TALLAHASSEE — Tuesday may well be a critical day in the U.S. Senate race, especially for breakaway independent candidate Gov. Charlie Crist. On that day, he may learn if he can spend the millions he has sitting in the bank.
That’s because Tuesday, a Naples attorney representing two Republican Party members and by proxy the GOP of Florida, is asking Collier County Senior Circuit Judge Jack Schoonover to freeze millions of dollars held by the Charlie Crist of U.S. Senate campaign.
Rep. Tom Grady, a former Crist ally, will argue that Crist collected much of his campaign contributions while flying the Republican flag. After bolting the party in April to make an independent run for the U.S. Senate, Grady says the governor should give contributors a chance to get their money back.
Donors Linda Morton of Naples and John Rood, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas and the Republican Party of Florida state finance chairman, sued Crist in June, claiming he should not be able to use campaign contributions made when he was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican _ about $7.5 million in contributions made before he broke with the party.
Crist’s attorney, Scott Weinstein of Fort Myers, says the proper venue for Morton and Rood would be small claims court if they want to recover the $5,300 they collectively gave to Crist. Asking for refunds on behalf of all donors, Weinstein contends, is merely a ploy by the Republican Party to further the campaign of their candidate Marco Rubio by tying up funds during the campaign’s final weeks.
Arguments are set to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Schoonover is expected to rule on two separate motions. The judge is first being asked to decide if the plaintiffs in the case can file on behalf of other contributors in a class-action lawsuit.
If class-action status is granted, the Schoonover will then hear arguments on whether to freeze Crist’s campaign account to prevent him from spending money he collected while running under the GOP flag.
If Schoonover rejects either claim, Crist’s campaign can continue to spend money as it has been, Weinstein said. If, however, Schoonover sides with plaintiff’s on either claim, the governor has the right to appeal. Schoonover or the appellate court could also order a stay to delay the freezing of funds until all appeals are completed.
Grady, who resigned as Crist’s regional campaign chairman after his former political ally jumped ship, said class-action status is needed to reimburse donors who gave money to one candidate only to find he had morphed into another.
Crist’s courtroom challenges may not end there. RPOF leaders are expected to decide this week whether it will go to court to force Crist to repay thousands of dollars in American Express charges leaders say a forensic audit of party spending showed he rang up during the tumultuous reign of ousted and indicted former chairman Jim Greer, Crist’s hand-picked party boss.
The former chairman faces six felony counts of grand theft, money laundering and attempted fraud stemming from a consulting company he set up in 2009 that drew $200,000 from the Florida GOP.
During Greer’s three years as party head, the Florida GOP rang-up more than $7 million in American Express credit charges including trips around the country and to Europe, limousines, liquor purchases, and other apparent excess. The decision to go forward on that front, however, is not without significant risk. There was other questionable spending during and before Greer’s tenure, some of which does not cast particularly favorable light on Republican candidate Marco Rubio.
Contact Michael Peltier at email@example.com.