Politics

02.12.13

Sleaze and Scandal in the Sunshine State GOP

The corruption trial of former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer was going to have it all—big names, allegations of ‘golf carts full of hookers,’ and skimming off the top. Then he had to cut it short by pleading guilty.

Ah, Florida—the land of sun, sand, and scandal.

On Monday, former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer added his name to the long list of Sunshine State lowlifes when, after years of proclaiming his innocence, he pleaded guilty to five felonies including grand theft and money laundering.

Legal terminology doesn’t do justice to the crass creativity of the crimes. This is a man who catapulted from publisher of the Palm Bay Party Guide to Oviedo City Council member to chief of the swing state GOP. In three short years, he managed to oversee charges of more than $7 million on the party AmEx card, including nearly $500,000 for personal indulgences like spa treatments, flowers, flights, and fine dining. Greer gave new meaning to the term “party chairman”—and I’m not even counting allegations about golf carts full of hookers on a fundraising trip to the Bahamas.

Greer’s abuse of donors’ money was unethical but not really original—party politics is full of sleazy skimming off the top. His real crime was a scheme to get a 10 percent cut of all major party donations through a corporation called Victory Strategies, of which Greer was the secret majority owner.

Give the man credit for coming up with a con that would make Bebe Rebozo blush.

In Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” What we see in this scandal is the logical evolution. When donors try to buy access and influence, the party chairman starts thinking he’s a one-man Goldman Sachs, entitled to a cut of every deal.

But as sordid as the money trail might be, the much anticipated main event was cut short by Greer’s plea deal, which came on the morning his trial was set to commence. It had promised to be the kind of political corruption trial that makes you want to break out popcorn and watch the stars fall.

The Florida Republican Party has essentially run the state over the past decade, and all the bold-faced names, from officeholders to donors, were set to testify. “The trial potentially involved a plethora of players who’d like nothing better than for this to all go away,” says Adam Goodman, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant.

The highest stakes were for Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned independent turned Democrat. Crist is widely expected to make another run for governor against the loaded but unpopular incumbent Rick Scott, who got rich running a health-care company that pleaded guilty to historic levels of Medicare fraud and could look forward to a postpolitical future fronting a Midnight Oil cover band.

Greer and Crist were once as cozy as two little lice on the body politic. Greer was Crist’s handpicked party chairman and the two seemed inseparable, with Greer acting as part wingman and part consigliere.

"Jim Greer was a choice made by Charlie Crist, and Florida Republicans paid the price," says Rick Wilson, longtime Florida GOP strategist. "Lavishly corrupt, Greer made venality his only ideology. Emerson said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man, and Crist proved that by selecting a guy who lived large on the backs of small donors, all while wrecking the best party organization in the country."

Greer’s corruption is just an extreme example of the atmosphere of excess and entitlement that bubbles over when money and party politics collide.

When questions were first raised about Greer’s leadership of the state GOP, Crist was a staunch defender of his main man. On Monday, Crist tried to play the moralist, saying, “When people lie and steal, there is a price to pay.” Inside, he must have been thrilled—spared the indignity of embarrassing testimony while living to fight another day.

There is no honor among thieves, and it was Greer’s onetime deputy and silent business partner, Delmar Johnson, who turned state’s evidence. In a conversation taped by the feds, Johnson told Greer, “You don’t have to worry about me.” But it was Johnson who was primed to repeat allegations about the lascivious Bahamas fundraising trip with “golf carts full of hookers” that threatened to implicate dozens of party bigwigs and stain the family values brand just a little bit further.

The donors who forked over their excess dough and ended up paying for apparatchik excesses aren’t the victims in this Orlando-area morality play. The Republican Party will blame the culture of corruption on one bad apple named Jim Greer and move on. Johnson will get a new job and get on with his life. And who knows? Crist might still climb his way back into the governor’s mansion he once couldn’t wait to leave.

Greer’s corruption is just an extreme example of the atmosphere of excess and entitlement that bubbles over when money and party politics collide. The honest men in the business are the exception. And there’s little reason to think that this particular political swamp will ever drain entirely. As the comic poet laureate of Florida, Carl Hiaasen, once told us: “The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you’d be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office.”