ORLANDO, Fla. - The criminal trial of former Republican Party of Florida chair Jim Greer had promised to be embarrassing for party leaders, rising Republican star Marco Rubio and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is contemplating a new political future as a Democrat.
But Greer's guilty pleas on Monday to four counts of theft and a single count of money laundering ended the trial before it even started and ensured that some state GOP secrets will remain confidential, at least for the time-being.
"There were a number of people who did not want this trial to go forward and the trial isn't going forward," Damon Chase, Greer's attorney, said after the former chair entered his pleas in court. "Once again, Jim Greer is falling on his sword for a lot of other folks."
Greer, 50, could face a prison sentence of 3 1/2 to 35 years when he is sentenced March 27. Assistant statewide prosecutor Michael Williams wouldn't say how many years prosecutors would seek.
The trial had threatened 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 by Republican leaders, including Rubio. Testimony about those expenditures had been expected at the trial.
Topics also covered in pretrial depositions included allegations of prostitutes at a state GOP fundraiser in the Bahamas, the drinking habits of Crist and intraparty strife. Some of Florida's most powerful politicians were scheduled as witnesses, including Crist, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and several state House and state Senate leaders.
Greer's acknowledgment of guilt was what the party wanted all along, party attorney Stephen Dobson said, and they weren't worried about potentially embarrassing testimony at trial.
"There was absolutely no concern. In fact, a lot of people were looking forward to clearing a lot of these allegations that had been made up," Dobson said outside the courtroom. "Today the truth came out."
Greer 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. He previously was the president and CEO of a company that provides training to the hospitality industry on how to comply with alcohol laws.
The Republican Party of Florida said in a statement that Greer had tried to damage the party's reputation since his arrest in 2010.
"But the truth is now known that Jim Greer broke the law, stole from the RPOF and our donors, and then said and did everything he could to cover up and distract attention from his crimes," the statement said.
The plea arrangement was reached at the last minute. Jury selection was set to begin early Monday, but neither Greer nor prosecutors had appeared in the courtroom an hour after the trial was supposed to start.
Until he entered his guilty pleas, Greer had contended that party leaders, including Crist, knew about the financial arrangement that gave Greer's company a cut of party money in exchange for fundraising efforts. Greer had said he was targeted because of his support for Crist, who later defected from the GOP to run as an independent for U.S. Senate but lost to Rubio.
Crist denied ever knowing about the arrangement. In a brief phone interview Monday, Crist said he hadn't been worried about testifying.
"It didn't bother me one way or the other," Crist said. "I'm always happy to tell the truth."
About $200,000 was funneled into the company, Victory Strategies, which was formed by Greer with his former right-hand man, Delmar Johnson. Johnson had been scheduled to be prosecutors' star witness and was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
"It's Finally Over!!!" Johnson posted on Facebook after the guilty pleas were announced in court.