The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida is expected to announce today that the party will no longer issue credit cards to its leadership, following embarrassing revelations of inappropriate spending by now-ousted state House Speaker Ray Sansom. The sweeping step by Jim Greer is a positive one, mirroring the policy of the Florida Democratic Party. But Greer, whose party has pledged fiscal conservatism to voters for years, needs to disclose past credit card charges by lawmakers and party leaders to assure donors that their money hasn't financed personal shopping sprees.
Sansom, for the two years he oversaw the Republican campaigns for House seats, charged more than $170,000 to a party-issued American Express card, often on items of dubious relevance to his party duties. The snapshot of one politico's indulgences raises serious questions about the potential for abuse of party monies, where special interests and others can give unlimited sums.
Recent changes to state ethics laws prevent lawmakers from accepting anything of value from lobbyists or special interests — from a meal to gifts. But the Sansom case suggests there is another way in which wealthy interests can bestow valuable favors on lawmakers. They may be making large contributions to the state party, which in turn has allowed certain leaders to charge trips, meals and luxury expenditures to the party.
What's worse, the public can't follow this gravy train. While credit card expenditures by political parties have to be reported to the state, the records don't provide details, including who made the purchases.
Sansom used the party Amex card for plane tickets to Europe in 2008 for himself, his wife and three daughters as well as sightseeing tours in London — clearly personal expenses. His spending spree extended to Cole Haan, Kenneth Cole, Starbucks and a $2,000 charge at the Apple Store in Manhattan. This much is known only because it became public as part of a criminal case.
Sansom is facing charges of attempting to steer $6 million in public funds to build an aircraft hangar to benefit a private jet company owned by Jay Odom, who has given about $1 million to various Republican interests, including the party.
Greer, who has come under fire by some party members for his own spending, refuses to say whether Sansom reimbursed the party for any of the charges. Greer's initial response to the Sansom revelations was to claim he'd taken steps last year to rein in excessive use of the party's Amex cards. Today he is expected to tell party members at an Orlando meeting he is rescinding all the cards, including his own.
Still, average Floridians who support the Republican Party with donations deserve a complete accounting. They thought they were paying for voter education, candidate recruitment and get-out-the-vote efforts. Sansom's spending raises the possibility that their donations were diverted to allow certain bigwigs to live large. This is not just about one man's profligacy. This is about good government and the inherent conflict with the state's leading party hiding how it spends donors' money.