Editorial: For Greer, prison and unanswered questions

Published Mar. 27, 2013

Former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer deserved to go to prison for stealing money from the party, and the 18-month sentence he received Wednesday is appropriate. The sentence sends a message that even the state's most powerful political figures are accountable, and it recognizes that Greer was far from the only prominent Republican behaving badly. Yet the conclusion of the criminal case remains unsatisfying and leaves disturbing questions unanswered.

For example, Greer abruptly pleaded guilty last month to five felony charges without a plea deal after long promising to reveal more of the party's dirty secrets at trial. Why?

Greer and his wife regularly complained that the scandal had left them deserted by longtime friends and broke. Yet Greer suddenly showed up in court with a new lawyer in February and has repaid the state party $65,000. Where did the money come from?

Greer was charged with creating a secret company that contracted with the state Republican Party to raise money while he was chairman. Who knew about that deal? And what really happened during 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?

Without a trial, the answers may never be known — and that is just the way powerful Republicans want it. Among those scheduled to testify were Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat who is considering running for his old job; former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff; and prominent Republican legislators. But even without a trial, the depth of the reckless spending, poor judgment and arrogance exposed by the Greer scandal has stained the Republican Party and some of the state's most prominent political figures.

Crist can expect more questions about his poor judgment. He says he didn't know Greer created the company to raise money for the party. But he hand-picked Greer as chairman, and there was plenty of evidence that Greer was misbehaving and that the state party was out of control. Then there is Sargeant, who previously gave money to Greer. If Greer was paid to plead guilty and given money to repay the state party, Sargeant would be a likely benefactor. Sargeant won't talk and has his own issues, including a federal investigation into accusations his shipping business overcharged the Pentagon by more than $200 million.

Orlando Circuit Judge Marc Lubet went lower than the sentencing guidelines and rejected the prosecutors' request for a 3 ½-year prison sentence for Greer. It is a reasonable punishment that reflects that Greer pleaded guilty, paid restitution and is far from the only bad actor in this mess. Whether Greer's prison sentence is harsh enough to permanently change the culture in Tallahassee is less certain.

Gov. Rick Scott has no connection to this episode, and legislators are pursuing campaign reforms. Yet the legislation does not make the state political parties more transparent or accountable for their fundraising, and it actually opens the money spigot for political action committees. The former state Republican Party chairman is now a convicted felon and headed to prison. If that does not make clear the dangers of secrecy and an unlimited flow of big money into state politics, nothing will.