Former office manager details Florida GOP's spending scandal

Delmar Johnson told the GOP office manager that she was being fired for leaking information. She later talked to authorities.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2008)

Delmar Johnson told the GOP office manager that she was being fired for leaking information. She later talked to authorities.

Long before criminal investigations shook the Republican Party of Florida, office manager Susan Wright noticed a problem: Higher-ups were spending party money to help themselves instead of the GOP.

Thousands of dollars were dropped at Las Vegas restaurants, a casino resort and a Wayne Newton concert. She saw thousands more in questionable expenses for trips and swank accommodations in Boston, Beverly Hills and Miami.

And she was among the first Republican staffers to voice concerns about a $200,000 party contract with a shell company called Victory Strategies, now at the center of fraud and theft charges against former chairman Jim Greer, who has pleaded not guilty.

Wright, 57, didn't know all the details, but fretted to her supervisors and co-workers that the party was running out of money and couldn't afford it all.

"I was told to keep my mouth shut," she said.

Wright didn't. So she was fired.

Now a witness in the state criminal case against Greer, Wright is breaking months of public silence to detail for the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald the problems she saw at party headquarters under Greer and his right-hand man, Delmar Johnson, who is avoiding jail time in return for testifying against Greer.

Wright had access to expense reports, contracts, pay information and vacation time for nearly every party worker. She saw firsthand internal party documents detailing the big charges, from $1,290 at the Palazzo Las Vegas Resort Hotel Casino to the nearly $5,000 that Greer and his wife, Lisa, spent for a getaway in exclusive Fisher Island, home of Gov. Charlie Crist's wife.

"Five-thousand friggin' dollars?" she exclaimed when she asked about the purpose of the expense.

She said she never got an answer, only demands and insinuations that she be silent.

The big party spending came to light this spring when the Times/Herald and other media obtained records of Republican leaders' party-issued American Express cards. But Wright says Greer and Johnson also frequently used their personal credit cards for expenses, such as the $243 in Wayne Newton "Before I Go" performance tickets, that were reimbursed by the party.

Investigative documents and some top Republicans confirm Wright was among the first insiders to raise red flags about the spending.

Weeks after she was fired in January, Wright was flown to West Palm Beach by the U.S. Attorney's Office to tell her story to a federal prosecutor, an FBI agent and an Internal Revenue Service official. Wright was interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in March.

Wright's observations not only helped investigators uncover alleged wrongdoing, but they also revealed a deep level of dysfunction in a political party that fostered a sense of entitlement among some top-ranking members and fear among the rank and file.

• • •

Wright started working for the Republican Party of Florida in September 2007, nine months after Crist made Greer chairman.

By the middle of 2009, Wright said, the party was so "broke" that it paid some of its bills with staffers' credit cards. Known in budgeting circles as using nonrecurring money to fund recurring expenses, that type of financial practice is decried year after year by Republican lawmakers just up the hill in the state Capitol.

Yet Greer, Johnson and members of their "little club" kept spending away, she said.

"If you were in the club, you got your meals picked up, trips and cigars," she said. "They loved to spend money on expensive cigars. … They ate good all the time: $95 lobsters, $100 steak dinners."

But there were also $20 to $30 almost-daily meals. "If we had stock in Po' Boys and the Black Bean, we'd be rich," she said of two Tallahassee haunts.

It seemed like whatever they saw, they had to buy — albeit with other people's money — to supplement a high-roller lifestyle that never neglected the little things.

"They couldn't go to a gas station without buying bottled water and snacks," she said. "Delmar loved souvenirs. He couldn't go to an airport without buying them — snow globes, whatever. … The chairman would buy three to four magazines, newspapers, any reading material for every trip."

Wright said Johnson had the party pay for a transcription service that typed out his voice mail messages and e-mailed them to his party-paid BlackBerry.

Johnson, 31, also hired about six fraternity brothers at $10 an hour, she said.

Greer, 48, surrounded himself with a party-funded entourage. She said he commanded that certain party employees staff personal events, such as his son's first birthday party in Cocoa Beach, where Republican insiders were encouraged to wear Winnie-the-Pooh birthday caps.

Johnson and other staffers used a mix of personal and party cards to pick up expenses for the birthday celebration, Wright said. When she questioned a staffer who expensed his mileage and meals as "voter outreach," he told Johnson, who hauled Wright into his office.

