Florida Democrats joined with Republican Rick Scott in demanding Wednesday that gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum appoint an independent prosecutor to continue the criminal case against the state’s former GOP chairman, saying the current probe has forced the attorney general into a legal conflict.
Florida Statewide Prosecutor William Shepherd, a McCollum appointee, this week released documents and digital recordings from the investigation of ex-GOP party boss Jim Greer. The files show McCollum played a central role in triggering the Republican Party’s own review of Greer’s spending practices, which eventually led to the attorney general’s call for criminal investigation.
In an almost hour-long telephone conversation between Greer and the party’s former executive director, Delmar Johnson, McCollum is described as being part of an inner-circle of Florida Republican officials spurring the criminal prosecution.
But in the recording, the two men also suggest that McCollum and other party leaders were intent on concealing their knowledge of a fund-raising scheme involving Greer and Johnson, along with a disputed severance package intended to ease Greer’s midterm resignation as chairman.
“I think McCollum played a much bigger role, behind the scenes, than I think we realized,” Johnson told Greer in the March 25 phone call. “Going back to the beginning when he called the governor and said he wanted to get rid of you. He wouldn’t do so publicly. But a lot of this is coming from his people.”
Johnson later in the conversation came up with a name grouping McCollum, House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Greer’s successor as chairman, John Thrasher. Johnson termed them, “the four horsemen.”
The closeness of the men has been underscored in recent weeks with Haridopolos and Cannon steering more than $1 million from so-called 527 committees they’re associated with to other organizations airing television ads supporting McCollum. Polls show McCollum trailing Scott in the Aug. 24 primary, with Scott, a former health care executive, having spent $16 million of his own money in the race.
Greer faces as much as 75 years in prison if convicted on six felony charges for allegedly siphoning-off at least $125,000 in campaign contributions and fees from the state Republican Party. Johnson, who is cooperating with authorities, has reached an agreement with prosecutors to pay $65,093 restitution to the party, but faces no criminal charges.
Jennifer Baker, a Scott spokeswoman, said that McCollum is too enmeshed in the Greer investigation to have it led by the Office of Statewide Prosecution, which is housed in the attorney general’s office but operates independently.
“He is clearly conflicted and any private lawyer would see that, let alone the state’s attorney general,” Baker said.
The Florida Democratic Party also is renewing calls for McCollum to step aside, calls it first made earlier this month following Greer’s arrest. Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman said Shepherd, who contributed $500 to McCollum’s campaign last year, may have steered the investigation away from the man who appointed him.
In other documents released, a list of 63 potential witnesses the state may call at an eventual criminal trial did not include McCollum, Thrasher, Cannon or Haridopolos. But Greer’s defense attorney, Damon Chase, said he is eager to question all of these party leaders.
“Can’t you just look at this and see how messed up it is?” Chase told the News Service of Florida. “McCollum is involved in this at every possible level. The party is only hurting itself when it abuses its power in this way – and I’m a conservative Republican.”
Following an appearance at an oil-spill task force meeting in Pensacola, McCollum said he had no opinion about the decision not to prosecute Johnson, and emphasized his separation from Shepherd’s probe.
“Though I appoint him and I certainly have input, I have no input at all on whether to prosecute or not,” McCollum said.
Thrasher, the state Republican chairman, also lashed out at criticism of McCollum.
“For anyone to question whether the attorney general failed to act promptly or suggest that he tried to obstruct the investigation when given this information is disingenuous and shows a complete detachment from the facts,” Thrasher said.
“The Republican Party of Florida was the victim in this matter, and we will continue to fully cooperate until this investigation and prosecution is concluded,” he added.
By John Kennedy
The News Service of Florida