TAMPA — A forensic audit released Friday by the Republican Party of Florida ties Florida Governor and independent Senate candidate Charlie Crist to thousands of dollars of Republican donors’ money spent not on party business but for Crist’s personal benefit. The same audit clears Crist’s main Senate opponent, conservative Republican Marco Rubio, of any wrongful spending.
The audit lays even more misspending at the feet of Jim Greer, Crist’s handpicked party chairman who was forced to resign in January and was indicted in March on six counts of grand theft and money laundering in connection to his dealings with RPOF funds.
Over the weekend Crist, who was a RINO until he abandoned the party in April because Rubio was trouncing him in the Republican primary race, called the audit a “sham.” He claimed he has always paid his own way, and said the audit was no more than a political attack on him. He said the RPOF owes him and the people of Florida an apology.
“The Republican Party bosses have attacked my family and my family’s integrity, but also perpetrated a fraud on the people of Florida with this report,” Crist said.
RPOF Chairman Thrasher had a slightly different take. “Florida Republicans, elected officials, donors and grassroots supporters alike were disgusted by the inappropriate and extravagant spending rumored and reported to have taken place under Charlie Crist and Jim Greer’s leadership, but for the first time we have a specific dollar amount tied to certain items and events and can gain a broader understanding of the mismanagement that occurred,” Thrasher said. He said the party is exploring the possibility of going to court to recover the misspent money.
The audit was done by the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird LLP, hired by the RPOF to look into questionable spending on Greer’s watch. Alston & Bird, which specializes in doing audits where dodgy spending is suspected, has not worked for the RPOF before and has no connection to the party. In all, the firm identified more than $381,000 in expenditures of RPOF funds that “were primarily not related to RPOF business.”
The years 2007-2009 for the audit were chosen because there was cause to believe that funds had been abused during this period, which coincided with Greer’s chairmanship. Spending of donor funds under Greer and during Crist’s governorship, RPOF officials say, was much more loosey-goosey than it had been before. During Jeb Bush’s governorship and the RPOF chairmanship of Carol Jean Jordan rules and procedures were in place to ensure that spending was legit, as is the case now.
Some of the more notable findings of the audit include:
* A personal vacation to Disney World in June 2009 taken jointly by the Crist and Greer families that cost the RPOF $13,435.59.
* A trip taken by Greer and former RPOF Executive Director Delmar Johnson in October 2009, coinciding with a Crist for Senate fundraiser in Las Vegas, that cost the RPOF $7,059.92. Alston & Bird, LLP determined that it “does not appear that Greer or Johnson was conducting RPOF business while in Las Vegas more than on a nominal basis.”
* Three personal vacations to Fisher Island by Greer, and in one instance including Crist, costing the RPOF $10,992.17.
* $1,589.56 charged to the RPOF by Greer or Crist’s spouse before Greer or Crist’s arrival in New York. Alston & Bird, LLP determined that “On September 26, 2009, Greer and Crist arrived in New York for a fundraising event for Crist’s senatorial campaign. However, their spouses had arrived in New York on September 24, 2009, and their hotel and related expenses were charged to the RPOF.”
* $5,616.79 worth of personal charges in May 2009 for Greer’s son’s baptism (attended by Crist and his wife).
In a Saturday press conference before his campaign headquarters in St. Petersburg, Crist produced receipts that he said showed his wife, Carole Crist, paid more than $4,700 for the June 2009 Disney vacation. Crist’s numbers and those of the audit are vastly different, and Crist declined to answer questions after the press conference beyond saying that he did not know that his friend Greer was charging things to the RPOF at Disney or elsewhere. So this one will have to be hashed out.
Republican officials say the audit shows three things: (1) RPOF misspending of donor funds was mainly perpetrated by Greer and his associates, (2) the party has cleaned up its house and has set up policies to prevent future officials from looting it, and (3) Marco Rubio’s spending with an RPOF credit card was proper.
“We’re turning a page in the RPOF,” state Republican co-chair and Hillsborough County (Tampa) Republican Chairman Deborah Cox-Roush told me Sunday. “The RPOF leadership of the past is not the leadership of today. We’ve put spending safeguards in place. This is not the party of Jim Greer and Delmar Johnson [Greer’s RPOF executive director].”
Cox-Roush said spending controls were there before Greer and are in place now, and the Florida Republican spending is now transparent.
Misfortunately for Florida Republicans, Cox-Roush’s message is not exactly the message portrayed in much of Florida’s major media. While some media outlets reported the audit’s findings straight up, others focused on Republican corruption rather than corruption by the individuals named in the audit. Some suggested the audit and the time of its release were just raw politics. The St. Petersburg Times made this charge under the headline “GOP plays politics with Party Audit.” Some of the media outlets calling the timing of the audit’s release political and cynical were the same ones demanding that it be released now.
“Some times you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Cox-Roush said.
The report was released now because it was just completed now after a lengthy process, Cox-Roush said. It was “important to get the facts out and let the chips fall where they may.”
Most of the chips clearly have landed on Greer and Crist. Crist is already trailing Rubio, the only conservative in the three-way race, by double-digits in polls of likely voters. These findings can’t help Crist with Florida voters. It also can’t help him with Democratic Party operatives who might have swung campaign cash and support to him.
To have any chance of winning, Crist has to do very well among Democrats because the popular Rubio is holding Crist to below 20 percent of support among Republicans. Crist has attracted some Democratic support because the Democratic nominee in the race, liberal Congressman Kendrick Meek of Miami, is thought to have no chance of out-polling Rubio.
Crist, a political chameleon who has held every known position on the issues of the day as well as some of his own invention, has always attempted to claim the moral high ground when he gets in trouble or his political prospects are dim. The findings of this audit should make his doing this in the future much more difficult.