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Ex-chairman of Fla. state GOP arrested on charges of grand theft and money laundering

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The political unknown once tapped by Gov. Charlie Crist to lead the state GOP was arrested Wednesday on charges he ran a scam to bilk the party, officials said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement took former state GOP Chairman Jim Greer, 47, into custody at his Orlando-area home. He is charged with one count of organized fraud, four counts of felony grand theft and one count of money laundering, said William Shepherd, Florida's statewide prosecutor.

Through his attorney, Greer denied the charges.

Crist, who abandoned the Republican Party to run for U.S. Senate as an independent, said Wednesday that he was surprised by the arrest and knew nothing of Greer's alleged wrongdoing.

"Sometimes you're disappointed by people," he told a news conference in Tallahassee. "I do not feel complicit."

He said he had not been questioned by investigators and did not expect his ties with Greer to hurt his campaign, though his opponents quickly pounced, with tea party favorite Marco Rubio's campaign sending out press releases Wednesday emphasizing them. Crist dropped out of the GOP when it became clear that he could not beat Rubio in August's GOP primary

Greer, a small town vice mayor, was a surprise pick for party chairman after he led local efforts to help Crist get elected 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.

Crist remained loyal, defending his friend even as reports surfaced that Greer had used party funds on ritzy hotels, gourmet restaurants and private jets. Greer stepped down in February.

Shepherd said Wednesday that Greer's scam involved funneling GOP money to a company called Victory Strategies that he secretly controlled. On Greer's orders, the Republican Party of Florida paid Victory Strategies for campaign work, much of which was never performed, and gave the company a 10 percent cut of major donations that Greer and his top assistant, Delmar Johnson, took.

Greer got about $125,000 of the almost $200,000 that the party paid Victory Strategies, while Johnson was paid more than $65,000, the statewide prosecutor said.

Johnson is helping with the investigation and will not be charged, prosecutors said. He declined comment when contacted by text message Wednesday.

Asked at a news conference why only Greer has been charged, Shepherd replied: "He was the one who attempted to keep it known from the people who were paying him the money, that it was actually going to him."

Greer was having money problems last year and had overdrawn his bank accounts six times, including one $25,000 overdraft. A Republican Party donor started sending Greer $10,000 a month after receiving a plea for financial help, according to a search warrant for Greer's home released Wednesday.

Greer was released late Wednesday on $105,000 bail.

His attorney, Damon Chase, described the allegations as a conflict with the Republican Party of Florida over contracts and money which had wrongly turned into a criminal matter because the party was losing the dispute. He also said that party officials were aware of Greer's role in Victory Strategies.

"It started going the way the Republican Party didn't want it to go," Chase said of the dispute. "Rather than just working it out civilly in court, they decided to hand it over to a grand jury and have him indicted. Because they control the state of Florida, they were able to do that."

State Sen. John Thrasher, who replaced Greer as chairman, tried to push the scandal squarely onto Crist.

"Whether he knew abut Victory strategies — he says he didn't, I take him at his word for that — but I don't think he can walk away from the fact that this guy at one time was your best buddy in politics, that you relied on day in and day out," Thrasher said. "And now say that because he's been indicted, I never had anything to do with it."

Statements for party-issued American Express credit cards show Greer usually traveled with Crist, staying at top-tier hotels and dining in fancy restaurants.

Greer also brought along a mini-entourage of his own on most trips.

The statements released earlier this month detailed more than $7 million in charges on cards held by 30 elected and party officials and their staff during Greer's three years as chairman.

Rubio, a former state House speaker, charged nearly $110,000 to a party-issued card, including repairs to Rubio's family minivan, grocery bills, plane tickets for his wife, and retail purchases, including one from a wine store. Campaign aides have said the charges were legitimate.

___

Associated Press Writers Brendan Farrington and Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, and Kelli Kennedy and Travis Reed in Miami, contributed to this report.

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