Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant, and the Republican Party of Florida should use some to clear the air on an embarrassing era of lavish spending. Delmar Johnson, the party's former executive director, is just the latest leader exposed as living large on the party's purse. Many party insiders are pushing to keep the sordid details quiet. But disclosure will go much further to restore donors' faith and voters' perception that the party that preaches fiscal discipline actually practices it.
It is worth remembering that it took a criminal investigation into former House Speaker Ray Sansom to expose what appears to have been accepted practice. Flush with millions in political contributions, some Republican leaders had no problem spending fundraising dollars on personal perks masquerading as party business. Sansom racked up more than $173,000 on a state party American Express card over two years. Among the expenses: taking his family to Europe and western North Carolina. Those facts only came to light after State Attorney Willie Meggs began investigating Sansom for steering $6 million in public money to an airport project sought by a major Republican donor and friend.
With only one prominent Republican, gubernatorial hopeful and state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, calling for full disclosure, disgusted insiders have resorted to leaking more information about the personal greed inside the state party's operation. Jim Greer, the soon-to-be ex-party chairman, awarded a secret $260,000 fundraising contract to Johnson. And both men used the party's American Express cards to live a lavish lifestyle.
After Sansom's American Express bills were revealed last year, Greer publicly cut up his own party credit card. But it was all show. Copies of the state party's American Express bills obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show that Johnson, Greer's second in command, was still freely using his credit card, paying for golf games, $3,000 restaurant tabs, $100 flower arrangements for the wives of Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist, and a $15,000 charter jet to carry Greer to the swearing in of U.S. Sen. George LeMieux — plus another $1,800 for inflight catering.
Rumors have circulated for years in Tallahassee that party leaders, including elected lawmakers, abused their party-issued credit cards to pay for everything from strip clubs to high-priced vacations. Lo and behold, the rumors weren't far from the facts that have been revealed so far.
Between mid 2007 and mid 2009, state party officials charged more than $3.6 million on American Express cards. Surely, some of it was valid. Raising money costs money. But the public — which has an interest in the operation of any organization with so much influence on government and so many citizen contributors — and even donors have no way to discern if party money is being spent appropriately. For years the state Division of Elections has allowed political parties to skirt a law that requires them to submit copies of credit card statements by allowing the parties to submit "statement information."
The Florida Democratic Party has responded by not issuing any credit cards to staff or elected officials. But the state Republican Party exploited that loophole and is suffering the consequences. Its best course of action to restore voter and donor confidence: Come clean for the past and the future. Release past credit card statements and pledge to submit them in the future to the elections division. Secretary of State Kurt Browning should also change elections rules to require submission of credit card statements, as the law requires. Transparency is the best antidote to curbing corruption and maintaining fiscal discipline.