Corruption scandals are shaking up Florida Senate campaign

A string of corruption scandals in Florida could harm the three Senate candidates.

Wednesday’s arrest of Florida’s former state Republican Party chairman is the latest incident that could tip the scales in the state’s three-way race for the Senate.

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A longtime friend and ally of Gov. Charlie Crist, former state GOP chairman Jim Greer was arrested at his Oviedo home on six felony charges connected to a money-laundering scheme during his four-year stint as chairman.

Given Greer’s closeness with Crist, some believe the case is more likely to hurt Crist than former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the anointed GOP candidate. Crist has left the GOP and is running for the seat as an independent.

Rubio, however, faces a reported IRS investigation into charges he used a state GOP credit card for personal expenses. Possibly also damaging, Rubio led the state House of Representatives at the same time that his Appropriations Committee chairman, former state Rep. Ray Sansom (R), is alleged to have engaged in an illegal appropriations scheme with a Northwest Florida college. Sansom later stepped down as House speaker and faces third-degree felony conspiracy charges in a trial that could prove embarrassing for Rubio.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee, isn't free from scandal, either: The congressman pushed for millions of dollars for a developer who faces criminal charges for fraud, and that developer, Dennis Stackhouse, hired Meek's mother as a consultant and helped Meek's chief of staff buy a home.

Meek twice pursued congressional earmarks to fund Stackhouse's project to build a biopharmaceutical complex in blighted Liberty City, but he has claimed that the effort was about bringing jobs to the area and not political payback.

“It’s a very toxic environment, and it could have a dramatic effect on the voters,” said former state education commissioner Jim Horne, who served under Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and is now a lobbyist. “Voters right now are very distrusting of the political process and players, and especially incumbents. And it’s more problematic for Republicans, since it’s been all on the GOP side.”

Tom Slade, Greer’s predecessor as state GOP chairman from 1993 to 1999, is one of several Republican officials in the state who believe Rubio could be just as damaged as Crist by the Greer case.

“It could affect all Republicans,” Slade said. “There is not anyone who has been actively involved in Republican politics here who doesn’t stand to suffer a bit from what is correctly envisioned to be a very poor discharge of activities, running into the millions and millions of dollars.”

Crist is leading both Rubio and Meek in the latest poll, a survey conducted in May by the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Bay News that put the governor at 30 percent, followed by Rubio at 27 percent and Meek at 15 percent. The governor also enjoys a fundraising edge, with $7.6 million in the bank, according to his latest Federal Election Commission filing, compared to less than $3 million each for Rubio and Meek.

Other political observers in Florida think general-election voters will distinguish between the Greer case and Crist’s candidacy.

“Jim Greer’s troubles are Jim Greer’s troubles,” said Ron Sachs, a former senior aide to Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) and now owner of a Tallahassee public relations firm. “This case is against the former chairman of the party, not the governor. Notwithstanding the fact that this was his choice for the party, you’re kind of responsible for your own behavior in the adult world.”


Former lieutenant governor and attorney general Bob Butterworth also defended Crist. Butterworth, a Democrat, was picked by Crist to serve in his Republican administration when he first took office, to head the state’s troubled child-welfare agency.

“The governor wanted Jim to be in that position and used his office to make that happen. But that’s what usually happens,” Butterworth said. “Charlie Crist is a tremendously honest person, and I do not believe it will hurt him because knowing him as I do, I believe he would have been the first to say ‘Jim, get the hell out of here.’ ”

But other former top GOP officials say Crist was fatally slow to act against Greer. Slade, for one, said Crist ignored “repeated warnings” from major fundraisers and donors.

“He made no effort at all to correct a very, very tragic situation,” Slade said. “The performance of Greer and the way he managed the party’s funds as every bit as bad as you’ve heard, and the governor was the one person in Florida who could have done something about it. And he didn’t.”

Rubio has been out of office since his term as state House speaker ended in January 2009, costing him name recognition that Crist was still getting as governor. And he himself may face tax-fraud charges as a result of the IRS investigation first reported in late April by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald.

Matt Corrigan, director of the political science department at the University of North Florida and the former director of a public opinion research lab, said he expects neither Crist nor Rubio to bring up the Greer or Sansom cases against each other.

“If anyone brings it up, it will be the Democrats,” Corrigan said. “The Republicans may want to move on from all of this, and all topics may be off the table depending on what happens with the oil spill. But at the end, it will be the Democrats who are likely to make anything of it.”

This story was updated at 12 p.m.