It was supposed to be a week of loud scandal, with much of the attention of the Florida political establishment focused not on the Capitol, but on an Orlando courtroom where the trial of former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer was set to take place.
In the same courtroom where the sensational Casey Anthony trial played out, tales of golf carts crammed with prostitutes and stories about the inner workings of the RPOF stretching back to the days when Charlie Crist was still a Republican were supposed to unfold. No one was quite sure who had more to fear from the spectacle — the RPOF or Crist, now a Democrat — but the likelihood was that someone would end up covered in more sludge than a powerless cruise ship.
Instead, the courtroom was filled largely with a curious audience as the proceedings were set to begin. Greer, the attorneys and the judge were elsewhere — because a plea deal was being worked out that could send Greer to jail for 42 months and might have other, confidential terms.
The closest Tallahassee would come to political scandal would be the revelation that the state’s transportation secretary had ordered up a study of the speed limit on a road where he was pulled over for driving too quickly — a stretch of pavement with a top speed that had driven its fair share of city residents to distraction.
And the loudest things would get were perhaps at debates over traffic-light cameras or alimony. Which was somewhat fitting — after all, it was a stop-and-go week of news, there were suspicions that someone was getting paid to go away, and no one was happy in the end.
A round-up via the News Service of Florida.
NOBODY DIES IN THE END
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Greer would ultimately cop a plea to four counts of grand theft and one count of money laundering; there were too many people who wanted it to go away. But the plea came after months of ominous warnings from Greer, who promised the Miami New Times “a Shakespearean play where everyone dies in the end.”
As it turned out, those threats were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Democrats believed Republicans “breathed a collective sigh of relief this morning,” but the RPOF was too busy focusing on its bête noire: Crist, who hand-picked Greer to head the party after Crist’s sweeping win in the 2006 gubernatorial election.
“For the past three years, Jim Greer has tried to damage the reputation of the Republican Party and its leaders, but the truth is now known that Jim Greer broke the law, stole from RPOF and our donors, and then said and did everything he could to cover up and distract attention from his crimes,” RPOF Executive Director Mike Grissom said. “Everything Jim Greer has said and done over these past few years should be considered in that light.”
The case against Greer centered on allegations that he used his position as party chairman to steer business to Victory Strategies, his fundraising company. Greer said party leaders knew what he was doing, and that a secret severance agreement between himself and party leaders should have protected him from any criminal liability.
And despite inquiries from multiple media outlets — including some who asked whether Greer was paid to walk away — Damon Chase, who had fiercely defended Greer during his legal troubles, wouldn’t elaborate on any terms of Greer’s agreement to plead guilty. Chase said it was confidential.
“Knowing the deal he got, I don’t blame him one bit for taking it,” Chase told the News Service.
Greer was not the only figure from the Republican political establishment who settled an investigation with a plea deal this week. On Tuesday, Panhandle developer and prodigious GOP contributor Jay Odom pleaded guilty in federal court to a scheme to funnel donations to a presidential campaign through employees or their family members. The two cases were not related, and no one had been threatened with as much as bodily injury in the Odom case.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN TALLAHASSEE
At about the same time Greer was considering his future, House Republicans were approving a legislative measure dealing with an entirely different kind of fundraising: the amount individual campaigns can raise and the kind of third-party groups that can involve themselves in campaigns.
On a 10-2 vote that included half the Democratic minority on the prevailing side, the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee approved a measure allowing a candidate running for a state House seat in the Panhandle to raise almost four times as much money from each contributor as a candidate running for president of the United States.
The trade-off for the new, $10,000 limit is a law abolishing “committees of continuous existence,” often-shady groups that work as the attack dogs for candidates who want to appear above the mud-slinging. The measure (HB 569) is a key priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
“Let’s face it, we would all like to see less money in the political process, but we know that that’s not going to be an option,” said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. “On balance, and together, these reforms address the problem and provide the solutions.”
Others were less sanguine about the possibility of 20-tupling the amount of money a candidate could raise from each individual; Florida’s current limit is $500.
“By increasing these limits, (it) does not look out for the small guy,” said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, one of the dissenters. “It does favor incumbents.”
The same panel unanimously approved a bill designed to expand early voting in some areas and limit the length of ballots, though Democrats said they will want more for their support on the floor. Still, it left some hope that the legal overhaul following the snafus in November’s presidential election will not be a bitter, partisan fight like the 2011 battle over HB 1355, which included reducing early voting days.
“You’re certainly going to get Democratic support if it improves and resolves the problems we had with 1355,” Waldman said.
RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT AND AN ALIMONY FIGHT
With the big-ticket issues leading to a spirit of Kumbaya in the House, and Senate committee burying their noses in budget-briefing books, the legislative fighting was largely confined to issues that could labor in the background in the 2013 legislative session, like a bill to repeal the state law allowing cameras at traffic lights.
The cameras are used to catch — and hopefully deter — those who might run red lights. But they also bring protests from those on the right and left on civil liberties and privacy grounds.
“We’re willing to compromise the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution: the right against self-incrimination for self-perceived safety,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillio of Miami, the bipartisan measure’s Republican sponsor. “That’s the road we’re going down. We’re willing to tell somebody, ‘You are guilty until proven innocent.’ “
But critics of the repeal bill (HB 4011) — some of whom draw funding from the cameras — say it would roll back a key safety feature.
“I think it’s obvious that it does change people’s driving behaviors, and I think it is obvious that it also helps to save lives and prevent people from having serious injuries,” said Haines City Police Chief Rick Sloan.
Also drawing some controversy: a proposal (HB 231) that would rein in the amount of time that alimony payments could be required, try to short-circuit alimony in marriages of 10 years or less and shield retirees form alimony requirements.
“I want to make this so people can get divorced and move on with their life,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who is divorced but indicated he has not paid or received alimony.
Nothing is ever quite so simple in family law. Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, promptly slammed the bill as “anti-woman.
“I think this bill will do more harm than good, ” she said.
And foreshadowing another potential battle in the Legislature, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, filed a bill that would allow parents to petition their school board to adopt a specific turnaround option for any school that drew an “F” on state report cards for two straight years.
“When you give parents the opportunity to get involved and do what’s best for their kids, it’s a win,” Stargel said.
But Democrats, who beat back the idea last year, were already drawing the battle lines, saying the measure (SB 862) could end up with private businesses running many Florida schools.
“We should focus our efforts on improving public schools, not giving up on them by handing the keys to a for-profit corporation,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said in a statement.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Jim Greer pleads guilty to four counts of grand theft and one count of money laundering, avoiding a trial that could have brought the secrets of former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican Party of Florida to light.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I was one of those dorky kids in high school with no girlfriend that sat in the front row and read a lot and helped other students study for their exams and read the Congressional Record at night.” — Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart