You could practically hear the gasp of relief from Florida Republican leaders Monday when ex-GOP chairman Jim Greer pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges, sparing them a sordid, two-week trial.
What a trial it could have been, a veritable reality show featuring testimony about lying political leaders, hookers, bitter vendettas, personal slush funds and secret contracts.
The whole sorry story of the Florida Republican Party under Jim Greer is exhibit A on how near-absolute power, combined with astronomical campaign accounts, can and did breed breathtaking arrogance and entitlement, if not outright corruption, among party leaders professing conservatism.
Don't buy the hogwash about this being an unfortunate chapter isolated to the tenure of one buffoonish chairman hand-picked by former Gov. Charlie Crist. That is as much nonsense as Greer's contention that he was the victim of intolerant Republican hard-liners out to destroy him because he supported Crist's moderate ways.
"Jim Greer was just a greedy little b------ who brought too much attention, too much heat, to the point that elected officials and some major donors finally wanted him gone,'' said Allen Cox, the former state party vice chairman who was ousted because of his long-stymied efforts to expose Greer's lavish spending.
"What we learned from Jim Greer is that the party has really morphed into a front for legislative fundraising and front for payments to consultants," Cox said Monday. "Nobody really cared about Jim Greer's spending. All he did was, by wicked excess and spending so much of that money, draw attention to himself. He was being too flashy, too obnoxious, too profligate. Had he not actually diverted funds into (an allegedly secret fundraising company), everything would have been washed over, and nothing would have become of it."
Let's stipulate a few things:
• Gov. Rick's Scott's hands are entirely clean in this mess. A newcomer to Florida politics, he had nothing to do with the state party before or during Greer's 2007-10 tenure. An explosive, ugly trial actually would have served him well, highlighting Crist's close association with Greer. The former governor was supposed to testify Thursday.
• The other statewide elected Republicans in Tallahassee — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — are also untainted.
• Crist, now a Democrat, may or may not have been seriously damaged by trial testimony, but he still is tarnished. If he runs for governor again, he has plenty to answer for. He anointed Greer party chairman and ignored repeated red flags while standing by him until the end. And in his legendary enthusiasm for raising campaign money, Crist repeatedly showed suspect judgment in embracing less than savory political benefactors: longtime friend Harry Sargeant, accused of war profiteering and illegal campaign donations; convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale; and Alan Mendelsohn of Hollywood, now serving a four-year sentence for public corruption.
• Sen. Marco Rubio's name may not have surfaced during the trial, but he epitomized the culture of the state GOP in recent years as much as anyone. As legislative leaders today talk about reforming the campaign finance system, so politicians can no longer operate personal slush funds, they are talking about Rubio and plenty of others.
The leading candidate for president in 2016 used his party credit card to charge everything from groceries to personal flights to family reunion expenses — charges for which he had to reimburse the party after they were exposed by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.
Rubio has declined to release two years of earlier party credit card statements, so we don't know the scope of his spending. But he has never denied telling a disenchanted former supporter, political analyst Chris Ingram of Tampa, that during that period he charged to the party card — and later paid off, he told Ingram — $4,000 to $5,000 in new flooring for his home.
Greer will long be remembered as representing a dark period in the Florida GOP. But he was merely the fruition of a political culture that grew accustomed to pulling in massive special interest campaign donations and felt it was their money to spend as they saw fit.
Nobody batted an eye when Crist and Greer decided to pay a 35-year-old fundraising consultant, Meredith O'Rourke, $30,000 a month regardless of how much money she brought in.
Nor when former House Speaker Ray Sansom's 25-year-old aide charged $1.3 million to her party credit card over 2½ years, including tens of thousands of dollars for Sansom and his wife traveling in London. Or former House speaker-turned lobbyist Dean Cannon's $280,000 in private plane trips.
When you're swimming in money, and corporate interests don't care how you spend their largess so long as they have easy access to Tallahassee decision-makers, the limos, private jets, $600-a-night hotels and $1,000 dinners become routine. Those who call it unseemly simply don't understand the hard work that goes into filling campaign accounts.
The worst kept secret in Tallahassee is that legislative leaders in the state House and Senate — Republicans and Democrats alike — raise unlimited amounts of money for themselves or their allies under the umbrella of the parties.
Among other things, it prevents the public from monitoring who raised the party money and who spent it. Not until a Greer legal fight emerges to remove the cloak of anonymity, or as happened in this case, someone leaks internal credit card statements, does the extent of the extravagance and sleaze become public.
"The real justice out of all this,'' said former vice chairman Cox, "will come when we see the party out of the money laundering business and Swiss bank account business for legislative leaders."