GOP turmoil stirs talk of bringing back 'leadership funds'

In the days after the Florida GOP chairman resigned under mounting criticism of his spending, nearly $1 million in donations was quietly stashed into two little-known committees tied to legislative leaders.

A party spokeswoman said Tuesday that Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer had approved the money transfers, and one of the lawmakers, incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, called them "common practice." He said the money represents a small portion of the donations collected for the party by him, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon and the leading Republican candidate for governor, Attorney General Bill McCollum.

"If we wanted to hide something we wouldn't have put the money into a committee with my name on it," said Haridopolos, whose Alliance for a Stronger Economy received nearly $295,000 one week after Greer was forced out in January.

But the size of the money transfers and their timing are the latest signs of disorder in the traditionally united Florida GOP. The committee associated with Cannon, the Florida Liberty Fund, received two checks from the party last month totaling $665,000.

The turmoil is prompting some state legislators to reconsider a decades-old law that bans them from earmarking pots of party money they raised for their own use. With the party in disarray, so-called "leadership funds'' would allow top legislators to keep tabs on the donations they collect — and steer them to their political allies.

Legalizing leadership funds "would legitimize the process by which a few members of the Legislature consolidate power and hold their members in line," said Ben Wilcox, a board member of Common Cause Florida.

Outlawed more than 20 years ago, leadership funds are now being cast as campaign finance reform. Instead of legislators quietly tracking the money they raise for the party, proponents say, leadership funds would allow legislators to identify the party donations they collected and direct how they are spent.

"You can hold the people's names who are attached to it accountable," Senate President Jeff Atwater said. "I think transparency is the best way."

But Atwater and other Republican leaders are willing to go only so far in the name of transparency. Few are taking up the call from some grass roots activists for the party to release credit card statements that would expose itemized spending by top staffers and legislators.

"I don't think everything the party does should be open to the public and the press," McCollum said. A spokeswoman said he never had a party credit card.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he agreed with state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, McCollum's Republican rival for governor, that the credit card charges should be exposed.

"Transparency's always a good thing," Crist said. "I didn't have one of those credit cards, for the record."

Neither of the leading candidates to replace Greer, state Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine and longtime activist Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale, have said they would release the credit card statements. It's unclear if the money taken out of the party coffers last month would be returned after the new party chief is elected Feb. 20.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Shannon Colavecchio, Mary Ellen Klas and John Frank contributed to this report.

GOP turmoil stirs talk of bringing back 'leadership funds' 02/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 12:15am]

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