Campaign finance reports show Charlie Crist's struggling U.S. Senate campaign has enjoyed some questionable expenses on the Florida Republican Party's American Express account.
The disclosures come at a time when Crist has been hammering rival Marco Rubio for inappropriate expenses on his state party credit card when he was state House speaker.
And the records bolster the complaint by many party activists that for months the state Republican Party served as an offshoot of the Crist campaign.
On Wednesday, the Crist campaign acknowledged, for instance, that ousted former state party chairman Jim Greer was the first person to reach out to the woman Crist hired as his campaign communications director. The party charged more than $1,000 on the state GOP's credit card to fly Andrea Saul down to a Crist campaign meeting in Orlando in October.
"The reason Marco Rubio is the next United States senator is because Jim Greer turned the Republican Party of Florida into the Republican Party of Charlie Crist," said Pinellas Republican state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, recounting the grass roots outcry when Greer tried to invoke an arcane party rule to formally endorse Crist.
The Crist campaign also reported nearly $17,000 in "reimbursement" to the state party's credit card, which three experts called a potential violation of federal campaign finance law. State parties are not allowed to contribute, advance or loan a federal candidate more than $5,000 in a primary.
Even if the Crist campaign promptly paid off the party's credit card charge "the Federal Election Commission would likely find that an advance in excess of $5,000 resulted in an excessive contribution," said Washington lawyer Chris Gober, a former general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Crist on Wednesday was hard pressed to explain why campaign expenses wound up on the credit card of former state GOP executive director Delmar Johnson.
"I don't know," the governor said. "He wasn't requested to, and he shouldn't have."
That $17,000 payment to the party's credit card was to pay for T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise that had been printed for a state GOP fishing trip-fundraiser in Key West.
Initially billed as the "Annual Charlie Crist Fishing Tournament," the party changed the name to downplay Crist's role after he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in order not to run afoul of federal campaign finance laws. The party printed new memorabilia for the donors who paid as much as $25,000 to fish alongside the governor.
"We paid to take the items off their hands," Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said of the unusable Crist Fishing Tournament material. He stressed that the fishing trip hosted by GOP fundraiser and developer Rodney Barreto of Miami was a state party fundraising weekend, not a Crist campaign event.
Federal records indicate Crist's Senate campaign took in nearly $260,000 over that same weekend, including $9,600 from Barreto and his wife.
Ben Ginsberg, Crist's campaign lawyer, brushed off questions about election law violations.
"It's probably better for the (campaign) to actually do the purchasing themselves, but there's not a violation because there was never a check written. … The state party never laid out any money," Ginsberg said. "Whoever's pushing this to get you to forget about Marco Rubio's transgressions is wrong."
Crist's campaign, which used to be headquartered at the state GOP office in Tallahassee, already is facing a Federal Election Commission complaint alleging improper collusion between the campaign and party. That came after a senior Crist adviser and state GOP consultant was found to have created an anonymous Web site attacking Rubio.
Greer and his top deputies also frequently joined Crist on his out-of-state fundraising trips to places like Las Vegas, where records show the party picked up no donations.
In June, when Crist attended a money-raising reception in Atlanta, the party paid an Atlanta fundraising consulting firm nearly $5,000. The party received no donations from Georgia that month, but a party spokesman said that consultant works on out-of-state fundraising for the Florida GOP.
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