Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: What does it cost to purchase silence?

For years, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer insisted he could not wait for his criminal trial to start so he could call out former colleagues on their own misbehavior. For months, he and his wife complained that the charges against him had ruined their lives and left them broke. Yet in the blink of an eye, Greer abruptly pleaded guilty last week to five felony charges without a plea deal with prosecutors. His lawyer observed afterward that "sometimes clearing your name is not as important as taking care of your family.''

The price for silence can be steep. No one who knows is talking — yet. But this turn of events has all the markings of a payoff to keep Greer quiet and prevent further embarrassment to high-profile politicians and Republican donors. It may be legal, but it does not look right.

Greer was charged with secretly creating a company that contracted with the state Republican Party to raise money while he was the party chairman. Who knew what and when about that deal remains unclear, particularly without a trial. And without a trial, there likely never will be a full accounting of a 2008 trip to the Bahamas that included Greer, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, billionaire and former party finance chairman Harry Sargeant III and dozens of large Republican donors. One witness was prepared to testify about prostitutes, but that salacious detail overshadowed vague suggestions of something more seriously amiss on that trip.

Of course, Republicans in Tallahassee are only too happy to move on and write off the Greer years as old news. Greer was Crist's choice as GOP chairman, and Gov. Rick Scott was not involved in state politics at the time. Legislative leaders say the era of easy money and anything goes — which included some of their predecessors charging huge sums in personal expenses to state party credit cards — at the state party is over. But there is a trust-me nature to those assurances. The campaign finance reform legislation under consideration in Tallahassee does little or nothing to limit the flow of money into the state political parties or improve their public accountability.

There is still a lot of smoke around the Greer plea. The guilty plea occurred on the day of trial, only after Jacksonville defense lawyer Hank Coxe showed up but never spoke in court. Coxe says he was hired by Greer, but it is unclear who paid him. Greer's lawyer, Damon Chase, will not confirm or deny whether Greer was paid by someone to plead guilty. If Greer was paid, a likely benefactor would be Sargeant, who has paid Greer in the past, has the resources and won't talk. Sargeant also has his own issues, including a federal investigation into accusations his shipping business overcharged the Pentagon by more than $200 million.

So Greer has been silenced and faces sentencing next month. Prominent personalities in the state capital have avoided testifying at trial. But there is still some explaining left to be done, perhaps in the next campaign for governor. Crist, now a Democrat, says he never knew of Greer's secret company and still considers Sargeant a friend. If Crist runs for his old job as the nominee for his new political party, he can expect more questions about his choice of friends in the court of public opinion.

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