Crist distances himself from arrested former Republican party chairman Jim Greer

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist, who placed and protected Jim Greer at the helm of the Florida GOP, on Thursday denied knowing anything about a secret contract at the center of the six-count criminal fraud indictment against the former Republican leader.

Greer, 47, was arrested Wednesday, accused of defrauding the Republican Party and donors to a political committee by laundering $165,000 through a shell company called Victory Strategies.

"I didn't know anything about this Victory Strategies thing," Crist told the Times/Herald a day after saying, "I do not feel complicit," despite his close ties to Greer.

Pressed further, Crist maintained ignorance about Greer's troubles, giving terse answers and dodging further questions.

What did he know?

"Not much at all," said Crist, who left the Republican Party this spring amid his foundering campaign to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum also avoided talk about his involvement in the Greer matter, except to say the party needs an overhaul.

The denials and vague answers led to more questions and prompted political rivals to attack Crist and McCollum, saying the comments flunked the "smell test."

Greer spent the day huddled with his attorneys after his scheduled arraignment, his attorney Damon Chase said.

Greer is staying with family friends after the media descended on his Oviedo home, which state agents stormed Wednesday with guns drawn during his arrest.

In Tallahassee, the political fallout unfolded as more details emerged about the red flags Crist ignored concerning Greer.

At least three top GOP leaders approached Crist in private meetings with concerns about the chairman — all of which the governor dismissed.

"It appeared that (Greer) had the unequivocal support of the titular leader of the party," said state committee member Gary Lee, referring to Crist. "I think that suppressed a number of people from doing an aggressive inquiry."

Crist deflected a question about whether his indifference about Greer's management is a problem. "The concern I have," Crist said, pivoting, "is about trying to do what's right for the people of Florida."

The complaints about Greer began as early as May 2008 when Lee approached Crist in the kitchen of a Hyatt hotel at a GOP event and asked for a forensic audit of Greer's spending.

"His response was 'trust the chairman,' " Lee said. As a member of the audit committee, Lee received an anonymous envelope in December with the secret contract between the party and Victory Strategies. He gave it to McCollum in early January because of possible criminal implications.

A year later, McCollum approached Crist and asked him to remove Greer as chairman. Again Crist rebuffed the suggestion, McCollum aides said.

Problems surfaced as early as September, when Greer roped Crist into his mess, according to charging documents filed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, when the party paid Greer's company $30,000 for a poll supposedly conducted on behalf of Crist's U.S. Senate campaign.

Authorities later determined Greer lied, never conducted a poll and pocketed the money.

Unaware it was a bogus poll, the party's chief financial officer, Richard Swarttz, repeatedly called Crist's campaign accountant to try to collect a reimbursement.

Crist's campaign manager and former governor's office staff chief, Eric Eikenberg, ultimately refused to pay the bill because the campaign was unaware of a poll, the affidavit states.

Crist said Thursday he didn't know about the poll. "It's all very odd," he said.

In addition to this questionable charge, Greer ordered the party ("per the chairman") to pay his company bonuses on three occasions totaling $26,250.

Swarttz made the payments, apparently without question.

But state party officials defended Swarttz, saying he was following orders.

As criticism mounted against Greer and Crist for their management of the party, officials began to confront Greer in December.

One notable meeting came soon after party officials learned about the existence of Victory Strategies.

Greer signed a secret contract with his top deputy Delmar Johnson to skim 10 percent of all funds raised by the party into the shell company.

Eikenberg and Jim Rimes, a consultant to Crist's campaign and the party, met with Greer in his party office at the George H. W. Bush building on Meridian Street in Tallahassee. The party's general counsel, Jason Gonzalez, walked in and joined the conversation about politics and the pressures Greer was under. Then Gonzalez got to the point.

"Are you deriving any benefit from this?" he asked about the contract.

"No," Greer said.

The chairman identified Johnson as the lone beneficiary of the contract.

It wasn't until months later that the truth came out. Johnson, who is cooperating with authorities as part of a deal, told investigators that Greer had plotted with him to open the consulting firm, and file public documents that kept Greer's involvement secret.

Whether Eikenberg briefed Crist is unclear. He declined to comment.

But it is clear Crist stood by Greer, who resigned in February after three years as chairman. Crist's loyalty was a steadfast display that Republicans and political observers called odd, given that Greer was a growing problem for Crist, who had garnered a reputation for distancing himself from aides and allies who proved to be liabilities.

McCollum played a role in Greer's departure and facilitated the criminal investigation, but he wouldn't talk Thursday about the stream of party checks to Victory Strategies.

"Those are questions you need to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They did the investigation," he said. "There is no question that the management controls needed to be reformed. That's absolutely clear."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist distances himself from arrested former Republican party chairman Jim Greer 06/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 12:45am]

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