Investigations, Accusations Fly in Florida

Florida Republicans have had a rough time of it over the past couple years, and now, in the aftermath of financial scandals that took down the former chairman of the state party, they're hoping Charlie Crist gets dragged into the mess.

The Republican Party of Florida has announced that Crist, the governor who left the GOP this spring to mount an independent bid for Senate, ran up "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in charges to the state party, and that the party is looking further into Crist's dealings.

The party's executive board has decided to request additional information on Crist (and three others) from the firm conducting a forensic audit of the party's past finances, the party announced. Republican Party of Florida Chairman John Thrasher told the Orlando Sentinel that:

...auditors found that Crist, [former party chairman Jim] Greer and Delmar Johnson, the party's former executive director, may have inappropriately spent money on travel, consultants, meetings and other items not related to party business.

Thrasher provided no firm numbers but said Greer could owe "hundreds of thousands" of dollars and that Crist was in "that ballpark." Thrasher said party officials would spend the next 10 days considering a lawsuit against Crist, Greer and Johnson.

Here's the back-story to all this: When Crist was still a Republican governor, the party was being run by the since-indicted Jim Greer, who allegedly steered money (along with Delmar Johnson) from the party to a firm that he owned, without telling anyone that he owned it, in what Florida Republicans generally agree was an embezzlement scheme that defrauded the party.

Under Thrasher, the RPOF contracted Alston & Bird to conduct a forensic audit of its books. They did this roughly one month before Crist left the GOP, and rumors have churned in Florida Republican circles about what the audit may contain and whether it will damage the governor. Alston & Bird has conducted its investigation independently, but some Republicans saw what the party handed over to them when the investigation began. Unsubstantiated talk simmered that Crist had run up thousands of expenses on his own wedding. That sort of talk was going around rather openly.

It's a bad situation for Crist, potentially, but of course the badness of it has a lot to do with whether he actually abused party funds at any point.

Crist's political enemies in the state Republican Party--who have had few nice things to say about him since even before he defected, as Rubio gained his own anti-Crist following within the state's Republican ranks--have in their possession all this paperwork from Crist's former involvement in the party, have hired shrewd investigators to rifle through it, and are now announcing, in somewhat vague terms, that Crist may or may not have defrauded them.

The state party will not necessarily release all of the investigation, which also looked into Marco Rubio's use of party credit cards (an issue he has previously addressed). They'll make that decision in 10 days.

At this point, it's basically up to the RPOF's discretion, how to comment on these findings, and if there's anything bad about Crist in them, it's in their interest to pick it out and make sure everyone knows it, in the least flattering terms for Crist that they can use.

According to Thrasher, Crist may have run up hundreds or tens of thousands in fraudulent, abusive charges. Which would be bad, bad news for a Senate candidate. A lot of people seem to have been waiting for this shoe to drop in the Florida Senate race.

We'll have to wait until more information comes back from Alston & Bird and more specifics are made public before we know how much, if any, in appropriate spending can be attributed to Crist, or if RPOF is simply lumping him in with the other individuals, already known to have perpetrated financial skulduggery, for whatever reason.

The Crist campaign, meanwhile, has countered by calling on Marco Rubio to release his tax returns to reveal more about $10,000 he charged on the RPOF's credit cards. An investigation was opened into party credit card use, and Rubio has previously explained some expenses on it as a double-billing.