ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ When the trial of former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer on corruption charges begins Monday, it will likely include testimony about questionable behavior and intraparty strife that will make both GOP leaders and rank-and-file members cringe.
The topics could include allegations of prostitutes at a party fundraiser in the Bahamas; lavish spending on fancy restaurants and luxury hotels by state GOP leaders; criminal charges of party money funneled to a private company controlled by Greer; and party leaders stabbing each other in the back.
Greer faces a two-week trial on theft, fraud and money laundering charges. Jurors will have to decide if Greer committed a crime when he channeled more than $200,000 of party money to his company, or whether the charges are revenge for the waning popularity of his political patron: former Gov. Charlie Crist, who defected from the Republican Party to run as an independent for the U.S. Senate and is now a Democrat.
Greer, 50, was vice mayor of the small central Florida town of Oviedo when Crist surprisingly picked him to be the state party chairman after he led local efforts to help Crist get elected governor in 2006. He previously was the president and CEO of a company that provides training to the hospitality industry on how to comply with alcohol laws. Greer, who faces up to 75 years in prison if convicted, has pleaded not guilty.
“He is going to clear his name,'' said Damon Chase, Greer's attorney.
The trial could have political ramifications for Crist as he contemplates running for governor against his former party, as well as for prominent Republicans including former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star. Crist and LeMieux are scheduled to appear as witnesses. Also on the witness list are past and present leaders of the Florida House: Dean Cannon, Tom Feeney, John Thrasher and Will Weatherford. Others include former Florida Senate leader Mike Haridopolos and former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.
“I think it would be one of those things where there will be a lot of stuff that is said that will embarrass some people,'' said state Sen. John Thrasher, who succeeded Greer as state GOP chair in 2010. “On the other hand, the effort to seek the truth is what the trial is all about.''
It could be a boost for the one Republican who has no involvement: Gov. Rick Scott ran for office in 2010 as an outsider opposed by the Republican establishment. Scott used the Greer trial to attack his GOP rival for governor, McCollum, by running television ads linking McCollum to the scandal.
“I wasn't a part of the party at the time, so I don't have any idea,'' Scott said Friday, when asked about the effect the trial could have on the state GOP's image.
The trial also threatens to expose the underbelly of Florida's dominant political party and its formerly high-spending ways. Party officials took heat three years ago from revelations of excessive spending at restaurants and luxury hotels on party-issued American Express cards and testimony may focus on those expenditures. Pretrial depositions have already revealed embarrassing allegations, including one made by Greer's former right-hand man, Delmar Johnson, about prostitutes driving around a golf course at a state GOP fundraiser in the Bahamas.
“I specifically saw a golf cart with young ladies drive by,'' said Johnson, former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. “The extent of why they were there I did not specifically know, but I could presume that they were prostitutes.''
Johnson has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying against Greer, and he promises to be the state's star witness since Greer formed the company, Victory Strategies, with Johnson as a partner. Greer took a 60 percent interest in the company and Johnson had 40 percent.
The trial will present conflicting versions of whether other party officials knew Greer had set up the company with Johnson. Greer contended the 10 percent cut Johnson and he took from fundraisers was cheaper than the $30,000 a month the party had been paying its previous fundraiser, Meredith O'Rourke.
Former state GOP finance chairman Harry Sargeant said in an affidavit that Crist and other party officials knew about the arrangement. “I was surprised when Greer was charged with a crime … as Greer and Mr. Johnson were acting with the knowledge and approval of Governor Crist,'' Sargeant said.
GOP lobbyist Brian Ballard also said in a deposition that he talked to Crist about the arrangement.
“He said that he had approved it, that it was the chairman's prerogative to restructure and reorganize fundraising, that they were going to do it in-house,'' Ballard said of Crist. “`They' being the chairman and the executive director, were gonna take fundraising over in house so to speak, and that it would save money, and that he supported what the chairman was talking about doing.''
Crist denied ever approving the arrangement in his deposition. When shown Ballard's testimony, Crist said, “I don't believe it's truthful.''
Even Crist's drinking habits could come under scrutiny at the trial. Greer's attorney tried to get the former governor to answer questions about how much wine he drank daily after Crist said he didn't remember events during a deposition. Further questions on the matter were delayed until trial.
“One of the things we don't want to do is just get into some sort of character assassination, and you know, try to embarrass the governor,'' said Crist's attorney, John Morgan.
But that may be exactly what happens during the trial.