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Republicans may feel ripple effect from Greer's arrest

Gov. Charlie Crist urges state party leaders to re-elect Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer in 2009. He “has and always will have my unwavering support,’’ Crist said this year.

Associated Press (2009)

Gov. Charlie Crist urges state party leaders to re-elect Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer in 2009. He “has and always will have my unwavering support,’’ Crist said this year.

"Surprised and disappointed," Gov. Charlie Crist said of Wednesday's arrest of his close friend and chief political ally, Jim Greer.

The only thing surprising about Greer's indictment is that the governor could be surprised.

Crist plucked Greer out of obscurity in 2007 and installed him as chairman of the GOP amid plenty of grumbling from the grass roots. Month after month, he brushed off louder and louder pleas to examine Greer's spending. He certainly read the news accounts about Greer's lucrative secret contract with the party.

"Chairman Greer has and always will have my unwavering support,'' Crist said when Greer finally resigned in January, a statement that remains on Crist's U.S. Senate campaign site.

"Charlie Crist owns this one,'' said former state party chairman Tom Slade. "There were people in there pounding on Charlie Crist's desk saying, 'Do something about this fellow you've installed as state party chairman because he's totally out of control. You put him there and you're the only one who can rein him in.' He just wouldn't budge."

Crist is the biggest casualty of Greer's remarkable downfall, but he's certainly not alone.

Other GOP leaders now trashing Greer either actively shielded him from attacks, ignored numerous warnings about his management, or worked to hush the controversy.

At a time when Republicans across the country are expecting to ride an electoral wave in November, the Florida GOP is consumed with scandal and public corruption investigations on a scale never before seen in the state. The Greer case is just one of several ongoing state and federal investigations under way involving prominent Republican leaders and money-raisers.

As soon as former Republican House Speaker Ray Sansom was indicted for allegedly misappropriating taxpayer money, the Florida Democratic Party aggressively worked to cast the scandal as part of a broader pattern of pervasive GOP corruption.

Subsequent revelations about big spending on GOP credit cards and criminal charges against top fundraisers have largely borne that out. Republicans blasting Greer for allegedly stealing from the party were silent over Sansom allegedly stealing from taxpayers.

Are the Democrats ascending?

Strikingly, there is little indication at this early stage that Democratic candidates in Florida are positioned to take advantage. Given the level of scandal, one would think half a candidate could run against the Florida GOP today and win.

Average together recent polls, however, and leading Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek are still trailing.

"The Republican base … they are fired up," state GOP chairman John Thrasher said Wednesday. "People are passionate and people really are focused on … the excesses in Washington and the takeover of health care."

Thrasher, a state senator from St. Augustine and former lobbyist, said that the party has enacted tighter controls since Greer's ouster and that former Republican Crist would be tainted much more than the GOP.

"I don't think you can walk away from the fact this guy was your best buddy in politics that you relied on day in and day out and now say because he was indicted, you didn't have anything to do with it," he said.

Greer tried to muscle Marco Rubio out of the U.S. Senate primary, but Rubio wound up muscling Crist out of the GOP. Trailing badly, the governor opted to run as a nonpartisan candidate, and on Wednesday Rubio hung Greer around Crist's neck.

"He became chairman and remained chairman because of Charlie Crist,'' Rubio said.

Thrasher praised Attorney General Bill McCollum for referring the case of Greer's secret contract to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But McCollum hardly looks like a star in this case. Initially, he acted more interested in keeping the controversy quiet.

After learning of the secret contract, the attorney general privately spoke to another party activist attorney and declared it a "perfectly legitimate contract" legally. According to Greer, McCollum also was aware of a secret severance package being negotiated between Greer, Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon and Thrasher, weeks before Thrasher was elected party chairman.

Greer's indictment has handed an opportunity to McCollum's primary challenger, Rick Scott, who has spent time and money recently fending off attacks over his record as head of Columbia/HCA, which paid the largest fine for Medicare fraud in history.

"Career politician Bill McCollum is up to his ears in covering up the Greer scandal,'' said Scott's campaign spokeswoman Jen Baker. "He is part of the culture of corruption and insider dealings that have led our government down the wrong path.''

Sink's campaign jumped on McCollum too: "Bill McCollum was Greer's handpicked candidate, and McCollum attempted for months to sweep the corruption at the Republican Party under the rug,'' said Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings.

A McCollum spokeswoman stressed that he is working with Thrasher to clean up the GOP.

So, it seems, are state and federal investigators.

Times/Herald staff writers Carrie Wells and John Frank contributed to this report.

Republicans may feel ripple effect from Greer's arrest 06/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 10:11pm]
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