TALLAHASSEE — For three years, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer denied doing anything wrong and promised a trial that would embarrass a lot of people. So why did he plead guilty to five felonies Monday, facing the certainty of spending years in prison?
And who paid Hank Coxe, a widely respected criminal defense lawyer from Jacksonville who parachuted in at the last minute and quietly negotiated the plea that brought the long-running soap opera to a close? Coxe was in the courtroom when Greer pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges but did not speak and did not formally file a notice of appearance with the court.
For more than two years, Damon Chase, the Lake Mary civil lawyer who represented Greer, hurled insults at party officials insisting the investigation was an attempt to destroy Greer. Chase even predicted that everyone would die in the end like a Shakespearean tragedy. Instead, Chase stood silently beside Greer as he answered, "Guilty, your honor'' five times.
Chase said Greer "decided to fall on his sword rather than burn down the house.''
Coxe stepped in a few weeks ago and reviewed the evidence, talking to prosecutors and Republican Party representatives as he pushed for a plea bargain.
"Hank Coxe was critical to getting the deal done. He is a very experienced criminal defense lawyer, and he concluded it would be in Greer's best interest,'' said Steve Dobson, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented the party in a civil suit Greer filed in an attempt to collect $130,000 the party promised him in severance pay.
Prosecutors were reluctant to enter into a plea bargain, so defense attorneys took the suggestion of a plea to Orlando Circuit Judge Marc Lubet in chambers and essentially reached agreement. Later everyone reconvened in court and Greer, 50, admitted he was guilty, agreeing to make restitution to the party and go to jail for up to 36 months. He remains free until sentencing March 27.
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The case against Greer was substantial. Witnesses, including employees at the GrayRobinson law firm and the party, would have testified that Greer secretly formed Victory Strategies, a company that contracted with the party to handle fundraising. He made Delmar Johnson, former executive director of the party, manager of the company and billed the party more than $200,000. Proceeds were divided between them.
One payment to Victory Strategies was for a $30,000 poll that was never conducted. Bank records, emails and other financial records from the party made it clear Greer received money. Johnson and numerous witnesses said Greer hid his interest in the company and denied any association with it when suspicions arose late in 2009.
Coxe reviewed those records and advised Greer he would face even more time in jail if he were convicted at trial.
But where did the money come from to hire Coxe? He will only say that Greer hired him. He would not disclose his fee or say how he was paid.
In November, Greer's wife, Lisa, told Facebook friends that she had been reduced to washing dirty dishes in the bathtub because they couldn't afford to repair the dishwasher or fix a leaky sink. "To all of you who want to destroy Jim, is it worth it to you to hurt my children and I?'' Mrs. Greer asked.
It was quite a comedown for a party official who was widely known for his free-spending ways. Other party officials criticized him for a lavish lifestyle that included stays at expensive hotels, private airplanes, limousines and a demand that his planes and accommodations be stocked with peanut M&Ms, Diet Coke and Maker's Mark bourbon.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox says he has received no credible information indicating Greer is being paid to plead guilty and has heard nothing to indicate it would be a crime. If someone decided to make a philanthropic gift of money to help Greer pay a lawyer or help his wife and five children, it would not be against the law, Cox said.
But if someone threatened him to make him enter a plea or sought help in covering up a criminal act, that could be a crime and it would be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency, Cox added.
Asked if anyone had paid money to Greer in return for his guilty plea, Chase responded by email: "I can neither confirm nor deny it. Sorry.''
Johnson, who took an immunity agreement to testify against Greer, said: "I think he was paid. I couldn't imagine why else he would make that change. But I don't think any of us will ever know.''
Johnson and other witnesses are relieved the case is essentially over.
"I've learned what is most important: my family and God,'' Johnson said. "I saw a lot of the bad, the good and the ugly in politics. I got caught up in the whole bubble that is Tallahassee.''
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There is no question that a lot of Republican Party officials, current and former legislators, former Gov. Charlie Crist and a host of others are glad they will not have to climb on the witness stand and answer questions about the way the party was operating when Greer was chairman.
But who would help Greer?
Former Republican Party finance chairman Harry Sargeant III, a billionaire owner of an oil shipping business, has helped Greer in the past. While Greer was party chairman, Sargeant paid Greer $10,000 a month for 22 months, over his $130,000 party salary. Greer, in a deposition last year, said he earned the money as a "business consultant to Sargeant Oil.''
Sargeant would not take telephone calls from a Tampa Bay Times reporter. A woman who answered the telephone at his South Florida office repeatedly hung up on a reporter Wednesday.
Sargeant is a well-known Republican donor who has frequently provided airplanes to Crist and other public officials. Sargeant and Crist were fraternity brothers at Florida State University. If Crist decides to run for governor as a Democrat next year, he expects support from Sargeant.
Sargeant also helped Greer organize a now-famous trip to the Bahamas in 2008. A sealed report on the trip includes a description of a golf cart filled with prostitutes at a resort where Greer, Crist and others had a weekend retreat with big donors.
The donors had helped Crist pass a constitutional amendment expanding Florida's homestead exemption. Prosecutors could have questioned the trip and its impact on testimony from participants who supported Greer.
In recent years, Sargeant has made headlines over petroleum products he supplied to American forces in Iraq. The brother-in-law of the king of Jordan sued Sargeant in Palm Beach and won a $28.8 million verdict for cutting him out of $1.4 billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan. A congressional oversight committee called for an investigation of payments made to his company, and last year auditors for the Department of Defense accused Sargeant's company of overcharging the Pentagon by more than $200 million. A federal investigation is ongoing.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.