Republican Party of Florida releases $7.3 million in American Express statements

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist took chartered helicopters and his wealthy wife let the Republican Party pay for her airfare. A top GOP official charged $368,000 in a single month. And another party staffer collected enough credit card rewards points to earn a diamond-studded watch.

This is what it was like at the Republican Party of Florida under former chairman Jim Greer, whose lavish spending and secret dealings led to his ouster and sparked a federal criminal investigation.

But it's just a glimpse from the 2,452 double-sided pages of credit card records released Friday by the party in an effort to quell further speculation amid the ongoing controversy.

The documents detail how 31 party officials spent $7.3 million since 2007 — specific expenses never disclosed in public campaign finance reports.

Altogether, it shows the perks of being the political party in power, awash in special interest money that fuels extravagant lifestyles for top GOP lawmakers and staffers.

Dane Eagle, a special assistant to the governor who now serves as his campaign finance director, frequently booked flights for Crist and his wife, Carole, including one to Washington at the time of President Barack Obama's inauguration. Eagle charged roughly $25,000 in the 12 months he held a card.

But when asked two weeks ago about his card, he downplayed it, saying he "only had one for a few months."

Debbie Bishop, the party's former deputy finance director, paid for private helicopters to take Crist, Greer and aides from New York to the Hamptons for a fundraising event in 2007. One helicopter carried only luggage. The total cost: $9,900.

Bishop resigned in January 2009 after she said her complaints about personal spending were repeatedly ignored.

"I'm a fiscal conservative, and I don't agree with spending someone else's money in a foolish way, especially if it's donated money,'' said Bishop, who now lives in Nashville. "When I was there I got tons aggravated at the lavish spending that was going on."

Delmar Johnson traveled frequently with party officials, racking up $1.3 million on his card since 2007. His expenses averaged $5,000 a month in his first two years at the party, but spiked to $209,000 in his first month after Greer named him executive director.

All the party's credit cards reflect huge sums spent as a part of the 2008 GOP national convention in St. Paul, Minn. Johnson took several trips to the Minneapolis area beforehand, paying for eight rooms at a local Marriott on one trip.

In all, Johnson earned 1.1 million credit card rewards points through American Express, enough to qualify for a Beat & Co. watch with 1.45 carats of diamonds including nine diamond hour-markers or a Yamaha upright piano of "enduring beauty, resonant tone and responsive touch.''

Johnson, who didn't return calls for comment, appears to have either transferred or cashed in his AmEx points in January, possibly for flights, days before he and Greer left the party.

Party spokeswoman Katie Gordon Betta previously said the rewards points stay with the party, but on Friday acknowledged they stay with the cardholder.

Johnson also included questionable expenses on his card, such as $260 in June 2008 for clothes at Tommy Bahama in Orlando, his hometown, as did Senate campaign staffer Amanda Clark, who charged $282.07 at Robert Talbott's for men's luxury clothing.

Clark reimbursed the party, as did two other top GOP officials, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Jeff Atwater, for personal expenses

A party spokeswoman said if more personal expenses are identified, the party will ask for a reimbursement.

Johnson's predecessor as executive director, Jim Rimes, charged more than $2 million on his party credit card, including $368,000 in a single month. Rimes' expenses included the cost of VIP tours of Disney World for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and others, and thousands of dollars for chartered planes and limousines.

The Republican Party commissioned a forensic audit to verify the spending earlier this year, but suggests much of it was a necessary business expense.

GOP chairman John Thrasher released only credit card statements from during Greer's tenure, even though the credit cards date back at least eight years earlier.

For instance, the records released Friday show Richard Corcoran, the former top adviser to U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, spent less than $10,000 in two months, even though earlier statements indicate he charged more than $400,000 dating back to 2005.

Rubio, the Republican frontrunner and former House speaker, called for the release of Greer's records but refused to disclose his own earlier statements.

