Hidden among the shadows in a cavernous banquet hall, Florida's most notorious backroom politician sips his third cup of complimentary coffee and begins to cry.
Jim Greer, the 50-year-old embattled former state Republican chairman, is confessing. Sitting cross-legged on a cushioned chair at the Delray Beach Marriott, he's bearded and thinner than he was when he ruled the GOP from 2006 to 2010. After fidgeting and wringing a napkin, he sighs and says he has caused his family so much pain. Then his blue eyes glaze over. If only he'd been smarter. If only he'd been wiser, less arrogant, less greedy.
Then, perhaps, he and his wife wouldn't have panicked last year when they'd learned she was pregnant with a baby girl. Should we bring another child into this nightmare? they thought.
"I believe I've made decisions that aren't ethical, yes," he recently told New Times in his most in-depth interview in years. "But making unethical decisions doesn't mean you're not an ethical person. Still, there were terrible mistakes." Those mistakes cost him. In June 2010, six months after he abruptly resigned as chairman, prosecutors hit Greer with six felony charges: organized scheme to defraud, money laundering, and four counts of grand theft. Trial is set for February 11 in Orlando Circuit Court.
Now, on the eve of quite possibly the most anticipated political corruption case in state history, Greer still has some fight. He might not have been a good chairman at the time of his resignation, he says, but everything he did was legal.
Party spending, though, was reckless, he acknowledges. He charged $500,000 to his Republican Party American Express card at spas and restaurants. But Greer says he wasn't alone in his profligacy. And when his trial finally begins after three years of waiting, he swears the Republicans who abandoned him will pay.
"It's going to be a Shakespearean play where everyone dies in the end," he predicts. "It won't be good for anybody. People need to know what goes on behind the curtain in the Republican Party, and before the Republicans tried to destroy me, they should have thought about what the consequences were going to be."
Republicans fear him, he says. That's because he was once Charlie Crist's top aide and totes a trove of party secrets. No one is quite sure which ones he'll spill.
"These trials are always embarrassing," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "The question is, how much of this is sour grapes?"
There's little doubt, though, the already troubled party, which dominates the Legislature but has lost the past two presidential elections, will take a PR drubbing. "This trial will continue to show that nothing has come from Republicans and there's no reason for them to keep power," Greer says. "The people need to know what the Republican Party is. It's dysfunctional."
Despite the immense power Greer once wielded, he comes from obscure origins. He was deputy mayor of Oviedo and a businessman of moderate success when Crist asked him to be the state's Republican chairman in 2006. "I was loyal. That's why Charlie wanted me," Greer says. "But I was too loyal. And that was my downfall."
He had another downfall. While Crist was a great conciliator, Greer made enemies easily. He says he spent tens of thousands on deeply unpopular things, unveiling, for instance, the party's first minority-outreach program. "There is an element of racism in the Republican Party," he says. "But there is also the political professional approach, which is: Minorities do not vote Republican. They say, 'We're not racist. We're doing our job. And our job is to win elections.'"
Greer says these factors drive voter-suppression tactics pursued by Rick Scott and other Republicans.
But there were broader political forces that fueled Greer's unpopularity. After he took party stewardship, the nation plunged into recession, and Republicans shifted toward extremism. As the state Tea Party grew in ferocity and number, Greer came to represent Crist, its greatest nemesis. The then-governor even appointed centrists James Perry and Jorge Labarga to the state supreme court and accepted the federal bailout, hugging President Barack Obama in the process.
And then, just as the party united against Crist, Greer says he began making imprudent and unethical decisions. "In January 2009, we were high on top of the mountain," he says. "Egos were going big. The governor was going to be president. I had been re-elected chairman. Everything couldn't have been better than it was then."
But Greer says there was one problem: the party's "chatty" fundraiser, Meredith O'Rourke, "who got on everyone's nerves." She made $30,000 per month for fundraising, and Greer — who had no problem with spending otherwise — decided that amount was far too much. So one day that February, he and Delmar Johnson, the party's executive director, hatched a scheme to take over fundraising. Greer launched a company called Victory Strategies to replace O'Rourke. While paying himself $10,000 in commission, Greer hid the fact that he owned the firm. "Because if Meredith found out," he explains, "she'd kill it."
"This was not an ethical decision," Greer says. "The chairman should not have been involved with fundraising, in hindsight. And if someone explained it to me today, what I was doing then... It wasn't ethical." Greer swears he had Crist's blessing. Around that time, the two had a meeting inside Crist's hotel suite during a PGA golf tournament. As the governor opened a bottle of red wine, he congratulated Greer. "He said, 'Great work, Chairman. Pay yourself a commission,'" Greer recalls. (Crist didn't return phone calls for comment.)
Soon, Greer says, he paid himself $125,000 in commission checks.
"Jim Greer made a deal with himself behind our backs, and we never had a clue," says Sid Dinerstein, former Palm Beach County Republican Chairman. "He's a slick guy who by himself never had success, then finds himself chairman of the party that takes in millions. And all of a sudden, it became his private business."
The arrest came on a Wednesday morning in June. While his children and wife cried, Greer, in a gray T-shirt and black pinstriped pants, was carted from his Oviedo mansion to meet the cameras.
Bitterness consumed the family. Greer couldn't reconcile his immediate and absolute fall. First he blamed Delmar Johnson for dishonesty. Then he faulted "extremists" like state Attorney General Bill McCollum and current Republican Chairman John Thrasher, Greer says, for "destroying the party." But mostly he was angry at Crist, who didn't protect him.
"Charlie absolutely sacrificed my husband at the altar of his ambition," says Greer's wife, Lisa, "and with absolutely no regard for the impact on my family and children and our future."
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Today, finally, the Greers blame themselves. When Jim talks about his time as chairman, he adopts the persona of a sinner at confession. "I spent too much," Greer says, looking away. "I think I should have recognized that I didn't need to stay in a five-star hotel. I should have set a better example, and I didn't."
The family is down to its last dollars, Greer says. Lisa sold all of her jewelry to make the $1,000-per-month payments on the house. The dishwasher is broken. So is the sink. Lisa now washes dishes in the bathtub for the five kids. Greer can't find more than intermittent consulting work. All of their savings have been poured into his defense and a civil suit he filed in 2010 against the state Republican Party. And he knows how likely it is he won't win. "I'm worried about going to jail," he says. "I am very scared. I wish I would never have been chairman."
Late at night, after his family has gone to bed, Greer fishes out newspaper clippings from years ago. They praise his political savvy and predict great things for him.
All alone, he thinks about what could have been.