Books

Top Florida Republicans Are Nastier And More Vindictive Than You Thought, Tell-All By Ex-State GOP Chair Says

Jim Greer, the high-flying state party chair, was thrown to the alligators.

Florida Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
Photo Credit: Rubio.Senate.Gov

Political tell-all books usually make big headlines because they expose the secret lives of famous people. The latest is a dark expose of Florida Republicans by Jim Greer, the ex-state GOP chair, who spent 18 months in jail after pleading guilty to illegally skimming party funds. 

Peter Golenbock’s The Chairman: The Rise and Betrayal of Jim Greer pulls back the curtain on Florida Republicans’ inner circles and their shady dealings. Greer lambasts his former colleagues for trying to scuttle Charlie Crist when he was the Republican governor, and then accuses Crist of betraying him. (Today, Crist is again running for that office as a Democrat.)

Greer says U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is little better than an extortionist, taking fellow Republicans to strip clubs and taking photos to subsequently bribe them. 

Is it true? Greer wants us to believe him, and recent Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) actions bolster his claims of skullduggery and high-flying Republicans. 

Greer made national headlines in 2012 when he was accused of taking $125,000 in Republican Party funds when he was state chair and Crist was governor. Now, according to the book, Greer says he was railroaded and scapegoated by Tea Partiers who really wanted to target Crist. He said he pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence, and blamed his misfortune on unswerving loyalty to Crist, who has denied any prior knowledge of Greer’s misdeeds. (On the 2014 campaign trail, Crist said he hadn’t read it and did not recognize anything in reporters’ accounts as “truthful.”)

After a severe drubbing in the press during his trial, Greer wanted to tell his side of the story, so he sought out author Golenbock, who agreed to work with him. The result is The Chairman. Greer has no financial stake in the book.

The account is filled with behind-the-scenes views of top GOP officials, power plays and treachery. There’s lots of steamy stuff. Greer recounts the pay-offs, prostitution, powerful “dragon ladies,” blackmail and more. One of the most eyebrow-raising episodes concerns Rubio and his cronies.

“According to Greer, Rubio would take first year politicians to Miami strip clubs, get them drunk, and then take pictures so they could blackmail them,” Golenbock said. “That’s the one thing in the book that surprised me...I know politicians will go far, but I didn’t think anyone would go that far."

Greer says Rubio doesn’t want African Americans or gays in his Republican Party. He doesn’t want immigrants to have any rights either. Neither does Rubio want the state to take federal funds to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, or to build high-speed rail lines, another Obama-proposed economic stimulus program.

The prevailing ethos in GOP circles is the quid pro quo, which, according to Greer, means that no one does anything for anyone without getting something in return, and keeping that side of party business secret. A recent Tampa Bay Times article lends credence to Greer’s claims of GOP secrecy.

The Times investigated Republican legislators and their regular hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas. At the ranch, hunters can shoot wild boar, deer and even large antelopes, depending on how much they are willing to pay. Texas records show that thousands were paid for hunting licenses for Republican legislators. These are compounded by questions of who paid for the airfare. The Timessaid the state GOP did, but the politicians are keeping quiet.

King Ranch is not exactly a bystander either. Its owners have made generous donations to the state GOP. It’s deeply involved in the sugar industry outside the Everglades. This chummy relationship calls into question delays in long-awaited cleanups of sections of King land holdings in the ecologically fragile preserve. Democrats have not taken these hunting trips to Texas, the Timesfound.

Golenbock has written nine bestsellers in his career, beginning with Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, a history of the New York Yankees under Casey Stengel. In The Chairman, he takes on Florida’s recent Republican-run politics. 

Since Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, Republicans have dominated the state. The legislature is in Republican hands. Democrats feel disenfranchised. The Florida Tea Party's rise after President Obama's 2008 election was easily foreseen. According to Greer, the Tea Party played a big role in his downfall.

Greer says the Tea Party was angry because Crist wasn't conservative enough—a claim that seems plausible enough, now that he’s running for governor as a Democrat. They called him a RINO, or “Republican in name only.” The Tea Party despised Crist for a number of reasons, he said, including appointing a liberal African-American judge to the Florida Supreme Court in 2009.

“They hated Crist for going to Miami and allowing himself to be hugged by President Obama,” Golenbock wrote. “That was the worst thing that he did, Greer said. Once Crist hugged Obama, he had a target on his back... a target from all these Tea Party people who wanted him out.” 

The Real Marco Rubio

Greer recounts his first meeting with Rubio, who was a state representative from West Miami when Greer first became party chair. Legally, you cannot earmark campaign donations to the party for a special purpose. It’s the chairman who decides how the money is spent, but party leaders like Rubio had other ideas. When Greer became chair, they worried that he wouldn’t play ball with them. 

“We eat what we kill,” Rubio supposedly told Greer, meaning, “If I bring you the money, it’s my money. It may be in your account, but it’s still my money and I can use it any way I want.”

Greer said he initially agreed. When Crist picked him to run for party chair, Greer was a low-level county politician, deputy mayor of Oviedo, a small Florida town in Seminole County near Orlando. He was active in the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and had been Oviedo’s Businessman of the Year. He fundraised for Republicans and was a family man. But he was ignorant of the workings of the party’s statewide organization. He was flattered by Crist’s attention, and they became friends. 

