Gov. Charlie Crist personally signed off on his former Republican Party chairman's confidential fundraising role with the state party, according to Jim Greer's attorney, whose allegation contradicts the governor's statement that he "didn't know anything" about the deal now part of a criminal investigation.
State investigators say Greer and the party's former executive director, Delmar W. Johnson III, secretly set up a shell company called Victory Strategies to divert party money and enrich themselves. Greer was charged Wednesday with fraud and money laundering.
But Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, said Saturday that the deal giving them a 10 percent cut of party donations was legal. What's more, Chase said Crist's former right-hand man, now U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, first proposed the idea that they earn a fundraising commission to save the party money and replace the $30,000-a-month contract with fundraiser Meredith O'Rourke.
"You guys work hard. You deserve it," Chase said Greer was told by the governor as they played pool in February 2009 at a Palm Beach golf tournament.
Crist, an independent candidate for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, said Saturday that he didn't know about Victory Strategies until after Greer resigned in January. He said he knew Greer wanted to replace O'Rourke with Johnson, but was unaware that they set up a separate company and that Greer had a stake in it.
"Jim thought a change would be a good idea, and I said, 'Whatever you think needs to be done, and if you need to bring in Delmar, that's fine,' " Crist said.
How could he not have known about Victory Strategies as the head of the party? "I'm the guy in charge of the state," said Crist, who was in Pensacola on Saturday responding to the Gulf Coast oil spill. "I've got a state to run, and that's my focus."
LeMieux said it was not true that he came up with the idea for the company. "I first learned about it when I read about it in the newspapers" earlier this year, he said Saturday. He said he was only aware that Johnson could earn more money if he met fundraising targets.
For Greer to point a finger at Crist and LeMieux, his political benefactors who stood by him for months amid cries for his ouster, amounts to yet another dramatic twist in a scandal that has tainted the Florida GOP and roiled the 2010 election season.
His attorney's statements to the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times will provide ammunition to Crist's chief Senate rivals, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek, who have repeatedly raised doubts that Crist was in the dark.
"It is unfortunate but not surprising that in a state of desperation and disarray, the former chairman would make such frivolous allegations," said LeMieux spokesman Carlos Curbelo. "People should take responsibility for their own actions instead of unfairly seeking to tarnish the reputations of others."
Chase said Greer and Crist discussed the fundraising deal at least three times last year: at the golf tournament in February, over the summer; and in the fall at the Fisher Island home of the governor's wife.
"The governor knew about Victory Strategies from the very beginning," Chase said. "They all worked on it together. … They saw it as a way to save money."
State prosecutors see it as stealing and have charged Greer with six felony counts of theft, money laundering and fraud for skimming more than $125,000 from the party's coffers. Johnson, who is cooperating with prosecutors and is not charged with a crime, received about $65,000.
During his tenure as chairman of the state's Republican Party, Greer was having personal financial problems and "pleaded for financial help" from an unidentified party donor, who sent him $10,000 a month for more than 18 months, according to law enforcement records.
The Times/Herald has learned that the donor was the party's former finance chairman and a college buddy of Crist's, Harry Sargeant. The Palm Beach County businessman stepped down from his party post in January 2009, shortly before his business associate was indicted on federal charges of funneling illegal contributions to candidates, including Crist and former presidential nominee John McCain.
Sargeant traveled frequently with Greer during the two years he raised money for the party. He said he didn't ask Greer for details of his financial problems and didn't ask for any favors in return for the monthly payments. The checks stopped in September, Sargeant told the Times/Herald.
Why did he do it?
"He was a friend," Sargeant said, adding that he did not ask Greer to pay him back or discuss the payments with Crist.
Sargeant declined to comment on whether he has spoken to law enforcement. He is not charged in the Greer case.
Chase said there was nothing wrong with Sargeant's payments to Greer, which he described as consulting fees.
Crist said he thought it was possible that Sargeant was sending Greer money but didn't know the details. "I had no idea" he was having financial problems, Crist said. "I thought he was a wealthy man."
Greer was a little-known council member in Oviedo who had worked on Crist's 2006 campaign for governor when he was tapped to lead the Republican Party of Florida. Allegations that he used party money to live a life of luxury forced him to step down in January.