April 15, 2013

The rise and fall of GOP money man and HMO founder, Akshay Desai

From the Tampa Bay Times:

In August, Universal Health Care Group was crumbling. Regulators circled. Bankruptcy loomed.

Still, founder and CEO Akshay Desai didn't publicly hint at any problems.

"As a businessman, I know all too well what it takes to make it in the private sector," he bragged at the time.

It was vintage Desai — supremely confident, selective with the facts. The 55-year-old son of Indian educators built Universal on smarts and ambition. He was charming when he needed to be, domineering when he wanted. One day he was persuading investors to part with tens of millions of dollars, the next he was berating employees to tears.

He rose high into the Republican fundraising ranks, dining with President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch. Eventually he realized his dream: a $1.5 billion health care company, with more than 140,000 members in 23 states.

But his success was largely an illusion. Story here.

April 05, 2013

Big staff changes at RPOF: Grissom leaves top post for FL Chamber, regional roster announced

@MarcACaputo

Big changes at the Republican Party of Florida. Here's the press release:

Tallahassee -- Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry today announced key staff departures and arrivals.

After leading the Republican Party of Florida since October 2011, Mike Grissom, the party's Executive Director will become Senior Director of Political Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. During his tenure as Executive Director, Grissom was instrumental in helping Curry continue reforms at the RPOF after the untimely passing of Chairman Dave Bitner.

"Mike Grissom is not only my friend, but he is one of Florida's most respected political campaign operatives," said Curry. "Through triumphs and challenges, Mike has been a steady leader for our party, we are sorry to see him go. The Florida Chamber has made an excellent choice, and I know he will be an invaluable asset to their mission of creating economic growth and opportunity for Florida."

Continue reading "Big staff changes at RPOF: Grissom leaves top post for FL Chamber, regional roster announced" »

March 27, 2013

Jim Greer sentenced to 18 months in prison

Jim Greer, hand shaker, party thrower, power seeker, former head of the Republican Party of Florida, was sentenced in Orlando on Wednesday to 18 months in state prison.

Greer, 50 and a father of five, last month pleaded guilty to money laundering and theft charges, admitting he had created a company called Victory Strategies to siphon to himself and an associate some $200,000 of party donations.

Wednesday's sentencing in Courtroom 6B at the Orange County Courthouse marked at least the legal end of a years-long saga that was unflattering for state Republicans but could’ve been worse.

Follow the story here.

February 28, 2013

A look at Harry Sargeant: 'The most powerful person no one knows'

Crist and Harry Sargeant

Former Gov. Charlie Crist calls him a "great patriot." Congressional investigators call him "a war profiteer" who walked away with an extra $200 million while providing fuel to American troops in Iraq.

At Florida State University, he is something of a hero — contributing more than a million dollars to athletic programs, the business school and his old fraternity.

Who is Harry Sargeant III?

Photo: Harry Sargeant, center, introduces Gov. Charlie Crist and Jordan's King Abdullah II at the presidential palace in Amman, Jordan, in 2007.

 A plaque at the Pi Kappa Alpha House on campus calls him "the most powerful man no one knows.'' The moniker comes from a 2008 Miami Herald story that noted his friendship with Crist and his wide-ranging business interests.

Sargeant, 55, is a billionaire former Marine fighter pilot, the owner of an oil and asphalt shipping company with global businesses including aviation companies and an oil refinery.

And in the tangled world of Florida politics, Sargeant is a Republican financial powerhouse.

He has long supported Crist while also helping former party chairman Jim Greer, despite the animosity between Greer and Crist since Greer was charged with stealing money from the GOP in 2010. Crist, now a Democrat considering an attempt to return to the Governor's Mansion, says Sargeant remains a close friend.

Campaign finance records show Sargeant has donated more than $1.5 million to Florida politicians and the state Republican Party since 2000, the year Crist ran for education commissioner.

In recent years, Sargeant has made headlines over fuel he supplied to U.S. forces in Iraq. The brother-in-law of the king of Jordan sued Sargeant in Palm Beach and won a $28.8 million verdict for being cut out of a $1.4 billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan. (Sargeant is appealing.) A congressional oversight committee called for an investigation of payments to Sargeant's company, and last year auditors for the Department of Defense accused the company of overcharging the Pentagon by hundreds of millions. A federal investigation is ongoing.

