TALLAHASSEE — The man who blew the whistle on former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer is now calling foul on House Speaker Will Weatherford's self-described campaign finance reform.
"It's the same old money laundering and money hiding approach that's been in place as long as I can remember in Florida politics,'' said Allen Cox, former vice chairman of the Republican Party and the man who exposed Greer's secret strategy to steal party funds.
Cox said he hoped Greer's case would serve as a catalyst to end the tradition of legislators using party funds to skirt state law and live lavish lifestyles. Greer on Monday pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges for setting up a consulting firm and steering party money to his personal account.
A bill moving through the House attempts to crack down on political slush funds known as Committees for Continuous Existence, which legislators use to cut themselves checks and get around a 10-year-old law that bans legislators from accepting meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists. The proposal bans the committees and imposes new disclosure rules on spending done by political committees and candidates. The legislation is a priority for Weatherford.
Absent from the bill, however, are any rules that would require the state's two dominant political parties to disclose details of how they spend millions of dollars in contributions. Cox thinks that will encourage legislative leaders to continue to use their parties to finance dinners, travel and entertainment — and escape public scrutiny.
"If we really want to have sunshine for campaign finance reform, we should eliminate the massive loophole that allows the speaker and president to raise funds on behalf of the party, park them at the party and then dictate to the party how and where they will be spent,'' Cox said. "This is the delicate issue that has been skirted for years and years and years and years."
So how does this relate to Jim Greer?
When Greer started running out of money in the general state party account and faced a $1.3 million deficit, he dipped into the legislator-controlled accounts and tapped $3.6 million, said Cox, who served as RPOF budget chairman for eight years, including during Greer's tenure.
When Cox and another RPOF committee member started asking questions, they discovered Greer's secret consulting contract to steer money to himself and his deputy, Delmar Johnson.
Cox thinks that the legislators' funds should never have existed in the first place. "If you want to get rid of CCEs fine, but let's take care of the real elephant in the room and close that loophole,'' he said.
Under Florida law, political parties may accept unlimited sums from large donors and corporations, but may not earmark the money for either the House or Senate.
Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, however, defend the party practices, as do other former speakers of the House.
"First of all, the problem was Jim Greer was stealing money and he's probably going to jail,'' Weatherford said. "When it comes to the Republican Party, there's a difference between a fly-by-night CCE that's created for a specific purpose — maybe it's a TV ad or a mail piece — versus a Republican or a Democratic party that has an elected body.''
Parties are accountable to executive committees, elected officials, auditing reviews, whereas political committees can spring up and be accountable to no one, he said.
Gaetz, who has also made cleaning up the state's ethics and elections laws a top priority, thinks the existing system includes significant accountability. "Not a penny goes out for any kind of Senate campaign-related expense that I don't agree to, and not a penny is raised that is not raised under my watch," he said.
But for Cox and ethics advocates, the notion that Gaetz can control his share of the budget but not disclose his expenditures, is part of the problem.
The Republican Party of Florida "is a very convenient place to park money," Cox said. "Rather than having to document the type of expenses that are prohibited from the last finance reform — meals and gifts and trips — now it can be washed through the party umbrella.''
When parties report their expenditures, they mingle their spending for various political campaigns into one, making it impossible to determine who gave money to the House, Senate or governor. In the last two months of 2012, for example, the RPOF paid $75,606 to American Express for expenses by undisclosed individuals.
Former House Speaker John Thrasher, who became head of the RPOF when Greer was forced to resign, said he ended the lavish expenditures members enjoyed and cut up the credit cards. But the party still foots the bill for many lawmaker meals without a clear line of disclosure.
Last week, the Times/Herald found six senators at a Tallahassee restaurant meeting with a lobbyist and the head of the Florida Ophthalmology Association. Rather than pay for the meal, the group charged it to the Republican Party, and Senate Republican leader Lizbeth Benacquisto described it as a "thank-you dinner" because the ophthalmologists raised money for them.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Shores, said she believes the current system of CCEs works to the advantage of challengers to RPOF leadership because it allows them to track who gives what to whom. If they eliminate CCEs and don't require parties to link the contributions to the spending, "money will get washed through the party,'' Margolis said. The party will "report the expenditure but you just won't know exactly who it is."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas on Twitter.