Junior Florida Republican Party staffer had $1.3 million charged to party credit card

She was a 25-year-old junior staffer when the Florida Republican Party gave her an American Express card.

Over the next 2½ years, nearly $1.3 million in charges wound up on Melanie Phister's AmEx — $40,000 at a London hotel, and nearly $20,000 in plane tickets for indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom, his wife and kids, for starters. Statements show thousands spent on jewelry, sporting goods and in one case $15,000 for what's listed as a month-long stay at a posh Miami Beach hotel, but which the party says was a forfeited deposit.

The credit card records, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, offer the latest behind-the-scenes look at extravagant and free-wheeling spending by the party touting fiscal restraint. Not only did certain elite legislative leaders have their own party credit cards to spend donors' money with little oversight, but Phister's records show these leaders also liberally used an underling's card — without her knowledge, she says.

"I did not have the sole discretion to initiate credit card spending," Phister said in an e-mail statement. "Over that period of time, there were multiple instances when the card was used to make purchases that I had no knowledge of, and I did not regularly review the monthly credit card statements which I understand were sent directly to the Party's accounting office."

Even after a series of embarrassing revelations over profligate credit card spending by the likes of Republican U.S. Senate frontrunner Marco Rubio, Sansom and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon — and pending state and federal investigations of party finances — revelations of the huge charges on Phister's card had veteran GOP fundraisers apoplectic.

"Oh my God. I can't believe it,'' said Al Hoffman, a top fundraiser from Fort Myers, when told of the $1.258 million on Phister's card. "See, that's it. They have an underling do it all. There's no reason a young assistant should be ringing up charges like that."

Phister served as finance director for state House campaigns for 2½ years starting in mid 2006.

She was a Republican Party employee who mainly answered to Sansom, R-Destin, speaker-designate at the time and overseeing House campaign operations. The job involved planning fundraising events and often accompanying Sansom and other legislative leaders on fundraising and other political trips.

Sansom was indicted by a grand jury last year for inserting $6 million into the state budget for an airport building that a friend and GOP contributor, Jay Odom, wanted to use as an airplane hangar. That criminal investigation revealed that Sansom charged more than $170,000 on his party-issued credit card — everything from plane tickets for his family to clothes to electronics.

Turns out Sansom spent heavily on Phister's card as well.

Her credit card statements include at least four sets of plane tickets for Sansom, his wife and four kids. He also ordered Phister to accompany him on a trade trip to London in the summer of 2008. Phister brought her mother along at Sansom's encouragement, and Phister's GOP AmEx saw plenty of action: nearly $40,000 at a London hotel, and more than $3,600 in sightseeing expenses.

"I can't believe it. Someone should be hanged for that," Mark Guzzetta, a Boca Raton developer who has raised millions of dollars for Republicans, said of the party allowing so much spending on a low-level staffer's card.

Republican legislative leaders during that period were raising many millions of dollars, and they note that it costs money to raise money. So such Phister expenses as $1,200 for Broadway tickets in New York, or $19,000 at the Water Club restaurant during a different New York City trip may have been for evenings that raised many times that much.

Neither Phister nor the party would discuss the credit card statements in detail, citing pending state and criminal federal investigations into its financial activities as well as an exhaustive "forensic audit" of party spending about to get under way.

"The Republican Party of Florida has hired the firm Alston +Bird LLP to conduct an independent forensic investigation of the party's finances. Members of the firm's Special Matters and Investigations staff will review questionable credit card expenses to determine whether or not the party may have been the victim of improper financial dealings,'' said Florida Republican Party spokeswoman Katie Betta.

"If the audit reveals any inappropriate expenses that have not been reimbursed to the party, we will seek to collect compensation from the individuals who incurred the expense."

Judging what's an appropriate expense may be subjective.

For instance, Phister's AmEx shows $10,000 to a watch company in California in August 2008. Republican donors paid for Sansom to present every legislator, Democrat and Republican alike, with a memento watch.

Phister's card paid for nearly $650,000 in lodging, $60,000 in airfare — mostly commercial airlines — and $66,000 for charter planes. The statements show Republican donors also paid for plane tickets to Germany for Phister and her mother.

Phister declined to discuss those tickets, though the party said the trip was part of the expense of accompanying Sansom to Europe. Now 28, Phister parlayed her insider access to become a well-funded public employee, now earning about $70,000 yearly working for the Florida House of Representatives as a scheduler for special projects.

The Florida Democratic Party requires staffers and leaders to use their own credit cards and seek reimbursement for appropriate expenses. That's now the practice at the Florida Republican Party, and fundraiser Hoffman suggested it's about time.

"My company, with 4,000 employees, nobody had credit cards,'' said Hoffman, a developer. "If you wanted to expense, you had to submit a form with backup. . . . It wasn't one employee taking another out to eat and charging it all off."

Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard and Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Junior Florida Republican Party staffer had $1.3 million charged to party credit card 04/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 7:35pm]

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