As a volatile election season gets underway, the Republican Party of Florida is facing its biggest crisis of confidence in decades.
Donors and party activists are livid over newly revealed records that suggest outgoing chairman Jim Greer used the party as a personal slush fund for lavish travel and entertainment.
The records also show that executive director Delmar Johnson padded his $103,000 salary with a secret, $260,000 fundraising contract and another $42,000 for expenses -- at the same time the once mighty Florida GOP was having to lay off employees amid anemic fundraising.
Another sign of trouble came Monday with news that incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon transferred $665,000 of party money in the days surrounding Greer's resignation to a separate political committee called the Florida Liberty Fund, suggesting lack of confidence in the party election machine.
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Greer has long been known as a flamboyant chairman who enjoyed entourages, charter jets and belting out Elvis at party galas. But even the biggest critics of Gov. Charlie Crist's hand-picked chairman were stunned by revelations that he entered into a lucrative secret contract with a stealth company set up by his most loyal aide de camp, 30-year-old Johnson, a former Crist campaign aide.
"Without any question, the hiding of a contract between the chairman and executive director is absolutely unethical. Is it criminal? It could well be,'' said Brevard County Republican Chairman Jason Steele. "Probably what needs to be done is we just need to expose all of this stuff every bit of it, and let the trees fall wherever they do.''
Greer made a show of rescinding the party credit cards of top elected Republican officials and publicly cutting up his American Express card last summer to stem criticism of party spending.
But internal records show heavy spending continued -- on Johnson's card: $100 flower arrangement for the wives of Greer and Gov. Crist; thousands of dollars in meals, $15,000 to charter a jet to George LeMieux's swearing in as U.S. senator, and another $1,800 for in-flight catering services.
The spending helped Johnson rack up more than 1 million American Express points. Greer declined to talk about the matter, but said in a message he was proud of his three years of leadership with the state party.
"It is in the best interest of the party and the upcoming chairman's election to not extensively comment at this time. However, in the future I may do so to ensure the facts are known and the piling on is shown for what it is - political,'' he said in a text message. "I will say Delmar Johnson is a good person and a tireless and hard-working man who did a good job as ED and as a fundraiser for RPOF in hard economic times. I'm proud of the man.''
The revelations have rocked the once disciplined Florida GOP, which finds itself consumed with turmoil and controversy at a time when it should be focused on electing Republicans.
"We are all asking collectively, what did Delmar do with that money? Where did that money go? Who are the other owners of that corporation (linked to Johnson),'' said Allen Cox, vice chairman of the Republican party. "The concern at the grass-roots level is that Delmar would never have been allowed to retain those funds for himself exclusively.''
Said Gary Lee, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party: ``As long as those allegations about misspending continue like a cancer they will erode confidence in the party and cause donors to withhold money. The quicker we can restore confidence and get a new regime in, the better the party will be served. . . . The key question is who knew, what did they know and what did they do about it?''
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