Greer said he succumbed to Crist’s charms. For five years, Greer said that he and Crist did everything together. Their families spent weekends on Fisher Island, where Carole Rome, Crist's wealthy wife, had a home. They took trips together, and seemed to be inseparable. But in the end, Crist threw Greer under the bus, turned his back on him, and denied knowing about any of Greer's financial malfeasance. 

Greer said he was a political novice when he joined the uppermost ranks of the state GOP. Though he was business-savvy, big-time politics was new to him. That got him in trouble, Greer said, but he was mesmerized by the high life: socializing with wealthy and influential Republicans on the state and national stage. 

Blackmail and threats were business as usual, Greer said. When U.S. Senator Mel Martinez stepped down in 2009, Crist had to appoint a replacement. Conservative George LeMieux wanted the job. Crist had no interest in appointing him, Greer said, but apparently LeMieux made it clear he would spill some beans if he didn’t go to Washington. In the end, Crist appointed him. What was he going to reveal? We can only guess, because Greer doesn't say. 

Many of the fiscal misdeeds laid at Greer's doorstep concern paying the tab for other top party members. He passed around the RPOF American Express card, but he was the only one responsible for it. When time came to account for these expenses, everything pointed to him, and others distanced themselves. Greer had the only paper trail, suggesting the funds were put to personal use. 

A 2007 episode recounts just how fast and loose the top party officials were, however. Greer, Crist, Meredith O’Rourke, and Harry Sargeant, Crist's two top fundraisers, attended an event in the New York home of Mori Hosseini, an Iranian-American and CEO of ICI Homes, one of the largest home builders in Volusia County, Florida. They arranged for a helicopter from their Manhattan hotel to avoid heavy Saturday traffic on the Long Island Expressway. The RPOF picked up the tab because it seemed to be part of the job. Hosseini had donated $200,000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign. When O’Rourke decided she needed a second helicopter for their luggage ($12,000 a ride), Greer thought nothing of it. No problem, he thought, paying the tab.

At a certain point, Greer said he wanted out, but Crist would not agree. Every time he went to Crist, the governor would say, “You're not allowed to. You're the only thing standing between me and them.” So he stayed. Greer said he thought,  “Okay, well I owe it to Charlie to protect him, so I’ll hang in here.”

Ignored By The Media

The Chairman has received scant attention in Florida mainstream media despite its insider information on major Republican figures like Rubio, Le Mieux and Bill McCollum, and asides on others, such as Sarah Palin, who Greer says is “dumb as a box of rocks.” 

“There’s a cone of silence around this book,” said Golenbock. "It's not favorable to anyone...it shows how manipulative the Republican Party is, and how Charlie Crist betrayed his best friend. Both parties want this book to go away.”

“Democrats won't love it because it shows Charlie stabbed Greer in the back, and now he's running for governor as a Democrat,” Golenbock said. “Republicans don't want all this stuff out in the open. It was more important to Crist not to fall farther behind Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate campaign of 2010, so he sacrificed Greer, his most loyal friend, for that lie...it's inexcusable.”

"Greer kind of blows the lid off the Republican Party in Florida,” the author said. “That’s why it’s so amazing to me when I read the stuff about the book in the media. There are probably a hundred things they could have written instead of the fact that I spelled DelRay Beach wrong. (It's Delray.) It makes me scratch my head... Whatever happened to reporting?"

Golenbock said he and Greer spoke by phone every day for the three months before Greer went to prison. Though Crist and other players in the book have been dismissive about Greer's allegations, Golenbock thinks he's telling the truth because he was boxed in by the state’s most powerful people.

“The Tea Party wanted a scalp,” said Golenbock. “They couldn't get Charlie Crist's scalp so they went after Jim's. They ruined his life. They bankrupted him, and for the last 15 months he's been in federal prison, and then three months in a halfway house in Orlando… He's completely bankrupt and even lost his kids’ college fund to pay his defense. And he's not getting any of the proceeds from this book.”

Golenbock admits the book is only Greer's side of the story. He includes several legal documents in the book's appendix to verify some of Greer's claims. So, it's up to readers to decide what's true and what's fiction, but there's certainly no lack of material for that assessment in The Chairman

Crist, New Democrat  

Crist currently leads in the upcoming Democratic primary for Florida governor against Nan Rich and leads in the polls against the highly unpopular Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, who has his own record of fraud. Colombia/HCA, Scott's former company, paid the highest fines ever levied for Medicare billing fraud and related violations, totaling $1.7 billion in 2002. 

Despite what Golenbock calls Crist’s “inexcusable behavior” that left Greer holding the bag, Greer said that he supports him in the upcoming governor’s race. “Given the choice of what Rick Scott and his people have done to the state, he'd support Crist,” said Golenbock.

“Carole Rome is a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, and Greer says Charlie has come around to a lot of her positions,” Golenbock said. “She wants a higher minimum wage. She wants people to be treated fairly. And if she wants it, Charlie will give it to them. If he is elected governor this time, Democrats are going to be far more thrilled with the new Charlie Crist than they would be if he hadn’t met her." 

And Jim Greer? He became a free man on July 5, but he's not talking just yet. He's back at his home in Oviedo, spending time with his family and trying to put his life back together. “He's just doing whatever he needs to do to ensure his future,” said Golenbock.

Nano Riley is a freelance journalist, a former staff reporter for Tampa Bay Times, and the author of Florida's Farmworkers in the 21st Century (University Press of Florida, 2004).