TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist recently challenged President Barack Obama to be more transparent while negotiating the final details of health care reform legislation in Washington.
Perhaps the governor would like to support a little more transparency closer to home, within the Republican Party of Florida. So far he's dodged every opportunity to say the beleaguered state GOP should come clean and make credit card statements public.
Now that state party chairman Jim Greer has decided to resign and spare the party more nasty infighting, perhaps the governor will reconsider. Maybe he'll help the new chairman do something to clear the air and actually release the statements.
Most of the public's attention to campaign fundraising is focused on who is GIVING money to politicians and state parties. But it is equally important to know how candidates and political committees are SPENDING the money they collect. Some might argue that a political party is a private group that should not have to disclose its detailed expenditures. But Florida's campaign finance law has long required candidates and political committees to file a copy of each credit card statement with their quarterly reports. It just hasn't happened lately.
A few years ago, attorneys for the state Division of Elections bent the law a bit with a formal opinion allowing the parties to provide "statement information'' instead of copies of the actual bills. That makes it impossible to tell who is spending the money. The logic behind the opinion was designed to make it easier to file electronic statements that can be accessed online by any citizen. In reality, it gives us less information on expenditures. Secretary of State Kurt Browning says he's trying to improve the rules and hopes to make a little more information available in the future but probably won't require copies of the actual statements mentioned in Florida Statutes (106.07-4.11).
Now candidates and committees report credit card charges as "other distributions'' without enough detail to know who spent the money. It's easy to hide the details. Floridians who contribute to campaigns should know how candidates and parties are spending their money. If a party wants to spend its money for nice massages for all of its top executives or house them in posh hotels and feed them in four-star restaurants, voters should know it. It just might be an indicator of how they'll spend our tax money.
We got a glimpse of how the GOP spends money after former House Speaker Ray Sansom was indicted on criminal charges last year. It wasn't pretty.
It might cause you to wonder why anyone would donate money to send Sansom and several family members on trips to Europe and western North Carolina. Sansom charged about $173,000 to a party credit card during a two-year period, according to documents that surfaced as a result of the criminal charges against him. That was just a fraction of the more than $3.6 million charged by party officials to credit cards between January 2007 and June 2009. The image that emerges after a look through Sansom's bill is far different than the public image of a small town guy who talked about fiscal restraint.
Greer made a big show of cutting up his own party-issued credit card after Sansom's spending made headlines, but he has not been willing to open up the statements for any past credit card expenditures. Heck, we don't even know who gets a GOP credit card. House spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin says current House Speaker Larry Cretul and Speaker-designate Dean Cannon don't have them.
Democratic Party chairman Karen Thurman has solved the credit card problem by not issuing them to public officials or party staff. Individual cards don't allow sufficient financial control or transparency, notes party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.
Longtime GOP donors are questioning how their money is being used, and some say they will not be writing checks until they get a better accounting of credit card usage.
A little sunshine — as required by the law — is way overdue. How about it, Governor?