Questions about GOP credit card use get louder

Feb 20, 2010

William March

Tampa Tribune


TAMPA - A scandal over alleged misuse of state Republican Party money and credit cards, formerly a tempest in the party teapot, is threatening to boil over and affect the party's 2010 election chances.

Republicans statewide are outraged and looking for someone to blame for what appears to be the financial collapse of their party.

Today, they'll meet in Orlando to elect a new chairman, replacing Jim Greer, blamed for presiding over the financial meltdown. Both candidates have promised an intensive audit of party finances if they're elected.

"How can we, with any credibility, claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and standing up against wasteful spending, if we can't do it within our own party?" said Hernando County party chairman Blaise Ingoglia. "We can't earn people's trust without fixing that. The first step on the road to recovery is admitting we had a problem."

But at the same time party leaders and candidates are demanding an open accounting, they're also worried about public relations damage from information that may come out.

Gleeful Democrats as well as some 2010 GOP candidates, are calling for full release of records, including Gov. Charlie Crist, running for U.S. Senate, and state Sen. Paula Dockery, running for governor.

"The party would do itself a great favor if it would just release the information," said Dockery."If there's nothing to it, then why don't we come clean and prove there's nothing to it? If there is something, then why don't we come clean and get past it?"

Others are reluctant, including Crist's primary opponent Marco Rubio, and Attorney General Bill McCollum, frontrunner in the primary for governor.
GOP says finances private

The party is a private organization that doesn't use tax money, they point out, and its financial records aren't public except those required in campaign finance reports - which don't include detailed credit card receipts.

"The policy of the Republican Party of Florida is to keep financial documents confidential, and Marco will respect their policy," said a statement from his campaign.

But the candidates' stances, in some cases, seem to reflect how much each has to lose in the issue.

Crist, for example, never had one of the party credit cards that some party officials say may have been misused, but he could take substantial blame for party mismanagement because he picked Greer as chairman.

Rubio, who had a party credit card, has said he doesn't think records of his card use should be released unless and until all the party card records are.

Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican, doesn't think the controversy will remain an internal matter.

"My guess is Governor Crist will try to use this to his advantage. He's already emphasized he didn't have a credit card. The implication is someone else did - Marco Rubio."

Even though the issue involves only money donated to the Republican Party by its supporters, "it could still resonate with voters, depending on how a card was used or how money was spent," Paulson said.

"I'd be very surprised if the Democrats don't tout it as one of their primary issues, when the Republicans campaign as the party of fiscal responsibility," Paulson said. "It leads into the concern about the cynicism and distrust of politicians."

McCollum's reluctance to launch a state investigation has made him a particular target of Democrats over the issue.

"Bill McCollum refuses to investigate, even as the evidence of serious misuse of funds mounts," said a news release Friday from his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.

McCollum, in response, said he hasn't seen evidence that a crime has been committed, and accuses the Democrats of playing politics. He says he wants to wait until the new party chairman takes over and audits the party's books.

"If audit findings suggest potential criminal activity, I will assist the (state party) in directing these findings to the appropriate law enforcement investigatory agency," he said in a statement.

Stories of lavish spending

For the last year or more, the party has spent more money than it raised and "has very limited financial resources to sustain operations," said party Vice Chairman Allen Cox, former head of the party's finance committee.

In 2009, the party raised nearly $6.5 million for its federal campaign spending account, but spending left $124,129 in the bank and $466,978 in debts.
In its state campaign spending account, the party finished the year with about $1.4 million, but legislative leaders have since withdrawn nearly $1 million for legislative campaigns.

Stories abound among GOP insiders of lavish spending, sometimes by Greer, on meals and hotel stays and chartered jets to attend political events.

Greer resigned immediately after the end of the year.

Since then, party officials have revealed a contract that paid the party executive director, Delmar Johnson, a close political associate of Crist and Greer, a lucrative commission on all money raised from big donors.

Party activists have questioned whether anyone else benefited from the commissions paid to Johnson's corporation.

Credit cards questioned

Questions arose about use of party credit cards when it was revealed that former House Speaker Ray Sansom had used a card to pay for a trip to Europe for himself and his family, accompanying Crist on a trade mission, in July 2008.
Sansom has been indicted over allegations of funneling tax money to an airport hangar project intended to benefit a political contributor.

At least a handful of top GOP legislators such as Sansom had cards to use for traveling the state to recruit and train legislative candidates and attend fundraising and other events to benefit those candidates.

But Democrats and some Republicans question whether the cards were misused.
Democratic attorney general candidates Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg have both demanded that McCollum conduct a criminal investigation.

If such a card were used for anything other than legitimate party activity, Gelber said, it could amount to a contribution from the party to the legislator's own campaign, which legally must be reported.




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