Chris Kise, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Sargeant, says the overcharging accusations came from Democrats who were angry at Sargeant's fundraising for Republicans. More from Lucy Morgan here. 

 

February 13, 2013

So why did Jim Greer plead guilty?

From Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan:

For three years, former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer denied doing anything wrong and promised a trial that would embarrass a lot of people. So why did he plead guilty to five felonies Monday facing the certainty of spending years in prison?

And who paid Hank Coxe, a widely respected criminal defense attorney from Jacksonville who parachuted in  at the last minute and quietly negotiated the plea that brought the long-running soap opera to a close. Coxe was in the courtroom when Greer pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges but did not speak and did not formally file a notice of appearance with the court.

For more than two years, Damon Chase, the Lake Mary civil attorney who represented Greer, hurled insults at party officials insisting the investigation was an attempt to destroy Greer. Chase even predicted that everyone would die in the end like a Shakespearean tragedy. Instead, Chase stood silently beside Greer as he answered, “Guilty, your honor’’ five times.

Chase said Greer “decided to fall on his sword rather than burn down the house.’’

Coxe stepped in a few weeks ago and reviewed the evidence, talking to prosecutors and Republican Party representatives as he pushed for a plea bargain.

“Hank Coxe was critical to getting the deal done. He is a very experienced criminal defense lawyer and he concluded it would be in Greer’s best interest,’’ said Steve Dobson, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented the party in a civil suit Greer filed in an attempt to collect $130,000 the party promised him in severance pay.

Story here.

February 12, 2013

Sansom friend, Jay Odom, pleads guilty to causing Huckabee to file false reports

Panhandle developer Jay Odom pleaded guilty Tuesday to causing presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to file false campaign reports in 2007. A second charge of laundering $23,000 in contributions to Huckabee will be dropped by prosecutors.

Odom was charged with reimbursing 10 donors who each gave the $2,300 maximum contribution to the candidate. The longtime contributor to the Republican Party of Florida and many GOP candidates appeared before U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier in Pensacola. His sentencing was scheduled for April 23. He faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

More from Lucy Morgan here. 

February 11, 2013

Mr. Smith goes to Tallahassee. With a brickbat for RPOF, Crist, Rubio et al

From Tampa Bay Times Adam C. Smith:

You could practically hear the gasp of relief from Florida Republican leaders Monday when ex-GOP chairman Jim Greer pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges, sparing them a sordid, two-week trial.

What a trial it could have been, a veritable reality show featuring testimony about lying political leaders, hookers, bitter vendettas, personal slush funds and secret contracts.

The whole sorry story of the Florida Republican Party under Jim Greer is exhibit A on how near-absolute power, combined with astronomical campaign accounts, can and did breed breathtaking arrogance and entitlement, if not outright corruption, among party leaders professing conservatism.

Don't buy the hogwash about this being an unfortunate chapter isolated to the tenure of one buffoonish chairman hand-picked by former Gov. Charlie Crist. That is as much nonsense as Greer's contention that he was the victim of intolerant Republican hard-liners out to destroy him because he supported Crist's moderate ways.

"Jim Greer was just a greedy little b------ who brought too much attention, too much heat, to the point that elected officials and some major donors finally wanted him gone,'' said Allen Cox, the former state party vice chairman who was ousted because of his long-stymied efforts to expose Greer's lavish spending.

"What we learned from Jim Greer is that the party has really morphed into a front for legislative fundraising and front for payments to consultants," Cox said Monday. "Nobody really cared about Jim Greer's spending. All he did was, by wicked excess and spending so much of that money, draw attention to himself. He was being too flashy, too obnoxious, too profligate. Had he not actually diverted funds into (an allegedly secret fundraising company), everything would have been washed over, and nothing would have become of it."

Let's stipulate a few things:

• Gov. Rick's Scott's hands are entirely clean in this mess. A newcomer to Florida politics, he had nothing to do with the state party before or during Greer's 2007-10 tenure. An explosive, ugly trial actually would have served him well, highlighting Crist's close association with Greer. The former governor was supposed to testify Thursday.

