Documents spark questions about Crist choice

FILE -In this Nov. 8, 2006 file photo, Florida Governor-elect Charlie Crist, right, listens to George LeMieux, executive director of his transition team, during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. Crist is picking his former chief of staff George LeMieux, Friday, Aug. 28, 2009, to replace Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is resigning. LeMieux ran Crist's 2006 campaign for governor and Crist then picked LeMieux as chief of staff. LeMieux left for a Tallahassee law firm in December 2007. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinal, Joe Burbank)

FILE -In this Nov. 8, 2006 file photo, Florida Governor-elect Charlie Crist, right, listens to George LeMieux, executive director of his transition team, during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. Crist is picking his former chief of staff George LeMieux, Friday, Aug. 28, 2009, to replace Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is resigning. LeMieux ran Crist's 2006 campaign for governor and Crist then picked LeMieux as chief of staff. LeMieux left for a Tallahassee law firm in December 2007. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinal, Joe Burbank)

TALLAHASSEE — George LeMieux somehow persuaded Gov. Charlie Crist's chief of staff during a late-night meeting that he deserved an interview to be considered for the U.S. Senate post to which he was ultimately appointed, according to newly unearthed documents.

However, the documents show that chief of staff repeatedly said he did not recall what LeMieux said during that 1 a.m. meeting at a burger joint — and leaving a big mystery from Crist's four-year term unanswered: Why did he choose a man whom he had previously dismissed as lacking the credentials for such high office?

The documents, obtained by The Associated Press, were part of a civil case involving former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer. They contain a deposition given by former Crist chief of staff Eric Eikenberg, who held the late-night meeting with LeMieux.

LeMieux, who worked beside Crist as his campaign manager and as his chief of staff, has maintained he was merely advocating why he deserved a shot at the job.

The Senate seat was a highly coveted job during Crist's tenure. Mel Martinez announced in late 2008 that he would not seek a second term, sparking Crist and eventual winner Marco Rubio to run for the seat. When Martinez resigned in 2009, it was up to Crist to pick the person who would serve the final 16 months of the term. It was a rare opportunity for him to pick someone who would not challenge him in the 2010 election.

But Crist wound up bypassing other big names he was considering for the job including Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, U.S. Rep Bill Young and his own lieutenant governor, Jeff Kottkamp.

The deposition taken in January 2012 — and obtained through a public records request — reveals that LeMieux's bid had initially been dismissed by Crist. Eikenberg testified that Crist did not want to even interview LeMieux because he had never been an elected official.

LeMieux demanded to know why he was not being considered. He wound up having a 1 a.m. meeting with both Eikenberg and Greer at a Whataburger fast-food restaurant two blocks from the governor's mansion.

Eikenberg said in his deposition that he told LeMieux during that meeting that Crist wouldn't pick him. Yet somehow during the course of the next hour, LeMieux was able to persuade Eikenberg to ask Crist to grant him an interview.

Greer's attorney, Damon Chase, asked Eikenberg directly what LeMieux said to persuade him that Crist should now talk to him. Eikenberg said, "I don't recall."

The deposition then shows that Chase asked additional questions, implying that LeMieux had mentioned information related to his work as Crist's campaign manager that could prove personally embarrassing to the governor.

Eikenberg repeatedly said "I don't recall" when asked if LeMieux had shared with him how he was able to win over Crist's endorsement. Eikenberg also said "I don't recall" when asked if he had told Crist about the Whataburger meeting.

Eikenberg also denied that Crist and LeMieux held a private meeting to discuss the appointment and insisted he sat in on all interviews.

He said that during his interview with the governor, LeMieux talked about a "host of domestic and various issues" and why he should get the nod.

The line of questioning during Eikenberg's deposition interview prompted Steve Andrews, a lawyer working for the state Republican Party, to cross-examine him and ask if anything improper happened in how LeMieux won his nomination.

"You have no knowledge that there was any improper quid pro quo between the governor and George LeMieux for the governor appointing LeMieux to the Senate, do you?" Andrews asked.

"No," replied Eikenberg.

Andrews also got Eikenberg to say he would have reported anything "nefarious" to law enforcement.

Eikenberg, who now heads an environmental group, did not respond to requests for an interview this week to discuss his deposition. Crist — who has switched parties and may run for governor next year as a Democrat — also did not return a phone call requesting comment.

This is not the first time that questions about LeMieux's appointment have surfaced. It briefly became an issue last year when he was mounting an unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

One of the other Republicans running — then-U.S. Rep. Connie Mack — wrote a letter to federal authorities asking for an investigation after Greer told The Tampa Tribune that LeMieux exerted pressure to win the job and that "there's a lot more to this story that someday may be told, but I'm not ready yet to tell it."

When reached this week, Greer said he would not comment on Eikenberg's deposition or on what was discussed at Whataburger. Greer earlier this month abruptly pleaded guilty to five felony charges related to his role in siphoning off party money to a company he controlled. He will be sentenced in March.

For his part, LeMieux said he did nothing wrong and that he insisted on an interview because of his work helping Crist become governor.

"I thought for all the good work I had done I deserved an interview," LeMieux said. "I didn't expect to be picked. I thought I deserved to be interviewed."

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