Former GOP Chairman Jim Greer says he was set up by party leaders so they could take control

8:40 AM, Oct 4, 2011   |    comments
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OVIEDO, Florida -- He is accused of lavish spending, forming a secret corporation, and funneling Republican Party money to his own account. It led to the arrest of former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer, who is now awaiting trial.

Since his arrest last year, Greer has maintained his silence - until now. Greer is talking for the first time to 10 News Investigators.

"If they could have put Charlie Crist in prison, they would have done that," says Greer.

"The entire episode is going to play out like a Shakespearean tragedy where everybody dies," says Damon Chase, one of Greer's attorneys.

Greer's wife, Lisa, says because of what happened to her husband during the last gubernatorial election she started crying in the voting booth.

"The case itself and the motive behind it is political corruption," says another Greer lawyer, Cheney Mason.

These people are talking about a series of events that involves or touches Senator Marco Rubio, former Governor Charlie Crist, former Senator George LeMieux, former Attorney General Bill McCollum, President of the Florida Senate Mike Haridoplos, Speaker of the House Dean Cannon, and State Senator John Thrasherf who at one time was the head of the Republic Party of Floridaf which insiders call the RPOF.

"They just destroyed my life for no reason," says Greer, holding back tears.

Greer is at the center of the controversy and an effort by the leadership to derail the senate bid by Charlie Crist.  "They never supported the governor and looked to turn on the governor, and I was, as many said, the last man standing between the governor and the rest of the party," says Greer of the leadership and conservative wing of the party.

The erosion of the governor's popularity was great news for the right wing of the party, because it wanted Marco Rubio to be the Senate candidate. But with Greer as chairman, the money would flow to the governor.

"There is no doubt people would tell me frequently I needed to go out in a body bag, because I was the last person between the party infrastructure attacking the governor, because as chairman I had to sign off on everything the party did," says Greer.

Greer believed he was in the crosshairs of the Republican Party. "The party elders were focused on two things: getting me out as chairman and installing their own chairman, and defeating Charlie Crist."

As Rubio was picking up steam and support from those in control of the party, Greer got a visit from Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Speaker of the Florida House Dean Cannon. Greer says they told him the governor had lost support of the party, had lost their support, and since Greer was his handpicked chairman he needed to leave.

Clearly, Crist wasn't happy about the thought of Greer leaving as chairman because he said it was a battle the conservatives wanted to wage for years and it would give them more leverage. The governor told Greer the ultra conservatives wanted to have that battle and, according to Greer, he was extremely upset about him leaving as chair.

But Greer realized he had to resign or he would be voted out at the January 2010 meeting. Over the governor's objections, he agreed to go.

Greer's decision to resign came into focus when he was told the leaders of the party would do and say anything to get him out.

"I remember my comment was something about the truth and their response was, 'The truth be damned.' They were very clear with me. If I didn't resign, my life would be a living hell," says Greer.

But as Greer was getting ready to resign, the state Republican Party was under fire for the amount of money it was spending and putting on credit cards. Greer went to attorney Damon Chase to insure that the money he spent as chairman would not be used against him after he resigned.

"If you spend $5,000 on a skybox to wine and dine a potential contributor, it sounds like a lot of money. It sounds like it is extravagant, but two days later when the contributor gives you $25,000, that's a good return. That's a good investment. Greer was spending a lot of money, but he was bringing a lot of money in," says Chase.

But Greer wasn't the only one racking up big charges on the Republican Party credit card. Speaker Dean Cannon was buying suits and having $2,000 steak dinners. Marco Rubio charged more than $4,000 for flooring at his home, all on GOP credit cards. The GOP money was being spent at such a breakneck pace that Democrats spoofed Rubio in a mock American Express ad.

"Marco Rubio can afford a lot of things, but what he can't -- there's always the Republican Party Credit Card."

It was the way the party operated. Greer remembers representatives from the Senate and House coming to him shortly after being elected party leader and explaining how the fundraising and credit cards were used by the party.

"They wanted to make clear that I understood a term I'd never heard before, that 'We eat what we kill, chairman.' If we raise a million dollars for Senate and House campaigns and we want to have baseball games, limousines, and five star hotels, don't you or anyone else ever tell us we can't," says Greer.

As Greer was being pressured to resigned, not only was he concerned about the party coming after him for the money spent, but the party was concerned as well. There was good reason to worry.

Even MSNBC's Morning Joe jumped into the fray. "Federal investigators have launched several probes into the spending and funding of the Republican Party Florida. I'll tell you what, he's got all the records, all the e-mails, he's got everything," he said at the time.

The party leaders were convinced Greer would blow the whistle on their spending.

"If we want to go burn the house down and destroy the party, we can do that, because I'm not leaving without something," Greer told party leaders.

