LAKE BUENA VISTA — In a move denounced as "the same old political games," the Republican Party of Florida accused Gov. Charlie Crist and two former party bosses of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars but declined to offer proof Saturday by releasing a long-awaited audit of the party's finances.
The party's executive board decided to "request additional information regarding inappropriate expenses" as it considers suing Crist, former party chairman Jim Greer and former executive director Delmar Johnson. Greer already faces fraud and money laundering charges related to party spending. A decision to sue may take up to 10 days.
After emerging from Saturday's three-hour, closed-door meeting at Disney's Boardwalk hotel, chairman John Thrasher cited party-paid trips Crist, Greer and Johnson took to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Greer raised no money for the party on those trips, but has said he was meeting with donors.
Thrasher also pointed to more than $300,000 in consulting fees paid to Jay Burmer, a longtime Crist ally from the Tampa area. Thrasher said he didn't see the value of the deal orchestrated by Crist.
"When you go out and spend money on behalf of this organization, it ought to have a distinct purpose. It ought to be directly related to business of this organization," Thrasher, a state senator from St. Augustine, told reporters. "And the days of those kind of cavalier, extravagant expenses being charged to the party by those individuals are over."
Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, noted that Thrasher and other party leaders had previously approved of party spending under Greer as part of the severance deal to get him out of office.
"I'd like to ask John Thrasher: 'Were you lying then, or are you lying now?' " Chase demanded.
By refusing to open the books and raising red flags so close to the Nov. 2 election, the party left its motives open to attack.
Widely viewed as a turncoat among Republican activists, Crist is running for the Senate as an independent against the party's most celebrated candidate in 2010, former House Speaker Marco Rubio. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami is the Democratic nominee for the coveted open seat.
"They're destroying the party with their personal vendettas and blatant political grandstanding in an attempt to discredit Crist immediately before the November election," Chase said.
Delaying the audit's release also means Florida Republicans failed to close the door on one of the most contentious periods in its history. A new lawsuit could reopen questions about spending with party-issued American Express cards by Rubio and other party leaders. The St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald found Rubio charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to his party credit card.
"It's probably best that the party bosses stop playing the same old political games and take a hard look at their own nominee before attacking the one truly independent candidate for U.S. Senate," said Crist's campaign spokesman, Danny Kanner.
Rubio has said he covered all personal expenses charged to the credit card, which included more than $10,000 in hotel rooms for a family reunion and a $133.75 bill at Churchill's barber in Miami.
Thrasher said the audit revealed no wrongdoing by Rubio, Senate President Jeff Atwater and other current party leaders. He noted that Rubio already reimbursed the party for more than $2,400 for plane trips he also charged to state taxpayers.
House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon and Senate President and chief financial officer candidate Jeff Atwater also have paid the party back for personal expenses that turned up on their party cards.
The Times/Herald found the most lavish spending charged to a credit card held by Melanie Phister, a 25-year-old staffer who worked closely with indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom. The $1.3 million in charges included tens of thousands of dollars for plane tickets and hotel rooms for Sansom and his family in London.
When asked about the spending by Sansom and Phister, Thrasher said that would be reviewed by the party as it weighs legal action.
Even before the party closed its meeting, it was clear that Florida Republicans are trying to exorcise Greer's ghost. The ethics committee recommended requiring party officers to disclose conflicts of interest. Another proposal would limit the chairman's power in hiring employees and setting their salaries.
Also under discussion: clarifying the rule that allows party leaders to personally endorse one Republican over another in a primary election. Greer's move to throw the party's support behind Crist in the U.S. Senate race set off a growing wildfire among grass roots activists who favored Rubio.
But some party activists said the most important reform would be to allow the board to remove the chairman altogether. Greer resigned under pressure.
"If your CEO is corrupt, you're screwed," quipped Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman Sid Dinerstein. "You can have a rule as thick as a phone book, and it will not get the job done. Removal is the only option."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.