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Headaches for Fla. GOP ahead in ex-chief’s trial

Updated at: 02/11/2013 8:08 AM
By MIKE SCHNEIDER

(AP) ORLANDO, Fla. - The former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida is headed to trial on fraud, theft and money laundering charges in a case fraught with embarrassment for the party over allegations of lavish spending and questionable behavior.

Jury selection was set to start Monday in the two-week trial. Testimony could cover allegations of prostitutes at a party fundraiser in the Bahamas, 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.

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. Crist 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. Greer, who faces up to 75 years in prison if convicted, has pleaded not guilty.

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 and Senate 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

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.

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Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and Kyle Hightower contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)