ORLANDO — After two weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling, former GOP party chairman Jim Greer walked into court Monday morning and pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges that could put him behind bars for 3½ years.
Greer responded "guilty your honor'' to charges he stole and laundered GOP campaign contributions through a company he created, Victory Strategies. He declined to talk with a crowd of reporters as he left court.
The plea, which came moments before jury selection was to begin, ends the prospects of a two-week trial that promised testimony from former Gov. Charlie Crist and a who's who of Republican politicians.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said Greer's plea was not the result of a deal. He will recommend Greer serve the full 3½ years at his March 27 sentencing.
Attempts to reach agreement on a plea languished for months until Jacksonville defense lawyer Hank Coxe stepped into the case and pushed for a settlement. Prosecutors said they do not know who hired Coxe, who was present in the courtroom but did not speak. Contacted later, Coxe said Greer hired him. Greer has frequently said the prolonged criminal case has left him broke and unable to find a job.
For some witnesses the plea brings relief. No one will have to answer questions about a now famous trip to the Bahamas that involved — according to at least one witness — the presence of a number of prostitutes.
The plea also brings an end to a lawsuit Greer filed against the party. Steve Dobson, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents the Republican Party of Florida, said the party is satisfied that Greer has acknowledged guilt, accepted responsibility for his actions and will pay restitution. An amount has yet to be determined.
Dobson said officials who currently run the party were not concerned about testifying in the criminal case and looked forward to "clearing up allegations" Greer has made over the past three years. In interviews and pretrial testimony, Greer accused the party of engaging in the suppression of black voters and seeking retribution against him because he supported Crist in his primary fight against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Damon Chase, a Lake Mary lawyer who represented Greer, said "sometimes clearing your name is not as important as taking care of your family,'' as he walked with Greer and his wife, Lisa. Chase noted that Greer, who is 50, has a baby born about four months ago, two other young children and a teenager.
Greer was charged with secretly creating Victory Strategies, a company that contracted with the state GOP to raise funds, and funneling more than $200,000 to the company.
Cox, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor named to head the statewide prosecutor's office by Attorney General Pam Bondi, said he did not discuss negotiations that led to the plea with Bondi or anyone outside of his office. "It was my call, in the end. I hope she is happy with me,'' Cox added.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet agreed there was a factual basis for the plea, noting that he has read all of the files and spent three years sitting through numerous hearings.
The plea brings an end to an acrimonious chapter in Republican politics. For three years Greer and his attorney have threatened to expose wrongdoing at the party and personally embarrass Crist.
The trial was to have included testimony from former Attorney General Bill McCollum, who initiated the investigation that led to the charges, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos and dozens of other party officials. Being hauled into court and questioned would have been something of a spectacle for a party that has dominated the state's political scene since the mid 1990s.
Crist said Monday that he would have been happy to testify if the trial proceeded, "to go over there and tell the truth."
"When people lie and steal, there is a price to pay," Crist said of Greer.
Republicans blame Crist, now a Democrat who is looking at a possible run for governor, for selecting Greer in the first place. And they were quick to pounce when word of the guilty plea spread Monday.
"For the past three years, Jim Greer has tried to damage the reputation of the Republican Party and its leaders, but the truth is now known that Jim Greer broke the law, stole from the (state party) and our donors, and then said and did everything he could to cover up and distract attention from his crimes,'' said Republican Party of Florida executive director Mike Grissom. "Everything Jim Greer has said and done over these past few years should be considered in that light.''
The biggest winners aside from statewide prosecutors, who emerge from the fight with pleas to five felonies, are likely those who made the now notorious trip to the Bahamas. Delmar Johnson, former executive director of the party was prepared to testify about prostitutes he saw at the 2008 gathering that included Crist, lobbyist Brian Ballard, former party finance chairman Harry Sargeant III and dozens of other big GOP donors.
Johnson, who helped create Victory Strategies with Greer, was granted immunity by prosecutors in exchange for testifying against his former boss.
"It's Finally Over!" Johnson posted in a statement on Twitter. "I'm looking forward to finally having the opportunity to fully tell my side of the story and move on with my life!"
Greer's plea, however, may not end the state Republican Party's brush with the criminal justice system. Federal prosecutors are pursuing an apparently unrelated investigation that touches GOP campaign contributions in North Florida.
Panhandle developer Jay Odom is scheduled to appear in federal court in Pensacola today and plead guilty to campaign finance violations in an investigation being conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section. The presence of Washington-based prosecutors generally signals a much broader investigation of public corruption.