The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald previously reported that Rubio's expenses on the party card included flights for his wife, automotive repairs and electronics. He later reimbursed the party for thousands of dollars in flights he double-billed to the party and taxpayers.

The Florida Democratic Party said Friday that the selective disclosure "is clearly an attempt by the RPOF to protect Republicans like former Speaker Marco Rubio."

Those close to Greer and Crist say it also suggests a concerted effort by the party to use Greer as a scapegoat and hurt the man who put him in charge, Crist, who ditched the GOP to run as a nonpartisan candidate for the U.S. Senate.

"They want you to think (Greer) showed up with a sun visor dealing a desk of American Express credit cards," said Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, who filed a lawsuit against the party. "But the half truth is a whole lie."

A portion of the party spending was described in a series of earlier reports from Times/Herald. And the new records only confirm more of what was known: thousands spent at five-star hotels; jet-setting to places like Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Jerusalem; and five-figure tabs for dinners and drinks at pricey restaurants.

It's unclear what portion of expenses is personal in nature.

''There were way too many people with cards,'' added Republican National Committee member Paul Senft of Haines City. "The forensic auditors need to go through those statements."

Crist said Friday that he agrees the party spending was excessive.

"I don't think you could not be concerned, but I think you have to sort of go point by point into what it was used for and what the return was," he said.

The governor never had a party credit card, but the new records show his top aides often picked up his tab.

"In effect, RPOF was underwriting the fundraising costs associated with trips out of state for Crist," said former state party chairman Allen Cox.

Bishop, the former finance official, said "I think it's sad that it's come to this, but hopefully it will all get straightened out and people will use the money for what it's supposed to be used for, which is to help."

Asked if she had been interviewed by state or federal investigators, she said, "I'm not at liberty to say." She added: "Politics is crooked and somebody needs to put a stop to it."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Lee Logan, Beth Reinhard, Robert Samuels, Cristina Silva and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Former Republican Party of Florida chairman

DELMAR JOHNSON

Some of the charges on Republican Party cards

Staff members often picked up the tab for limousines, hotel rooms, tickets, cigars, etc.

CAMERON ULRICH

director of finance for Senate campaigns
JEREMY COLLINS

special assistant to Greer
DEBBIE BISHOP

deputy director, finance and administration
DANE EAGLE

special assistant to Crist
CARRIE MADDEN

with the party's Senate campaign
ANDREW WIGGINS

deputy director, Senate campaign
JIM RIMES

former executive director
MELANIE PHISTER

former junior staffer
$208,000 spent $118,000 $694,000 $25,000 $175,000 $80,000 $2,000,000 $1,242,000
• $4,800 on N.Y. Yankees baseball tickets

• $12,000 on Jacksonville Jaguars tickets

• $2,000 on Orlando Magic tickets
• $1,565 at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, March 20, 2008

• $1,450 at the same hotel a month later

• $1,600 on round-trip air fare from Minneapolis to New York for himself
• $9,900 on Liberty helicopters in Linden, N.J.

• $674 on limousines in New York for a fundraiser

• $3,700 at the Seminole Cigar Factory in Lake Mary
• $224 for an airline ticket for Carole Crist from West Palm Beach to New York

• $251 for an airline ticket for Carole Crist from Washington, D.C., to Tampa
• $7,600 on limousine service in New Jersey, August 2007

• $14,800 at the London NYC Hotel, New York, Sept. 20, 2007

• $9,500 at the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Sept. 25, 2007
• $700 at one BP station and $300 at another in Tallahassee, all on June 4, 2007

• $2,675 at the St. Pete Times Forum, Jan. 17, 2008

• $3,442 at South Beach Wine, Coral Gables,
Feb. 13, 2008
• $9,500 for VIP tours of Disney World for the lieutenant governor and guests

• $1,000 on taxis and limousines, November 2007

• $40,000 at a London hotel

• $10,000 to a watch company

• $20,000 for plane tickets for indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom and his family

Republican Party of Florida releases $7.3 million in American Express statements 05/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 8:03am]

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