As a volatile election season gets under way, the Republican Party of Florida is facing its biggest crisis of confidence in decades.
Donors and party activists are livid over newly revealed records that suggest outgoing chairman Jim Greer used the party as a personal slush fund for lavish travel and entertainment. The records also show that executive director Delmar Johnson padded his $103,000 salary with a secret, $260,000 fundraising contract and another $42,000 for expenses — at the same time the once mighty Florida GOP was having to lay off employees amid anemic fundraising.
Another sign of trouble came Monday with news that incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon transferred $665,000 of party money in the days surrounding Greer's resignation to a separate political committee called the Florida Liberty Fund, suggesting lack of confidence in the party election machine.
Greer has long been known as a flamboyant chairman who enjoyed entourages, charter jets and belting out Elvis at party galas. But even the biggest critics of Gov. Charlie Crist's hand-picked chairman were stunned by revelations that he entered into a lucrative secret contract with a stealth company set up by his most loyal aide de camp, 30-year-old Johnson, a former Crist campaign aide. The contract would pay Johnson a 10 percent commission on all major donations to the state Republican Party.
"Without any question, the hiding of a contract between the chairman and executive director is absolutely unethical. Is it criminal? It could well be,'' said Brevard County Republican chairman Jason Steele. "Probably what needs to be done is we just need to expose all of this stuff every bit of it, and let the trees fall wherever they do."
Greer made a show of rescinding the party credit cards of top elected officials and cutting up his American Express card last summer to stem criticism of party spending. But internal records obtained by the Times/Herald show heavy spending continued — on Johnson's card: $100 flower arrangement for the wives of Greer and Gov. Crist; thousands of dollars in meals; $15,000 to charter a jet to George LeMieux's swearing in as U.S. senator; and another $1,800 for in-flight catering services. The spending helped Johnson rack up more than 1 million American Express points.
Greer declined to talk about the matter but said in a message he was proud of his three years of leadership.
"It is in the best interest of the party and the upcoming chairman's election to not extensively comment at this time. However, in the future I may do so to ensure the facts are known and the piling on is shown for what it is — political," he said in a text message. "I will say Delmar Johnson is a good person and a tireless and hard-working man who did a good job as ED and as a fundraiser for RPOF in hard economic times. I'm proud of the man."
The revelations have rocked the once disciplined Florida GOP, which finds itself consumed with turmoil and controversy when it should be focused on electing Republicans.
"We are all asking collectively, what did Delmar do with that money? Where did that money go? Who are the other owners of that corporation (linked to Johnson)," said Allen Cox, vice chairman of the Republican Party. "The concern at the grass-roots level is that Delmar would never have been allowed to retain those funds for himself exclusively."
Said Gary Lee, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party: "As long as those allegations about misspending continue like a cancer they will erode confidence in the party and cause donors to withhold money. . . . The key question is who knew, what did they know and what did they do about it?''
Some Republicans say the party cannot move forward without a public and potentially embarrassing airing out of its internal finances. The repercussions of full public disclosure of party spending could be far reaching, as Greer had long acted as an arm of Gov. Crist's political machine, and Crist's U.S. Senate rival, Marco Rubio, had his own party credit card as speaker of the Florida House.
The leading candidates to replace Greer vowed Monday to take a hard look at the party's finances but wouldn't commit to opening the books.
"While I fully agree with disclosure, the question is disclosure to whom?'' asked state Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, anointed by top elected Republicans to replace Greer. "The decision to have these issues aired in the mainstream media will only serve to trap our party in a continual discussion about the past, instead of looking forward to our future, and I will not participate in harming the party that I love so much."
His rival, longtime activist Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale, said she would initiate a "very serious audit'' but wouldn't promise to release detailed credit card statements.
"I don't think you can say what you will do or won't do until you are in that position,'' she said.
Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, an underdog candidate for governor, said the party needs to come clean: "Seriously, how do you ask everyday folks to contribute whatever they can, then refuse to let them see the credit-card costs for communicating our message?"
Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner, has been deeply involved in the controversy, while trying to keep it quiet. He received a copy of the secret contract between Greer and Johnson in January, and then briefed House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon and Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos.
They stormed over to GOP headquarters, and Greer and Johnson vacated the office soon after. Days later, most of the state party staffers were laid off.
Whoever wins the Feb. 20 party chairman election will be saddled with pulling the party out of a financial hole at the start of a demanding election year, with five statewide seats up for grabs. Last week, the state party reported $124,129 in cash and $466,978 in debt.
Crist has said he didn't know about Johnson's contract, but some activists aren't satisfied. Crist is the de facto head of the party and its biggest fundraiser.
"It really shakes the confidence of the donor base, and whoever is going to become the new chairman should push for totally open and transparent accounts,'' said Fort Myers developer Al Hoffman, a major donor who called for Greer's resignation last month. "Greer treated the party as his own personal treasury.''
Greer released a Jan. 5 sworn statement from the party's treasurer, Joel Pate, and assistant treasurer, Allen Miller, stating that they had reviewed financial records and all expenditures "were proper and authorized."
Miller said he and Pate signed the statement at Greer's request after about three hours of randomly reviewing financial records.
"We did not initiate an audit,'' Miller said. "We reviewed the financial records, not the contracts. We are not responsible for management decisions for how the money was spent.''
Rubio, who is challenging Crist for the U.S. Senate, had a party American Express card when he served as House speaker in 2007 and 2008. He said he would leave it up to the next chair to decide what information should be made public.
"It was a dark period in the party in terms of what's gone on over the last couple years,'' he said. "The next chairman of the party should come in and fully understand mistakes that have been made in the past and that would involve a full audit looking at how expenditures have been made in the past and make sure that going forward people are confident when they give money to the Republican party, it's going toward good things.''
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.