Details: State GOP Leaders Lived It Up on Party Plastic
And if the current party leaders are to be believed, it was also the beginning of a two-year period of spending that was out of control, with party credit cards being dropped on lavish expenses from limousines and chartered aircraft to beachfront resorts and trips to England and other overseas destinations.
The final tab? More than $7 million.
The Republican Party of Florida on Friday released to the media hundreds of pages of American Express statements from the two-year period during which Jim Greer was the chairman. The party is working to distance itself from the tainted former chairman, who was handpicked by Gov. Charlie Crist and ousted earlier this year as donors became enraged by revelations of prolific spending by Greer and other top party officials including, in some cases, legislative leaders.
Much of the information about the spending during that period has been leaked out over the past several months, but a better picture emerged Friday with the release of the credit card bills showing how party operatives and elected leaders spent millions of dollars, theoretically to better the party's position for 2008 and beyond.
A lot of the spending does give a picture of a party where top officials appeared to live posh off the cards as the economy tanked, homes began going into foreclosures and unemployment started heading up.
In the 2006 elections, while the party held on to the governorship, it lost seven House seats, reversing years of GOP gains. Within weeks of that, party officials were hitting donor dinners, inaugural parties, and other events.
But the spending wasn't all obviously party-related.
For example, just weeks after that November election, Richard Corcoran, who led the Florida Republican Party’s House campaigns under then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, ran up tens of thousands of dollars in charges, using the party card to cover airline fees incurred while taking his family to Amsterdam and Madrid during Christmas week. Back in Tallahassee and awaiting the governor’s inauguration, several hundred dollars worth of dinners, movie tickets and a $150 in bills at a liquor store marked the first week of Corcoran’s 2007.
But it was Greer and executive director Delmar Johnson who really would come to draw the ire of party rank and file. Greer appeared to work hard - he was on the road all the time, the credit card statements show. His Amex bills totaled $478,447, which did not include flights and other accommodations that were arranged by others and appear on their party-issued cards.
But Greer also traveled in style. From February to April of 2007, he paid more than $18,500 to US Sedan Service Taxi and Limo in suburban Washington. Greer and Johnson used limos frequently - they paid $1,827 to Sultans Limousine in Atascadero, Calif., and put $1,964 on the card for Diamond Limousine in Salt Lake City while Greer was staying in Sundance, where he paid $1,638 for lodging in September of 2007. Johnson's predecessor as executive director, Jim Rimes, spent more than $1,000 on limo or taxi service in November, 2007 alone.
While Greer did occasionally stay at more modest hotels, he more often stayed in high-end digs like the Breakers in Palm Beach and the Biltmore in Coral Gables, where he overnighted frequently. When in New York, Greer chose the Pierre Hotel, on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where he spent about $900 over three days just before Christmas in 2007, the statements show. While on the west coast, Greer stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. In March 2008, Greer had a relatively inexpensive $184 room at the Venetian Palazzo in Las Vegas.
Some of the expenses look obviously political in nature - and undoubtedly related to wooing donors. Greer dropped hundreds of dollars over the period at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, a haunt for politicos just steps from the White House that was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Cleveland and Harding. He also used his card at Clyde's of Georgetown, another hideout of the powerful.
In fact, it's impossible to say objectively whether any of the charges are “illegitimate.” Party insiders, including several of those whose statements have leaked out recently, defend spending much to get much, and note that the party has also raised lots of money. Taking contributors to a fancy restaurant or a ballgame may produce an eye-popping charge on a credit card, but if it brings in five times that amount in contributions, political operatives say it's well worth it. That's been a big part of Greer's defense.
Same for Rubio, who during that time put just about $91,000 on his card. Some of it, he has acknowledged, was for personal expenses, but he paid American Express for those charges, rather than having the party pick up the bill, Rubio has said. Rubio, now a U.S. Senate candidate, has also criticized the party during the Greer period, saying the party was run with “arrogance, mismanagement, lack of integrity and lack of leadership.” That remark served Rubio's political purposes, though, because Greer was picked by Crist, who is one of Rubio's opponents for the U.S. Senate.
It's also hard to compare. The party released only credit card statements for the time when Greer, from whom the party is trying hard to distance itself, was chairman. How much party officials spent in a similar period before he took over is also impossible to gauge.
The RPOF did release a couple of statements for the party's previous chair Carole Jean Jordan, who was still getting bills in February 2007 for what she spent as her term wound down. Jordan, who lives in Indian River County, spent much of the transition period at the end of 2006 in Tallahassee and put nearly $100,000 on her credit card in just one month. But much of that was spent at relatively inexpensive hotel rooms: on rooms at the Towneplace Suites and the Residence Inn. Also, that $100,000 charge included one huge $41,000 charge at the Rosen Hotel in Orlando, where the RPOF holds its regular executive meetings and conventions.
Damon Chase, Greer's attorney, said the party had selectively released credit card statements aimed at discrediting his client and making it appear that such spending was confined to Greer's tenure.
“They are still clearly on a witch hunt,” Chase said. “This a half truth and a half truth is a whole lie.”
Greer is suing the party trying to recover severance he claims he's owed.
Several legislative leaders still in office also now face scrutiny of their spending on behalf of the party - and the story is largely the same. Many put tens of thousands of dollars on cards, but it's impossible to say whether the charges were legitimate party expenses that brought in money from donors, or just living large on someone else's dime.
Former Speaker Ray Sansom had a party card, as did outgoing Senate President Jeff Atwater. Atwater's spending was light in comparison to many others. From July 2007 to October 2009, Atwater spent $44,985.11, mostly on rental cars, plane tickets, hotel stays and meals. Among his meal choices were Quiznos, IHOP and Cracker Barrel. His big ticket item was paying for a dinner at Italian chain Buca Di Beppo in Chicago that was worth $2,185.26.
Sansom, who was ousted as speaker in January 2009 while facing an investigation for his actions as budget chairman, racked up nearly $200,000 on his party credit card, with expenses that included limousine service, flights and tuxedo rental. The party also chipped in on the former lawmaker's expenses during a trip to London in summer 2008 paying for tourist attractions and meals.
Former Senate President Ken Pruitt had $20,600 in charges, former Sen. Dan Webster $9,600 and the next Senate president, Mike Haridopolos, who only had his card from July until October of 2009, spent just $2,337.
Many of the staffers spending money were party insiders, including junior staffers, completely unknown to the general public
Melanie Phister put more than $1.2 million on her AmEx, but much of it was spending for others, like the plane tickets to London for Sansom and his family, which was charged on her card. Phister was finance director for House campaigns. The St. Petersburg Times reported earlier this year that Phister accompanied Sansom on a trip to London in 2008 and brought her mother along. There were more than $3,000 in sightseeing expenses on the card for that trip.
Cameron Lee Ulrich, director of finance for Senate Campaigns, similarly spent lots of money on expenses that look lavish while amassing $207,059 in charges between March 2007 and January 2010. Included in her purchases were $4,800 for New York Yankee baseball tickets, $12,000 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and $2,000 for the Orlando Magic. Ulrich also authorized $12,900 to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York. But again, party officials have noted that if you take a donor to a game and it ends up with lots of cash coming in, it's not a frivolous expense.
Rimes, the former executive director, was one of the biggest spenders, having put just over $2 million on his card during the period.
And for irony, consider this: much of the reporting on Greer's spending has been done by the Miami Herald-St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee bureau. Greer spent $6,804 on St. Pete Times subscriptions in early 2008.