• The other statewide elected Republicans in Tallahassee — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — are also untainted.

• Crist, now a Democrat, may or may not have been seriously damaged by trial testimony, but he still is tarnished. If he runs for governor again, he has plenty to answer for. He anointed Greer party chairman and ignored repeated red flags while standing by him until the end. And in his legendary enthusiasm for raising campaign money, Crist repeatedly showed suspect judgment in embracing less than savory political benefactors: longtime friend Harry Sargeant, accused of war profiteering and illegal campaign donations; convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale; and Alan Mendelsohn of Hollywood, now serving a four-year sentence for public corruption.

• Sen. Marco Rubio's name may not have surfaced during the trial, but he epitomized the culture of the state GOP in recent years as much as anyone. As legislative leaders today talk about reforming the campaign finance system, so politicians can no longer operate personal slush funds, they are talking about Rubio and plenty of others.

The leading candidate for president in 2016 used his party credit card to charge everything from groceries to personal flights to family reunion expenses — charges for which he had to reimburse the party after they were exposed by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.

Rubio has declined to release two years of earlier party credit card statements, so we don't know the scope of his spending. But he has never denied telling a disenchanted former supporter, political analyst Chris Ingram of Tampa, that during that period he charged to the party card — and later paid off, he told Ingram — $4,000 to $5,000 in new flooring for his home.

More here

Jim Greer pleads guilty to four counts of grand theft

Former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer pleaded guilty Monday morning to four charges of grand theft, avoiding trial in a case that could have potentially embarrassed former Gov. Charlie Cristand much of the state’s Republican elite.

Jury selection had been expected to begin this morning.

Instead, Greer stood next to his lawyer Damon Chase a little before 10:30 a.m. and entered guilty pleas as part of a last-minute deal with prosecutors.

Greer decline to comment as he left the courtroom. Said Chase: “Sometimes clearing your name is not as important as taking care of your family.”

As part of the deal, Greer faces a maximum of 42.6 months in prison. Sentencing is scheduled March 27.

Follow the breaking news here.

 

 

February 07, 2013

Crist under oath: wine fuzzed memory, denies knowing about Greer's compensation

Perhaps it was the wine that made some Republicans forget details of events involving former party chairman Jim Greer. Or maybe it was Greer who drank the wine and was mis-remembering.

Those suggestions were tossed around among lawyers as they put former Gov. Charlie Crist under oath last year to ask him about a series of conversations he had with Greer and others as Greer took over party fundraising in 2009.

Crist, a lawyer, former legislator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor, said it was his first time to be questioned under oath in a court proceeding, a remarkable thing for a man who has spent most of his adult life in politics.

Many of the other witnesses that have been questioned under oath also suffered from a failure to recall details of Greer's fundraising activity. More from Lucy Morgan here.

Continue reading "Crist under oath: wine fuzzed memory, denies knowing about Greer's compensation" »

February 04, 2013

Hopes, fears among Republicans as Jim Greer trial nears

Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan with a column on the upcoming Jim Greer trial:

Who wins if next week's criminal trial of former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer is a prolonged public affair airing all of the party's dirty laundry?

Some think Gov. Rick Scott would like a drawn-out drama just in case something falls on former Gov. Charlie Crist, a potential 2014 opponent who hired Greer and is listed as a witness for both sides. Scott is about the only Republican in town who had nothing to do with the party before he was elected in 2010 and it's likely he's never met Greer.

Republicans running the party these days hate Greer and don't appear to have any culpability in the accusations against him of fraud, money laundering and grand theft. They also hate Crist for hiring Greer and switching parties. So they don't have much to lose if the trial gets ugly.

Some Republicans, particularly lobbyists who are entangled in the drama as witnesses, just want it all to end.

Greer fuels the hope of memorable theatrics with every interview, promising a Shakespearean tragedy in which “everyone dies in the end.’’ He maintains he is an innocent victim of right-wing officials who were angry at Crist and vows to show us what goes on behind the curtain in the Florida GOP.

Column here.