"Whether it's a party or not, whenever you do events with the chairman, it's work," she said Johnson told her, miffed that she wondered about his expenses as well. "It's nobody's business what I'm expensing."

Wright, who dealt more frequently with Johnson, said Greer had a similar attitude. But so did members of their "club."

"I'm tired of people saying we don't have the money. We have plenty of money," she said one staffer told her.

Wright said spending went "through the roof" in early 2009, when executive director Jim Rimes left and was replaced by Johnson. Rimes helped mind expenses and in 2008 snuffed a plan of Johnson's to spend about $12,000 on a replica of the White House desk known as the Resolute.

Later, as executive director, Johnson tried to get the party to pay for oil portraits of himself, Greer and Crist.

• • •

Less than a month after Greer promoted Johnson, investigators say, they created Victory Strategies, with Greer holding a secret 60 percent share of the company and Johnson 40 percent. The company, ostensibly a fundraising organization, then entered into a little-known agreement with the party to receive a portion of its donations. In all, investigators say, Victory Strategies took $200,000 from the party. In addition, Greer rang up $478,000 in American Express charges and Johnson charged $1.4 million.

Greer's attorney says he's innocent and is being set up by vengeful party leaders reneging on a $124,000 severance agreement. Johnson, who squealed on his former boss, faces no charges for his role, and his attorney describes him as a "whistle-blower" doing the right thing.

Though the case is being handled by a statewide grand jury on corruption, federal investigators have been asking questions about Greer, Johnson and other current and former allies of Crist.

Wright learned of the contract between the party and Victory Strategies — but not Greer's ownership interest — almost immediately. She complained to the party's chief financial officer, Richard Swarttz, who she says often told her to keep quiet.

"You are the CFO," she said she told Swarttz more than once. "You need to say enough is enough."

"I need to keep my job. If you don't keep your mouth shut, you're not going to keep yours," she said Swarttz responded.

"He did not stand up to the chairman," Wright said. "He would've been fired. He valued his job too much. He knew we were broke. Deep down, he didn't like what they were doing, but he felt there wasn't anything else he could do."

Swarttz declined to comment, but a party spokeswoman issued a statement noting that he "felt it was inappropriate for her (Wright), as an office manager with access to confidential information, to discuss her opinions on spending decisions that were directed by Jim Greer with employees and others outside of the accounting department. He was concerned for her job security should she continue to breach the confidential nature of her position."

Court documents in Greer's case indicate Swarttz frequently asked for more information about Victory Strategies. But he was repeatedly rebuffed.

Swarttz didn't complain too much because his boss was Johnson and, ultimately, Greer. Under the party structure, the treasurer and assistant treasurer of the party answered to the chairman.

"The place was run like the Gestapo was in charge," said Allen Cox, a Gulf County committeeman and frequent critic of Greer. Greer helped oust Cox as party vice president and chairman of the GOP's budget committee. Cox said that the party's "whole command structure failed," allowing Johnson and Greer to run amok, especially as Crist stood strongly behind the chairman.

• • •

Just a month before he was pressured to resign in January, Greer persuaded the party's executive board to cast a vote of confidence in him.

Around that time, word started to leak about Victory Strategies and Johnson zeroed in on Wright. Just before she left for Christmas break, Wright's party cell phone and computer access were shut off. No one would say why.

On Jan. 4, as Greer was attempting to ink a lucrative severance package, Wright met with Johnson and the party's attorney, Jason Gonzalez, and was fired. When she asked why, Johnson said "leaking information." But he did not elaborate.

Days later, Cox contacted her and she informed him about Victory Strategies. He told other Republicans, setting off a chain of bad press, party infighting and the forced resignation of Johnson.

Cox said the party should be embarrassed with Wright's firing and should take advantage of a new whistle-blower protection policy to hire her back.

"She was the real whistle-blower," Cox said. "She was the first to see irregularities in credit-card records, which I have confirmed. She saw Victory Strategies was suspicious and making immediate payments to Delmar, regardless of how little cash we had on hand. And when she started to talk about what was going on, she was summarily fired."

Wright today is unemployed. She lives on the outskirts of Tallahassee with her husband. She's trying not to be bitter about what happened and said she kept quiet for so long because she was told she could get her job back.

Now she at least wants the truth to come out about Greer and Johnson, who she said should face jail time along with the former chairman.

"I hope they're in the same boat as me," she said. "With no job and no money."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Former office manager details Florida GOP's spending scandal 07/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 10:22pm]

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