ORLANDO — The Florida Republican Party elected state Sen. John Thrasher its new chairman Saturday, then leaders promptly called for an exhaustive audit of party records to finally get past the scandal and distrust that has defined much of the past year.
"Now is the time for us to begin the unity and the healing," Thrasher told more than 200 party activists and elected officials gathered in Orlando to elect a replacement for ousted chairman Jim Greer.
Suspicion continues to surround the party's financial affairs and one of Thrasher's first orders of business is to hire an accounting firm to conduct a "forensic audit" and determine whether any illegal activity occurred under Greer. An internal audit has been under way for about four weeks, Thrasher said.
What's more, Thrasher, 66, faces the question of whether the party should publicly release credit card statements from current and former legislative leaders to help ease suspicion over how party money was spent.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, criticized by Democratic candidate Alex Sink and Republican rival Paula Dockery for being conspicuously quiet about the party's scandal, on Saturday switched gears. The attorney general called for a thorough forensic audit looking at everything from party contracts to charter jet travel to credit card use and urged the party to release the findings publicly.
"If there is any illegal or criminal behavior they discover — and they may or may not — I stand ready to assist you in directing that to the appropriate law enforcement agencies,'' McCollum said at a news conference with the newly elected chairman.
State Sen. Dockery, R-Lakeland, congratulated McCollum for finally coming around.
"But what's taken so long for him to see the right thing to do? It's not easy to be the one who calls for an investigation, especially when friends are involved," Dockery said. "But it's the kind of backbone people expect in a governor — someone who will stand up for doing the right thing, even when it's unpopular."
Greer was pushed out of the chairmanship last month amid mounting uproar over his allegedly lavish spending, anemic money-raising and clumsy meddling in Republican primaries. The outrage grew even louder amid recent revelations that he had secretly executed a fundraising contract with former GOP executive director Delmar Johnson that added hundreds of thousands of dollars to Johnson's paycheck.
Greer presided over Saturday's secret balloting at the Rosen Centre hotel in Orlando, but at the end he quickly ducked out a back door without taking questions.
Greer said in a message that he welcomed a thorough audit of the party's records.
"I think its a fantastic idea. I'll be glad to assist the RPOF in any way. I look forward to a top to bottom review of every expenditure and whatever reason precipitated it in all areas of the party," Greer said.
It was a hard-fought chairman's race, mainly pitting Thrasher, a former lobbyist and state House speaker from St. Augustine, against Sharon Day, a longtime grass-roots activist and member of the Republican National Committee.
The final vote was 135 for Thrasher, 85 for Day and 2 for Mark Cross, an Osceola County state committeeman. Hillsborough GOP Chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush beat out four other candidates to be elected vice chair of the state party.
"We are not each other's enemies," Thrasher told the crowd. "Our enemy is the liberal media and the Democrats."
Most elected officials backed Thrasher, arguing that he had the connections and wherewithal to raise badly needed money for the party, and indeed he raised more than $1 million while campaigning for the job.
Day said anxiety about the party's financial resources in a busy election year played an important role in the vote.
"It's hard to compete with a candidate who came with a million dollars for the party,'' she said. "They played that fear factor very well — that we would not have the funding unless he won."
Party leaders are eager to put the controversy behind them, but amid ongoing investigations into the party's operations it's unclear how quickly that can happen.
One issue concerns party-issued credit cards used by current and former legislators. Since the release of indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom's cards showed that he spent party money on family travel and other dubious expenses, the party has grappled with whether to make public everybody's credit card statements.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, running for chief financial officer, wants his statement released publicly, and Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Dockery are calling for the same thing, though they did not have cards. Others, including Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, are noncommittal about publicly releasing statements.
"There's a level of resistance that makes you wonder,'' said Crist, when asked if he thought some Republicans might be embarrassed if their statements were revealed. "Transparency is always best."
Thrasher is the first person in Florida in decades to serve as a legislator and state party chairman at the same time. His reference to Democrats as "our enemy" prompted Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson to call for Thrasher's removal from the Senate's Ethics and Elections and Reapportionment committees.
"Both positions require bipartisan cooperation, and John Thrasher has demonstrated that he is incapable of conducting himself in such a manner," Lawson said in a statement. "John Thrasher's language is beyond the pale and offensive to the nearly 4.7 million voters who identify themselves as Florida Democrats.''
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.