TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's handpicked former GOP chairman is the subject of a criminal inquiry concerning a secret contract that funneled party money to a consulting company he owned, the state's top law enforcement agency disclosed Wednesday.
But the investigation of Jim Greer is complicated by the subsequent disclosure that Republican Party officials offered him a severance package at the time of his departure that appeared to absolve him of any financial wrongdoing and pay him $124,000 to remain as a consultant for a year.
The previously undisclosed severance documents, obtained Wednesday by the Times/Herald, were signed by top party officials, including current party chairman John Thrasher and leading lawmakers who helped oust Greer amid intense concerns he used the party coffers as a personal slush fund.
"All RPOF expenditures made during Chairman Greer's term as RPOF Chairman were proper, lawful, appropriate," the Jan. 4 severance document states. It also specifically clears Greer of any questionable purchases put on the party's credit card.
Jason Gonzalez, the party's lawyer, said Greer never signed the agreement, so it is invalid. Internal party documents show party officials revoked the severance offer Feb. 17. Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, argues the agreement is binding, and the documents obtained by the Times/Herald include Greer's signature.
"As we have previously stated, no agreement was fully executed," Gonzalez said. "We haven't made any payments and we never will."
Gonzalez said another letter, signed by the party's treasurer approving of Greer's financial management, was fraudulently acquired.
One day before the criminal investigation was announced, Greer's attorney further asserted that associates of incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Speaker-designate Dean Cannon offered to pay Greer $200,000 of "hush money" to stay quiet about the agreement, according to a copy of the letter sent to the party.
Cannon called the assertion "outrageous."
The investigation and the disclosure of the severance documents is a major election-year embarrassment for state Republicans, a once disciplined and powerful force that now finds itself embroiled in controversy as voters consider whether to vote for GOP candidates this fall.
Greer stepped aside days before party leaders planned to vote him from office. Party officials continually denied the existence of a severance agreement. Greer made a show last summer by cutting up an American Express card to stem the criticism. But internal records show the heavy spending continued — on the card held by former party executive director Delmar Johnson. Among other items, the party paid for $100 flower arrangements for the wives of Greer and Crist; thousands of dollars in meals; and $15,000 to charter a jet to George LeMieux's swearing in as a U.S. senator.
Greer's three-year reign atop the party ended in February after months of questioning by grass roots activists about lavish party spending and the disclosure of a lucrative contract through a stealth company for Johnson, his loyal aide.
The contract paid Johnson a 10 percent commission on all major donations to the state party, padding his $103,000 salary with $260,000 and another $42,000 in expenses.
But Greer's involvement wasn't known until party auditors conducted their annual review and discovered that he owned 60 percent of the company — Victory Strategies LLC — and Johnson owned 40 percent. The audit revealed that the company received $133,005 in fundraising commissions and another $66,250 for consulting services in 2009.
Thrasher, the party's leader, referred the matter on March 15 to Attorney General Bill McCollum, who asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate.
"The Republican Party of Florida may have been the victim of illegal criminal activity," Thrasher said in a statement disclosing findings of the audit.
Crist, who put Greer at the helm after being elected in 2006, publicly stood by him to the end, despite stories that he chartered private jets and spent thousands of dollars on meals.
Crist told the Times/Herald that he "heard rumors" that Greer owned a stake in the company but just learned of the audit after its release.
"I find it terribly disturbing to hear, but I know that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will certainly conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation," he said.
Asked if the investigation could tarnish leading Republicans, Crist, who's trailing in polls as a U.S. Senate candidate, said: "I certainly hope that it does not. The acts of individuals are the acts of individuals, and that is for the people to decide."
Greer's attorney released a statement calling the allegations a "political vendetta" designed to avoid the legal settlement to pay Greer.
Florida political consultant Rick Wilson, a supporter of Crist's rival for the U.S. Senate nomination, Marco Rubio, said this would void Crist's ability to attack Rubio as a corrupt big-spender when Greer, his close friend, "used the party like his own ATM."
The Florida Democratic Party renewed its call for Crist to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the state Republican Party. Chairman Karen Thurman also wants an inquiry to include the party's American Express "slush fund and the Republican politicians like Marco Rubio, Jeff Atwater and Dean Cannon, who lived large on the RPOF's dime."
Rubio, who served as House speaker when Greer was chairman, issued a statement saying he was "deeply troubled" by the news but declined to comment further because of the open criminal investigation.
Times/Herald Staff Writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo and Lee Logan contributed to this report.