Clearly, Greer knew where all the "bodies were buried" and the party was aware of that. "They were as concerned as I was, because they were afraid I was going to sue them for forcing me out of the chairmanship," he says.

The Florida Republican Party Attorney Jason Gonzalez and Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, came up with a proposed settlement to protect both sides.

"On December 27, 2009, Gonzalez, who is the general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida, drafted a proposed severance agreement for Chairman Jim Greer. It included a clause that all the expenditures during Chairman Greer's term were necessary, proper, and authorized by the Republican Party of Florida," says Chase.

Victory Strategies was a company Greer and the executive director of the party, Delmar Johnson, formed after he fired the party's main fundraiser, Meredith O'Rourke, who had strong ties to the conservative wing of the party.

When she was fired, O'Rourke was making $30,000 a month, $360,000 a year, plus commission to raise money for the party. Greer was having a time finding someone to replace her because of O'Rourke's political connections.

According to Greer, former Charlie Crist chief of staff and, at that time, U.S. Senator George LeMieux, who had been appointed to fill Mel Martinez's unexpired term, came up with the idea.

"George LeMieux ... made the suggestion right out on the driveway on this cell phone, that 'Maybe you and Delmar ought to do the fundraising and pay yourself a commission for it,'" says Greer.

While LeMieux won't deny he might have suggested Greer and Johnson do the fundraising, he has been quoted since 10 News Investigators first brought the issue up as saying he didn't know specifically about Victory Strategies.

Charlie Crist maintains he was aware of the fundraising plan. 

"Desperate people do and say desperate things," he says. However, Greer's wife, Lisa, says it was Crist who was saying desperate things and alleges the former governor threw Greer under the bus to protect his own image.

Prior to forming Victory Strategies, Greer went to one of the largest law firms in the state, Grey Robinson, to see if his plan would be legal and to draw up the papers. Under the contract, Greer's Victory Strategies would receive the same 10 percent commission from money brought into the party, but not the same $30,000 a month salary that O'Rourke was receiving as the chief fundraiser.

Damon Chase believed, in effect, Greer saved the party hundreds of thousands of dollars and brought in big dollars from contributors.

Traditionally, the party of the governor in office expects him to be the point person for bringing in money, but Crist was no longer interested in raising money for the Republican Party, but instead was focusing on the Charlie Crist for Senate campaign. Chase says after they set up Victory Strategies, they started making money and making up for the fact Charlie Crist wasn't raising money for the general fund of the party.

Chase says everything was going fine, but then Marco Rubio started gaining traction.

Those supporting Marco Rubio were gaining control of the state Republican Party and they believed it was imperative that Greer leave, but Greer wouldn't leave his post without protection and a statement that everything he did as chairman, including Victory Strategies, was in the best interest of the party.

The agreement that party Counsel Gonzalez and Damon Chase came up with included paying Greer's salary for a year; a hold harmless clause saying under his chairmanship all American Express payments, fundraising payments, consultant  agreements, and Victory Strategies by name were all approved ratified as appropriate; and they would pay Greer a million dollars if they harmed his reputation.

"We went back and forth with a couple of versions of the severance agreement, negotiating it back and forth, the next couple of days. While several versions of the agreement contained Victory Strategies, we ultimately removed that from the final version and substituted all fundraising fees.  We removed Victory Strategies and just left fundraising fees so that would cover everything, and the next paragraph says it releases him from all liabilities known and unknown. In contract language, that is rock solid language. Buddy, you're done," says Chase.

Chase points out not only did the party acknowledge everything was proper and necessary, but the agreement released Greer from any liability for anything know or unknown.

The agreement was signed by Gonzalez, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Speaker of the House Dean Cannon, and State Senator John Thrasher, who the leadership of the party determined would be the next head of the party, even though the grass roots had no idea and was putting up its own candidate to succeed Greer.

Greer believed the fix was in - Thrasher would become the next chairman of the party. He expressed his concerns on how Thrasher was already being treated as chair without the party regulars knowing what was going on.

"The way you are jamming this down the throat of the state party is going to backfire.  They told me not to worry about it," says Greer.

Greer agreed to resign and Thrasher was elected chairman in January 2010, but the party was facing a major problem. Word of the severance agreement was leaking out and the leaders of the party were quoted in the media as saying no agreement existed.

Despite what the leaders were saying, the right wing of the party was skeptical about the agreement and it was not happy.

The day Thrasher was elected, he and the Gonzalez went into the executive committee and said no severance agreement existed.

"That was astounding to me, because now they weren't lying to the media, they were lying to the group that had just elected him and Gonzalez was lying to his client," says Greer.

Jim Stelling, who was on the executive committee, listened to Thrasher and Gonzalez denying the existence of any agreement.

