NAPLES — Linda Morton of East Naples donated $500 to Gov. Charlie Crist’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, while John Rood of Jacksonville, a retired U.S. ambassador, contributed $4,800 to the Republican.
Now they want a refund.
The two filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all contributors, demanding a refund from the long-time Republican, who announced in April he’d run as an Independent for Senate after falling behind Republican Marco Rubio in the polls.
“Crist has made it clear that he believes a candidate should not say one thing and do another,” says the lawsuit, filed last week in Collier Circuit Court against Crist and his campaign, Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate. “… The parties agree with Crist.”
The lawsuit quotes Crist telling Fox News political news reporter Greta Van Susteren on March 9 that saying one thing and doing another is “perpetrating a fraud on people. ... That’s not right. That’s not being honest and straightforward with the voters.”
The lawsuit then uses those words against Crist.
“Offering to receive, and accepting, the Republican contributions to his campaign for Senate as a Republican candidate, and then actually running against the Republican candidate without refunding the Republican contributions is not right,” the lawsuit says. “It also violates the law and has caused damages to thousands of donors ...”
Morton, a Lely mother of four and school volunteer, and Rood are represented by Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, who resigned as regional chairman of Crist’s Senate campaign and his statewide finance team, citing their differing political views. Grady, who said he still valued their friendship, acknowledged it was Crist who had encouraged him to run for state House of Representatives.
Crist’s spokesman wasn’t available for comment Monday, but a campaign worker said no money had been returned.
By law, individual donors are limited to giving $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the general election, as Rood did. Morton donated $500 to Crist’s campaign for the primary. Federal election law says Crist is not required to return the money.
Grady said he’s arguing the case under state laws: unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and breach of covenants of good faith and fair dealing.
“I believe you cannot do what he did without some obligation for returning their money,” Grady said, noting politicians in similar situations historically have returned contributions, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched from Republican to Democrat last year.
“He actually did offer to give money back to people and no lawsuit was filed,” Grady said of Specter returning $850,000 to 900 people who requested refunds.
“I have waited for quite some time and it’s clear that’s not going to happen,” Grady said of Crist. “He was pretty blunt in saying he was not going to refund the money, but as you know, the governor changes his mind.”
The lawsuit notes Crist has run or held office as a Republican ever since a successful 1992 run for state Senate. He won the Republican nomination and election for governor in 2006.
“During his political career, Crist raised millions of dollars in his various campaigns as a Republican candidate,” the lawsuit says. “In addition, he has received significant financial support from the Republican Party of Florida and other organizations that support only Republican candidates for office ...”
The lawsuit outlines how polls showed support for Crist was declining; that Rubio, former House Speaker, was ahead; and that Crist made repeated public denials that he wouldn’t run as an Independent.
The lawsuit notes Crist made the switch days after issuing an April 8 press release, saying: “This should completely and utterly put to rest any of the unfounded rumors coming from the Rubio campaign that Governor Crist would run as anything other than the Republican that he is.”
On April 29, Crist publicly announced he’d run without party affiliation, opting not to face Rubio, a conservative Republican from West Miami and rising star nationally, in the primaries. Crist made it official May 12, when he filed a statement of candidacy.
The switch means there will be a three-way race Nov. 4, with Rubio and the winner of the Democratic nomination.
As of the June 18 qualifying deadline, records show Crist had raised more than $10 million in Republican contributions and had spent about $2.5 million to seek the Republican primary nomination.
The lawsuit quotes a May 12 political column in the St. Petersburg Times: “At a campaign event on May 12, 2010, Crist was asked, ‘What about the guys who gave you money when you were a Republican?’
‘I’m going to keep it!’ Crist cheerfully responded with a wink.”
Last month, news reports show, former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas and 19 other prominent Republicans wrote a letter demanding the return of their contributions, saying Crist broke donors’ trust.
The lawsuit contends the contributions should be returned, alleging they’d be used to support a non-Republican in the primaries and general election — and to actively oppose the election of a Republican.
The lawsuit is assigned to Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek, who must rule whether there is a class. The lawsuit seeks the return of unspent contributions as of the qualifying deadline and all contributions to the general election so class members can use them for a “true” Republican. It also seeks a temporary and permanent injunction to prohibit Crist and his campaign from using the money for employees or others.