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Florida GOP chief flies into a bind over plane bills

TALLAHASSEE — When Jim Greer assumed control of the Republican Party of Florida last year with a push from Gov. Charlie Crist, he decided the best way to get around the state was by air — in his own airplane.

And that hasn't been cheap, as recent e-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show.

By last month, Greer had racked up more than $85,000 in unpaid bills with an aviation service, prompting the service to discontinue work on Greer's plane until he paid up.

"I would say the costs associated with owning a plane and utilizing it have exceeded anything that I would have anticipated," Greer said.

Greer, eager to travel the state to boost his profile and build the party's grass roots network, bought a 30-year-old Piper Navajo with his own money and put it in the name of his firm, Red State Holdings.

Like many plane owners who aren't pilots, he hired a charter service, Baer Air of Melbourne, which provides pilots, fuel, maintenance and repairs. The party contacts Baer Air when it needs the plane for Greer to travel, and receives a discounted rate, Greer said.

But when Greer asked Baer Air to install a new cabinet in the plane at a cost of $1,500, Baer refused and demanded money, according to internal party e-mails obtained by the Times.

"As you currently owe Baer Air over $85,000 it is hard for me to approve spending more money without the promise of at least some payment from you toward the outstanding balances," company official Carla Baer wrote to Greer May 14.

"Of course, should the Republican Party of Florida manage to come up with a significant payment toward their outstanding balance, I will have the money in the bank to order your cabinet," she wrote.

Baer said in an interview that she was "very frustrated" at the time, and that it was Greer, not the Republican Party, responsible for the debt. She confirmed Greer's account that invoices intended for Greer had gotten lost.

Greer replied that he would send $25,000 that day, and he and the company say everything is resolved.

Greer said he's paying the overdue money for a replacement engine, avionics and other items, because he's responsible for maintenance. As the party boss seeks to raise millions of dollars in what looks like a tough election year for Republicans, he wants it known that the plane's overhead is his burden, not the party's.

"I'm not concerned about this being inappropriate in any way," Greer said. "The dispute has been resolved."

Greer keeps the plane in Sanford, near his suburban Orlando home, and said he uses it mostly for party travel. He contends his plane's discounted rate is cheaper for the party than hiring other charter jets.

Other e-mails suggest confusion over whether Greer's travel is political or personal.

On May 20, Carla Baer said in an e-mail that the party "kicked back" and refused to pay a bill for a May 19 Greer trip to the Keys. "Submit, this was (to) HQ in Monroe, pay it," Greer said in an e-mail to his staff.

Greer's predecessor, Carole Jean Jordan, said buying a plane makes sense, as long as the GOP can afford it.

"He travels a great deal, and if he finds that's easier for him and is able to raise the money for it, I certainly support that," Jordan said. "It's all about raising the money."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida GOP chief flies into a bind over plane bills 06/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 1:48pm]
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