Campaign Crawlers

Charlie’s Revenge

Siccing the Feds on his own party – and the conservative Republican poised to defeat him.

By 4.22.10

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Charlie Crist, Florida's RINO Governor, may have gotten his wish. The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times reported Monday that the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, and the IRS are conducting investigations of credit card use by the Republican Party of Florida.

Quoting "sources familiar with the inquiry," the two newspapers claim the targets of the investigation are cashiered RPOF officials Jim Greer and Delmar Johnson and senatorial candidate Marco Rubio of Miami. At issue is whether these men used their party credit cards for personal items instead of party business and failed to report income.

This is a difficult report to confirm. Like the Tar Baby, the federals don't say nothin.' "It's office policy that we cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigation," said Kelly Dougherty, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tallahassee. "We can't confirm or deny," echoed Dan Boone of IRS. I didn't waste a toll call to the FBI. If the little hand was on the three and the big hand was on the 12, those guys wouldn't confirm it was three o'clock.

But even without official confirmation, there's little reason to doubt an investigation is underway. Republican Crist (Republican for how much longer we don't know) asked for a federal investigation of RPOF earlier this month after Democratic officials, including Florida CFO and Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink, asked him to.

Pressure for an investigation came after media stories of lavish credit card spending by Greer and Johnson, and other RPOF officials. The reasoning went that while this matter needs attention, it could not be looked into by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement because this agency answers to the Florida cabinet, a nest of political candidates this year. Crist agreed that it was, however, entirely appropriate that the Republican Party be investigated by the Tallahassee U.S. Attorney, who answers to Eric Holder. And the IRS who answers to you-know-who.

"It's a mess," Crist said when inviting the federals to do a full body cavity search of his own party. "This thing stinks."

It does. Some Republican card holders may have, as Ricky was forever saying Lucy had "some esplainin' to do." Not least of which will almost certainly be Crist's hand-picked former RPOF Chairman Jim Greer, fired because he was much better at spending campaign money than collecting it.

It stinks also because it's clear that the main target for Crist's faux indignation is Rubio, Crist's conservative opponent for a U.S. Senate seat whose campaign has been so successful he has nearly driven Crist out of the Republican Party. Compared to Crist-man Greer, Rubio's credit card expenditures were trifling. Rubio says he paid any personal expenditures on his own American Express Card. No reason now, beyond Crist's political ambitions, to disbelieve this. 

Without the kind of conservative record Florida Republicans are looking for in a Senate candidate this year, Crist has been left with going negative against Rubio, running ads suggesting Rubio is a villain who's been taking money from the RPOF through his party credit card.

Rubio campaign communications director Alex Burgos said the campaign has not been contacted by federal agents, but says he is confident the campaign and Rubio can withstand any scrutiny that comes their way.

"Marco is very comfortable if there is an inquiry," Burgos said. "We would see it as a good chance to set the record straight once and for all and get this nonsense behind us."

Of course very little in politics is ever settled "once and for all," and America has a venerable tradition of administrations using the IRS to go after their political opponents. What a gift this would be to President Obama, who now has a justification for investigating, all the way to Election Day, a popular senatorial candidate who says his only reason for wanting to go to Washington is to throw a spanner into the spokes of the Obama agenda.

It's not just Rubio whose efforts can be stymied by this investigation. The Florida Republican Party, in what has been shaping up as a very Republican year in Florida, could be damaged more by an investigation of wrong-doing, regardless of how much wrong-doing did or didn't take place, than by anything Democratic Party candidates can say about issues.

The RPOF won't say any more than the feds. While declining to say if there is an investigation underway, RPOF spokesman Katie Betta quoted RPOF Chairman John Thrasher as saying, "There is nothing more important than restoring the integrity of our party, the faith of our membership, and the public's trust, and we will take whatever steps are necessary to fully cooperate in order to ensure a speedy and through investigation."

That's clear enough. We won't say whether there is an investigation or not, but we will cooperate fully with it. Thrasher is right that the issue is trust. You don't win elections at any time, but especially in 2010, without it. However much damage this ultimately does to the Florida Republican Party, much of the damage will have been self-inflicted. The party exercised very little oversight over party credit card use. The rules for their use were very loosey-goosey. Now the party is looking at a potentially serious image problem that could have been avoided.

Crist may be getting his wish with an investigation, but he may not be all that happy with how things turn out. If there does turn out to be election violations or other infractions, Crist was certainly in a better position to exercise control over party operations when things went off the rails than Rubio. He was certainly closer to Greer, who may turn out to be the center of any investigation. Crist certainly hopes this business damages Rubio, the chief obstacle to Crist's senatorial ambitions. But when all the rocks have been turned over, Crist may have more esplainin' to do than Rubio.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.