"I was at that meeting. I was sitting there. My jaw dropped. I'm thinking 'I know there's an agreement, I've seen it' and there they were denying it," he says.

In addition to being on the executive committee, Stelling was a friend of Greer and acted as a go-between. But because of pressure from right-wing grassroots, which adamantly opposed any severance agreement, the leadership of the Republican Party started to backpedal.

"Then it started as they said publicly 'if there was anything that was signed, we'll never pay.' At the same time, they were calling me on my phone telling me not to worry [about] what I was reading in the papers, they had to say that to keep the grassroots under control," says Greer, calling it a comedy of statements.

Damon Chase says all of a sudden everything changed and he got a call from party attorney Jason Gonzalez, who told him he didn't believe they have an agreement. He said the severance agreement was incomplete because Jim Greer never signed it.

"You have a copy and I have a copy in my safe and I'll fax it to you," Chase says he told Gonzalez.

A couple of days went by and Chase says Gonzalez called back.

"We don't have an agreement because some of the signatures were faxed and faxed signatures don't count in Florida, but I cited opinions from every appellate court in Florida and the Florida Supreme Court says faxed signatures are enforceable," says Chase.

Chase says Gonzalez then came back. "It's not enforceable because nobody had authority to sign and then I showed him, according to Republican Party rules, all of you had authority and all of you did sign," says Chase.

Lisa Greer, who grew up in Republican politics, tried to talk her husband out of resigning.  All the denials of an agreement being signed shook her faith in the leaders of the party.

"I couldn't believe it. I'd seen the paperwork, I heard Jim's conversations when they were on the phone. I couldn't believe they would blatantly lie. This is the leadership of our state, the Republican Party who stand up and raise the flag of moral values, and they are the party of family and they are destroying my family. They are stepping on my family to protect themselves and lying blatantly," she says.

"That's politics. Essentially, the politicians don't feel compelled to tell the truth about anything," says attorney Chaney Mason, part of the legal team that defended Casey Anthony. Mason believes this could be one of the biggest political conspiracies the state has ever seen.

"They got Greer to resign, agreed to a severance package, and promptly defaulted, failing on the first payment," he says.

But all Greer was interested in was getting his money and the leaders of the party came up with a new plan.  

"We can't pay it from the party funds, an audit would show where it came from. It would show a check going from the RPOF to Jim Greer and people, the grassroots, would go nuts," says Greer.

It would also show the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House, and the incoming Republican chairman were all liars. "I wouldn't call them liars, but they are poor historians and it would show a negative light on some of their previous comments," says Chase.

In order to close the deal, Senate President Haridopolos and Speaker of the House Cannon sent their top aides, Pat Bainter and Mark Rickelderfer, to Greer's friend Jim Stelling to say they would give Greer $200,000 in hush money to make the entire episode go away.

"Can you talk to Jim about this and all I heard from them is they wanted to do the right thing, they wanted Jim to get compensated, and we were working toward it," Stelling says he was told by Bainter and Rickelderfer.

Greer was supposed to get his first payment on March 1st, 2010, but the money never came. The leadership of the party was worried Greer would blow the whistle.

"It is coming, please don't do anything, you're going to get your money. We're just trying to find a way to get it to you," says Greer of the leadership.

But the Republican Party couldn't find a donor to give Greer the severance package and the leadership didn't want to show the payment on the books of the Republican Party.

"So the money doesn't come and the next week we contact them and say 'What happened to the money?" says Chase.

That's when Chase and the party leaders took a new strategy. "We are not going to pay him, because we are going to have him arrested because he never told us about Victory Strategies and he has got to go to jail."

Chase says he was told by party leaders, "We showed where we didn't lie to you, it's in the contract and you drafted it, Jason."

"Grey-Robinson was very involved with being a major donor to the party and Dean Cannon was a partner with Grey-Robinson. We wanted to find out if there was any way that we could make this consulting firm that we were going to have long after I was chairman and not make the officers known," says Greer.

Not only did the Grey-Robinson firm say what Greer was doing was legal, when then Attorney General Bill McCollum was first asked about Greer and Victory Strategies, his first reaction was there was nothing criminal involved. Then McCollum changed his position.

Damon Chase says McCollum only started going after Greer when the Republican Party of Florida started to pressure McCollum, who at the time was the presumptive gubernatorial nominee.

"At this time, you have Bill McCollum gearing up for his run at governor and he needs RPOF support. The RPOF wanted Jim Greer's head on a stick and it convinced McCollum to have the state prosecutor on public corruption to investigate a $100,000 claim against Jim Greer," says Chase.

While McCollum maintains he wasn't behind the statewide prosecutor's decision to impanel a grand jury, Lisa Greer doesn't believe it.

