With polls showing his U.S. Senate rival on his heels, Gov. Charlie Crist reversed course Friday and said he would return all campaign donations from employees of the law firm formerly headed by accused con man Scott Rothstein.
Crist had previously returned only $9,600 from Rothstein and his wife. His campaign said Friday he was "in the process'' of returning $76,250 from 35 employees of Rothstein, Rosenfeldt Adler in Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm not clairvoyant," Crist told the Miami Herald editorial board. "But once you find out what has occurred, then you do have this duty to return it, and if there are others that are tied to it, return it as well, and we're going to do that."
Crist's change of heart comes more than two weeks after Rothstein was charged with multiple counts of racketeering. Federal officials said the law firm had been paying employees with tainted money and that some lawyers had been illegally reimbursed for making campaign donations.
But until now, Crist was unwilling to return money traced to the firm. At the same time, he was calling for a grand jury investigation into public corruption. The state Supreme Court approved his request on Dec. 2.
The Rothstein scandal has been playing out in a number of statewide races. A long-shot Democratic candidate for the Senate seat, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, has tried to gain traction in the race by decrying Crist's past refusal to return all money tied to Rothstein's firm. After Crist's announcement Friday, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink — the Democratic frontrunner for governor — said she, too, will give back money from Rothstein's associates, who contributed at least $7,025.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, who is running for Sink's job, said last week that he would return all money tied to Rothstein.
Crist's comments about Rothstein came during a broader conversation about public corruption, "particularly in South Florida, unfortunately." He said cracking down on corruption would be a priority for him during the 2010 legislative session and that the Florida Ethics Commission should have the power to investigate allegations raised in news reports. Currently, the commission cannot begin an investigation without a complaint.
Crist also responded to questions about the growing clamor for Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer to resign amid allegations of misspending. Some activists say Greer is dragging down party fundraising as well as Crist's chances to defeat his Republican rival, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.
"I think they're wrong," Crist said. " I think he's doing a good job. People can get ginned up on an issue without having all the facts."
Crist listed jobs, public safety and public education as his top priorities for the upcoming legislative session. He said he was "grateful'' to receive federal stimulus dollars, which he said saved more than 20,000 education jobs this year. He added that he hoped Florida would get additional funding through the federal Race to the Top initiative, which could mean up to $700 million to Florida schools.
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.