VIDEO: Judge denies Gov. Crist's motion to dismiss lawsuit seeking $7.5M in campaign refunds

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— A Collier Circuit judge on Tuesday denied Gov. Charlie Crist’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit demanding that he refund $7.5 million in donations he received as a Republican running for U.S. Senate.

Senior Collier Circuit Judge Jack Schoonover agreed the lawsuit could move forward and he’ll hear further arguments Tuesday, when the donors’ attorney, Rep. Tom Grady, will ask that the two plaintiffs be certified as a class to represent about 2,000 donors to Crist’s Republican campaign before his switch to an independent candidate.

If successful, the judge also will rehear Grady’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which he lost Aug. 30. The judge ruled he’d first have to certify the lawsuit as a class-action.

“It’s very important that the motion for preliminary injunction be heard Tuesday,” Grady said afterward, surrounded by TV cameras and reporters. “I think Mr. Crist is doing everything he can to have this heard after the election.”

Scott Weinstein of Fort Myers, who is defending Crist with co-counsels J. Andrew Meyer and Rachel Soffin, maintained it wasn’t a class-action complaint because not all plaintiffs are in similar situations.

“There are thousands of people who have different reasons why they gave Gov. Crist campaign donations,” Weinstein said after the hearing, noting some still support Crist.

Crist wasn’t at the three-hour hearing. Neither were the plaintiffs, Linda Morton, a Lely mother of four, and John Rood of Jacksonville, a retired U.S. ambassador.

Their lawsuit, filed June 22 in Circuit Court, alleged they were deprived of the right to support a Republican candidate and now their money is being used to oppose Republican Marco Rubio, who is running against Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

Crist’s attorneys had argued the lawsuit belonged in U.S. District Court and moved it there in July, but Grady won a motion last month to return it to Circuit Court, arguing he’d sued under state laws, unjust enrichment, breach of contract and breach of implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing. It seeks a refund of $7.5 million in Crist’s campaign coffers, the amount left before his switch.

On Tuesday, Weinstein called the lawsuit “absurd and ridiculous.”

“They’ve alleged they each made contributions with strings attached,” Weinstein said. “They’ve alleged there was one singular term, that the governor qualify as a Republican candidate.”

He noted Grady didn’t sue in federal court because the Federal Election Campaign Act allows Crist to keep the money. “The big fear is the governor is going to use that money to win and Mr. Rubio is going to lose,” he added.

Throughout, the judge asked questions. “What is a Republican?” Schoonover asked, wondering if it required an oath.

Weinstein, a Republican, said he never took an oath, and added: “You can be the most left-wing person, but you can qualify as a Republican.”

Grady argued Weinstein was trying to make the lawsuit something it wasn’t. “The defense is trying to color this as some political scheme to affect Crist in the election,” he added.

He called the Republican Party important, arguing, “Charlie Crist with an R by his name is a different package than Charlie Crist without an R. ... Parties matter. They do important things for candidates.”

Grady argued donors had the expectation Crist would run as a Republican and noted Crist returned $9,600 in contributions to his friend, Jim Greer, the state’s indicted former GOP chairman, after he asked for a refund.

After the ruling, Weinstein denied Grady’s accusations that Crist’s attorneys were using delaying tactics, noting they’d worked on Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah weekends, he took his daughter for emergency surgery in Miami last Wednesday, had to cancel his medical procedure today, he’ll be New Orleans court Thursday and Yom Kipur begins Friday evening. He added: “Six thousand years ago, Rosh Hashanah was not created as a delaying tactic.”

He assured the judge he wasn’t there to whine, but needed time.

“You are free to whine,” Schoonover quipped. “It’s part of the profession.”

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