Lawmakers pulled nearly $1 million from Republican Party of Florida

Florida GOP ex-chief Jim Greer (left) chose Delmar Johnson in 2009 to be the party's chief fundraiser, with a deal that led to Johnson's making at least $408,000. (Republican National Committee)

A handful of state Senate Republicans withdrew $294,000 from the Republican Party of Florida last month in the midst of a rushed effort to install a new party chairman and stabilize a revolt among grassroots party leaders.

The money was deposited into a political fund called the Alliance for a Strong Economy -- controlled by future Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami, and others – a day after party executive director Delmar Johnson was forced to resign, records show.

That party housecleaning had been orchestrated by Attorney General Bill McCollum, House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon and Haridopolos after they found out about a secret fundraising contract that boosted Johnson's annual pay to more than $408,000 last year.

Johnson and ousted chairman Jim Greer had inked the deal last February without the apparent knowledge of anyone outside the party headquarters in Tallahassee. The party finished 2009 with just over $1.2 million more in cash than it spent and at least $467,000 in debts, after years of hefty surpluses.

That was before Cannon yanked out $655,000 he had helped raise for House races -- meaning legislative leadership withdrew nearly $1 million of the party's cash. Cannon has refused to comment on any party questions, and Haridopolos and Alexander did not return phone calls.

Despite the withdrawals, though, the party is still solvent, said spokeswoman Katie Gordon Betta. "The party is not bouncing checks," she said in an e-mail. "Just because there was money going out, doesn't mean there isn't money coming in" -- adding that the party has taken in "more than $2 million" since Jan. 1.

GOP officials said the funds they withdrew are still available for Republican campaigns. But the news is the latest blow to a party reeling from reports that Greer and Johnson traveled and spent lavishly while fundraising suffered, field staffers were laid off and Florida Democrats continued to build their voter-registration edge. The reports spawned a revolt by both big-ticket donors and grass-roots committee members, who demanded Greer's ouster.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that the $408,000 Johnson made from his party salary and the fundraising deal, which was disclosed by the Orlando Sentinel last week, "didn't look good" and added he thinks the state party should release American Express card records for all elected party leaders who held them.

"I think it's a good idea. Transparency is always good," Crist told reporters Tuesday. "I didn't have one of those credit cards, by the way."

Crist's rival in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, Marco Rubio, did have a party-issued AmEx card while he was House Speaker between 2006 and 2008. His records have not been released. But his successor as Speaker, Ray Sansom of Destin, charged thousands of dollars to his card, including airplane tickets to fly his family to Europe.

McCollum, a Republican vying to replace Crist as governor, said he doesn't think party business should be a public matter and that releasing AmEx statements for past card holders was a decision that should be left to the next chairman.

"That might be a question for the Legislature to decide since the Legislature makes the rules for parties," McCollum said. "Right now, the party matters are totally internal ... I don't think it's good for any political party to be having everything that's done inside the party open to the public and the press."

McCollum – who is backing Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine against Broward National Committeewoman Sharon Day in the Feb. 20 party chairmanship election – said he did think "party regulars" were entitled to the information.

"I think that's what's been missing, and I think that's what the next chairman will correct."

After he learned about Johnson's contract last month, McCollum said he turned to former RPOF lawyer Richard Coates for a legal opinion on the secret fundraising contract that paid Johnson at least $199,000 last year.

"It appeared to him, and I concurred, that this was all on the face of it a legitimate contract," McCollum said Tuesday.

"Now is it outrageous? Absolutely. Was it something that should have never been entered into? Yes. But was it illegal? There's no appearance of that on the face of it."

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at 850-222-5564, or at adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com.