"I'm very angry, and a lot of that is motivated from fear. Some of these people were my idols. I grew up in the Republican Party and Bill McCollum was my hero, but him... I believe he orchestrated this and that he would want to be governor so badly that he would have no regard to what this would do to our family's future."

She adds, "He came across very well in the press as a boy scout, but he is not. He's not an honest man, he's not an honorable man, he would do anything he had to do to placate the people who wanted to take my husband out."

The grand jury indicts Greer. His attorneys maintain the statewide prosecutor withheld key evidence from them that would have cleared him.

"It's long been said sarcastically 'any prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich any day of the week.' They tell the grand jury what the facts are, the way they seem, they tell the grand jury what the law is according to them, and then do the documentation process," says attorney Mason. "The grand jury is set up where they only present their side of the story."

"They only presented Victory Strategies, but they didn't show the severance agreement where the treasurer, the vice treasurer, the CFO, where they say these funds were necessary proper and ratified by the party. The grand jury never saw that. The grand jury only saw he set up this private confidential company to take 10 percent of the donations and said that doesn't look very nice," says Chase.

Following the indictment the, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, under McCollum's control, goes to the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court to get a search warrant for Greer's home.

"The chief justice did not have authority to sign a search warrant and there is case law to support this. It's a circus. Why did they go to a supreme court judge? For political impact, thinking that would cause somebody to shudder, I guess?" says Mason.

Although Greer's attorneys were telling him he would be able to turn himself in and bond out within hours, his arrest became a very public ordeal.

"And I look out my window and two black cars pull in and block both sides of my driveway. There were at least 12 agents that came in, hands on their guns," says Lisa Greer.

"I was inside shaving, and my wife informed me there were cars blocking the driveway. There were agents in the backyard, there were agents coming up to the front of the house and the side of the house. They pushed their way into the house, came into the bedroom, and told me I was under arrest for multiple counts. I said, 'This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen,' and they said they had a warrant to search the house," says Jim Greer.

Damon Chase believes the public arrest by the FDLE was intended to embarrass Greer and take the heat off the Republican Party, and he believes that since FDLE is under the attorney general, who was McCollum at the time, the manner in which the arrest was carried out was completely inappropriate.

"They didn't pull him over in his car and say, 'I'm sorry, I have a warrant for your arrest.' They didn't do what they would have done for anybody who is 'lawyered up,' contact the lawyer and say, 'We have a warrant for his arrest, we need to Mr. Greer to turn himself in.' That's what everybody does, but instead these guys run the state of Florida. They are able to assemble this SWAT team of FDLE agents, this platoon of armed law enforcement individuals, to storm his house early in the morning. They bust up in there, they grab him out of his bed, literally out of his bed, pull him out as his wife and children are screaming, as these people with guns are ransacking their house," says Chase.

"The FDLE agents are completely totaling the house. They are tearing everything out of the cabinets, going through the garage looking for what? This is a dispute between Jim Greer and the Republican Party of Florida. That wouldn't have happened to anybody. This is a civil matter," says Chase, trying to control his anger.

Mason believes it's not a criminal case, but a political conspiracy.  "The whole thing boils down to if they have evidence that Jim Greer stole money from the Republican Party that's one thing, but they don't because it is not true. The powers that be and the new right of the Republican Party wanted Mr. Greer gone so they could mount an attack on Charlie Crist, because he had become too reasonable a human being for the right to accept. What they had to do to get Charlie, they had to get Greer. They got Greer to resign and agree to a severance package and promised to pay him a severance package to leave. The party entered into a contract and promptly defaulted, failing on the first payment," says Mason.

Greer, who admits he was arrogant at times and too closely aligned with Charlie Crist, believes he underestimated how powerful the old guard in the party was.

"I probably would not have messed with some of the powers that be, because they thought their little world was being encroached up and they can come out with guns blazing," he says.

Greer, who had once known the heights of power and was once mentioned as a possible chairman of the Republican National Party, has had his life destroyed.

A year after his arrest, Greer breaks down remembering what this has done to his life.  "Well, I can't get a job. I have no money. I had to give it all to my attorneys. I tried to be a good chairman. These people destroyed my life for no reason. I can't believe these people, who I thought were my friends and I tried to do good for the Republican Party, would do this to me. One thing I've learned is there is a lot at stake with a U.S. senate seat and the governor's race, and there is no limitation to what people will do to get to those offices," he says.

Greer can't understand why he was targeted to be destroyed. "They didn't have to do this to me. I gave them everything they ever wanted and I did everything they asked me to do, but they didn't have to do this to me. I don't understand. I mean, I do understand, but I'll never understand. Politics isn't supposed to be this bad. It is vicious."

Greer believes when the full story comes out, that "viciousness" in politics will end the careers of some of Florida's most powerful and influential politicians.

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