COLLIER COUNTY — A judge Monday denied attempts by two campaign contributors who want to prevent Gov. Charlie Crist’s U.S. Senate campaign from using $7.5 million donated to his Republican campaign for his run as an independent candidate.
However, Senior Collier Circuit Judge Jack Schoonover said he’d agree to hear the motion for a preliminary injunction again if Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, is successful in his motion to certify the lawsuit as a class-action; Grady represents two plaintiffs, an East Naples woman and a former ambassador who was a GOP financial chairman. The plaintiffs sued on behalf of Republican contributors who donated before Crist’s April 29 switch.
Grady plans to file that motion this week, while Crist’s attorney, Scott Weinstein of Fort Myers, will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Schoonover agreed to hear arguments some time next week.
After the hearing, Grady said it was likely Weinstein’s lengthy memorandum persuaded the judge to hold off on granting the motion until the plaintiffs are certified as a class.
“It may take us time to get there, but I am sure we will get there,” Grady said, referring to certification and a refund. “... Why should the governor be able to choose? Well, you’ll get your money back but you won’t get your money back.”
He referred to highly criticized refund to Jim Greer, the former GOP chairman indicted on charges he used party funds for personal expenses. Greer asked for his $9,600 contribution back and Crist complied. It was among $177,883 in refunds, according to recent federal campaign filings.
The plaintiffs, Linda Morton, a Lely mother of four, contributed $500 to Crist’s primary campaign, while John Rood of Jacksonville, a retired U.S. ambassador, donated the maximum, $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the Nov. 2 general election. His affidavit says Crist agreed to refund $2,400 if he didn’t win the Republican primary.
They want to prohibit Crist from using the $7.5 million remaining in his coffers after his switch. Their affidavits say the GOP is important to them and Crist was using their money to oppose a Republican. Neither was in court, nor was Crist.
Weinstein contended the lawsuit was a ploy to “choke Crist’s campaign” and “create havoc.” He argued many contributors support Crist and don’t want refunds.
“Money is important to a campaign,” Weinstein said, surrounded by reporters and cameras. “... They don’t have the right now to say that there’s some sort of a breach of warranty. This isn’t Sears: Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. This is an election where the campaign finance laws allow and support this use of these funds.”
Schoonover’s ruling was the latest since the plaintiffs sued in Collier Circuit Court on June 22. Crist’s prior attorney removed it to U.S. District Court on July 16, arguing it involves the Federal Election Campaign Act, which Grady disputed.
On Aug. 18, U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell ruled the case belonged in state court, agreeing it seeks compensation for unjust enrichment and breach of contract, implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing — state laws.
Crist has been criticized for not returning money donated by Republicans, but told CNN Saturday he’d provide refunds to those who ask.
Rood was among 20 people, including GOP fundraisers and contributors, who wrote an open letter in May demanding Crist “return every penny of donor money from every donor who asks for a refund.” He didn’t and the lawsuit was filed.
The lack of GOP backing hasn’t hurt Crist, who switched parties after falling behind former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican, in the polls. Recent polls show Crist leading at 39 percent, followed by Rubio at 32 percent and Democrat Kendrick Meek, 16 percent.
Schoonover often played devil’s advocate, peppering arguments with questions. “What legal reason have you given me to give the money back in small claims court? Buyer’s remorse?” Schoonover asked.
Later he asked, “Don’t go too far with this, but what if Crist died?”
Grady believed election laws required expenses be paid before refunding the remainder.
Although Grady sought, at the least, a refund for the two plaintiffs, Weinstein argued case law was mixed on “pick offs,” paying off plaintiffs in class-action suits and proceeding. He maintained Grady wasn’t entitled to that until the plaintiffs were certified.
He argued the lawsuit should proceed to trial with experts testifying, along with all contributors demanding refunds.
“But it can’t be done in less than two months,” Weinstein said, referring to general elections. “It just can’t.”