The guilty plea by the former head of the Republican Party of Florida has saved some of the state's political elite the embarrassment of a trial. But the tale of Jim Greer's rise and fall — and his ability to hide his crimes from many party insiders and donors — is a powerful argument for the need for campaign finance reform in Tallahassee. Political parties should be just as open and held just as much to account as candidates and committees for the dollars they collect and spend.
Greer's guilty plea to theft and money laundering charges ends a sordid story that engulfed elected officials from former Gov. Charlie Crist, who put Greer in charge of the state GOP, to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whose cavalier use of a party credit card during his time as Florida House speaker also came to light. Greer's guilty plea limits the fallout, particularly since no current statewide official has been tied to this mess. Many Republicans have argued that Greer was a self-interested rogue operator caught stealing cash from the state party through a separate consulting business.
But the broader truth is that Greer was a creature of Tallahassee's corrupt pay-to-play culture. He facilitated the collection of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party and then spent the money in a manner that allowed him and a small cadre of others — many of them elected officials — to live large under the guise of party business. The only difference, perhaps, was the magnitude. After all, for years before Greer arrived, elected party officials had free use of party credit cards that some abused.
All this subterfuge is facilitated by a state campaign finance law whose disclosure requirements are of little use. Political parties only have to disclose their contributions and expenditures once every three months, or slightly more frequently around elections. What if grass roots activists, donors and lesser officials could regularly assess how the party apparatus is spending the millions it collects? Would it not make leaders of all political parties more accountable?
So far, the Florida House and Senate discussions about increasing campaign finance reporting requirements to once a month, and much more frequently around elections, would apply only to candidates, political committees and electioneering communication organizations — excluding the most powerful political organizations in the state capital. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz should reassess that plan. Political parties can collect unlimited donations and spend them far more freely — dwarfing the power of any single candidate or committee. Greer now awaits sentencing, but it's only a matter of time, with millions of special interest dollars flowing through Tallahassee, before someone else gets greedy. More openness remains one of the best safeguards.