and a civil lawsuit about a lucrative severance agreement given to Greer in return for his resignation.
It is also becoming increasingly apparent that Crist, who is expected to announce his landmark run today as an independent for the U.S. Senate, is closely tied to the questionable spending plaguing the state Republican Party.
At the center of the ongoing controversy is Greer, whom Crist hand-picked to run the party. GOP officials said Tuesday that Greer made $125,000 through a shell company he owned that siphoned a portion of party donations in a secret contract.
The agreement named only Delmar Johnson, then the party's executive director, as the beneficiary and owner of Victory Strategies, a consulting firm. But in March, party officials discovered Greer was the majority owner and cried foul, alerting state authorities, who began a criminal investigation.
Greer contends the party knew of the contract but is calling it into question to avoid paying his $124,000 severance package. The party hired Ken Sukhia, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, to defend against Greer's civil lawsuit.
Now Republican Party leaders are expressing similar consternation about details of a different agreement that paid Jay Burmer, a longtime Crist friend, $10,000 a month, according to the party's federal campaign finance reports, to serve as a communications consultant to the party.
GOP chairman John Thrasher called the arrangement disappointing and suggested the party might sue to recoup money. Given the recent revelations, he said the party will likely expand the scope of the forensic audit.
"To me, it's excessive, as a lot of these things have been," he said.
What Burmer did for the GOP is apparently a mystery to current and former party staffers, most of whom say they barely knew his role.
Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, suggested that Crist asked his client to put Burmer on the payroll as a personal adviser.
"When the governor tells the chairman to hire Burmer as a consultant for $10,000 a month, the chairman signs the contract," Chase said.
In an interview, Crist didn't address whether he requested the arrangement. But he said he knew Burmer worked for the party and called him a smart guy.
Burmer didn't answer calls seeking comment.
The arrangement began in January, the month of Crist's inauguration, and paid Burmer $351,155.88 over 3 years through two companies he owned — the Alia Group and Green Wolf Group — which were based at his home in South Tampa. He received a $15,000 lump sum payment in late December, just before Greer's departure.
Burmer, 57, attended college with Crist and attended the governor's December 2008 wedding.
He worked as an advertising sales manager for WFLA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Tampa, before managing Crist's successful bid for education commissioner in 2000. He then joined the department as head of the Central Florida office in St. Petersburg.
Two years later when Crist was elected attorney general, Burmer followed him and joined the state's Tampa office as the director of fraud prevention.
He is a prolific political donor despite filing for bankruptcy in 2004, citing $24,000 in assets and $122,114 in debt. Federal court records show he owed $1,500 to the IRS and another $70,000 in credit card debt.
More recently, Burmer joined Florida Electronic Scratch Off, a Pinellas County company that is asking lawmakers and the governor's office to allow the Florida Lottery to use video terminals for scratchoff tickets.
But it's his consulting for the GOP that is getting the most attention.
Republican Party spokeswoman Katie Betta said his contract called for "strategic media planning." But as the media liaison, she said she "never worked with him."
According to published reports, Greer announced that Burmer would lead the party's efforts to organize a televised presidential debate in 2007 at "Presidency IV," a GOP event Oct. 21-22 in Orlando. But Erin VanSickle, the party's communications director at the time, said if Burmer assisted with the media, "it is news to me."
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.