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Jim Greer's downfall as RPOF chairman came slowly, steadily

The noose had been tightening around Jim Greer for weeks by the time old protege and right-hand man Delmar Johnson finally returned his calls.

Law enforcement was snooping around. Rumors were rampant about imminent arrests. Blogs and newspapers featured fellow Republicans — former friends and fellow party leaders, for God's sake — trashing Greer and accusing him of illegal activity.

Some of his most adamant defenders had stopped taking calls, and people whispered that even Johnson was throwing Greer under the bus to investigators. So when Johnson finally phoned on March 25, the former Florida Republican Party chairman sounded wary and relieved.

"(I heard) that I was going to be indicted and I was going to be arrested and .... that you were cooperating with people, which is almost a joke,'' Greer, 48, told his friend and godfather to his son. "Because, like, what would you or I be cooperating with — except with each other?"

"Exactly,'' assured former state GOP executive director Johnson, 31, never letting on during the nearly hour-long call that investigators were secretly recording it.

"We need to sit down and get back on track and neither one of us has to worry about the other person,'' Greer said later in the conversation, after the two vented about all they'd done for the GOP and all the party leaders turning on them.

"You never have to worry about me,'' Johnson responded.

• • •

Records released this week by state prosecutors suggest Greer had plenty of worries long before June 2 when law enforcement agents led him from his Orlando-area home in double-locked handcuffs. He's accused of siphoning tens of thousands of dollars from the party and charged with six felony counts of grand theft, money laundering and organized fraud.

An attorney for Greer declined to comment for this article.

The obscure activist that Gov. Charlie Crist had tapped for party chairman in 2007 was widely described as a self-made success who got rich helping restaurants and clubs navigate state alcohol regulators.

Greer sold that business after taking over the party, however, and it wasn't long before he started complaining to people that he was financially strapped after bad investments. He quickly took note of the $30,000-per-month fundraising contract for Meredith O'Rourke, who had helped Crist blow all money-raising records in the governor's race and then became the state party's finance director.

"O'Rourke indicated that Chairman Greer immediately was jealous of her relationship with Gov. Crist. Greer subsequently informed O'Rourke that she was no longer allowed to talk to Gov. Crist, speak with Gov. Crist on the telephone, any call time with the governor had be coordinated through him (Greer),'' according to investigators.

By the early summer of 2007, Greer told O'Rourke that the governor was considering him to be chief of staff. Greer called it a good opportunity to "gain more power," she told investigators, though Crist wound up picking Eric Eikenberg to replace George LeMieux as the top staffer in the governor's office.

The investigation records make clear O'Rourke could not stand the chairman.

"O'Rourke claimed that Greer made inappropriate sexually related comments in her presence. O'Rourke gave an example of being in a group including Greer, wherein Greer made the comment that if he gave her (O'Rourke) a contract, she'd have an orgasm and if he gave her a credit card contract, she'd have two orgasms,'' the report shows.

In one case, Greer organized a men-only trip to the Bahamas along with a group of major donors. O'Rourke was forbidden from attending, though Greer brought two male party staffers.

Beth Kigel, a lobbyist, fundraiser and member of the state party executive committee from Palm Beach County, told investigators she also had heard about that men-only trip but that "women were involved and paid."

Meanwhile, Greer found other sources of revenue. He had been complaining for months about his personal financial problems to state finance chairman Harry Sargeant, a multimillionaire who in early 2008 started paying Greer — $10,000 a month "so he did not have to continue hearing Greer complain about his financial problems."

Greer also landed a $7,500-per-month side contract with Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming Center of Broward County to help win tax breaks the company wanted for its slot machines. A company official said Greer was paid only a few months.

Despite the party raising Greer's salary from $95,000 annually to $130,000, Greer continued to complain of financial problems. At the same time a growing chorus of critics through 2009 questioned Greer's spending habits and accountability.

Greer eventually fired O'Rourke and, investigators say, he and Johnson set up a company called Victory Strategies that would take 10 percent of all the money they raised. Witness after witness — from Gov. Crist to the party's treasurer and accountant and officers — said they did not know Greer had a stake in Victory Strategies.

Office manager Susan Wright was among the first insiders to raise concerns about spending by Greer and Johnson — and her reward eventually was to get fired. She told investigators that Johnson routinely turned in doctored receipts, while Greer used expensive charter planes on trips as short as Orlando to Tampa.

When she discovered in January a copy of the party's contract with Victory Strategies, she asked her boss, chief financial officer Richard Swarttz, about it. Swarttz told her to be quiet about it, and not long after she was fired. Swarttz told authorities he only knew Johnson had a stake in Victory Strategies.

State GOP Vice Chairman Allen Cox for months had been challenging Greer's financial management, but with little support from other party officials. Finally, even long supportive legislative leaders turned on him and Greer lost his job. Cox was forced to resign, too.

• • •

Speaking on the recorded line to Delmar Johnson in late March, Greer noted that only a few party leaders were talking to him.

"Why do you think people are treating us this way?'' Greer asked.

"They're, you know, I guess looking out for themselves,'' Johnson said.

"Well, that's why you need to get down here and stay for a night."

"Yeah, yeah,'' Johnson responded. "...I'll get down there. Thanks, Jim. ..Kiss my godson for me."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Jim Greer's downfall as RPOF chairman came slowly, steadily 06/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 11:20pm]
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