TALLAHASSEE -- They headed for Marsh Harbour Airport in the Bahamas, most of them on private planes owned by billionaire Harry Sargeant III, then the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
The weekend trip began on Friday Jan. 11, 2008, for a select group of Floridians —maybe 20 or so — who helped raise money for a constitutional amendment that would increase homestead exemptions.
Those who attended have differing memories of how many were there or what occurred, and no one is very anxious to talk to a reporter about the gathering.
Perhaps it’s the accusation of a golf cart filled with prostitutes that scares them away.
The five-year-old gathering has gained a life of its own in the criminal case against former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who has been charged with money laundering and grand theft for allegedly diverting about $200,000 in party funds to a corporation he created. The trip itself isn’t tied to Greer’s legal problems, but details of the weekend could surface in testimony at his trial, which begins with jury selection Monday in Orlando, or remain secret, depending on which lawyers win out.
The Bahamas trip included an impressive outdoor seafood dinner with then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas Ned Siegel, Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer and a handful of Tallahassee lobbyists and big campaign donors.
It was organized by Greer and Sargeant for supporters of “Yes on 1-Save Our Homes Now,” a constitutional amendment campaign Crist was pushing to expand the state’s homestead exemption. Delmar Johnson, former executive director of the state Republican party and a key witness against Greer, describes it as a thank you trip for those who contributed some of the $4.4 million raised in support of the measure. Others, including Crist, say the gathering was a fundraiser. The amendment was approved by Florida voters on Jan. 29, 2008, a few weeks after the trip.
The trip was for men only. Even women who worked for the party and helped with fundraising were excluded.
Johnson told prosecutors last summer that he saw women who appeared to be prostitutes in a golf cart driven by one of Sargeant’s employees. The information surfaced late last year when a video of Johnson’s testimony was made public.
More specifics have been hard to come by.
Johnson’s testimony is included in a sealed Florida Department of Law Enforcement report prepared last summer by investigators looking at possible witness tampering in the Greer case. Prosecutors say the report — and details about the Bahamas trip — may be used as rebuttal evidence against some of those scheduled to testify on Greer’s behalf.
Lawyers for two unidentified witnesses have asked that the report remain sealed, saying it contains information that would embarrass them. Greer Circuit Judge Marc Lubet says the records must be made public if they are used in an attempt to impeach the testimony of witnesses who might be embarrassed by details of the Bahamas trip.
After reviewing the report in chambers last year, Lubet read the names of four men: Lobbyist Brian Ballard, Sargeant, Johnson and new state Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, asking if they would be witnesses at the trial. At the time of the trip Eagle was a travel aide for Crist. Prosecutors said all but Eagle, now a state legislator, are expected to be witnesses at the trial.
If the witnesses provide testimony that helps Greer, prosecutors could question whether the release of information about that Bahamian weekend influenced their testimony.
There is a substantial difference in the way some witnesses have testified in pretrial proceedings.
Crist, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St Augustine and a long list of other GOP notables are expected to be among the witnesses. Crist, Sargeant, Greer and Johnson were among the witnesses who made the Bahamas trip.
The case against Greer is likely to focus on how much Crist knew about Greer’s secretive fundraising corporation. Johnson, granted immunity in return for his testimony, says Greer went to much trouble to keep secret the formation of Victory Strategies LLC, a corporation Greer formed in early 2009 to handle fundraising duties for the party. Greer was an unnamed partner in the corporation, which identified its only officer as Marie Anne Luber, a secretary at the GrayRobinson law firm’s Tallahassee office.
John Harris, a GrayRobinson employee, has told state investigators that Greer did not want to be listed in public records as an owner.
Greer signed a Feb. 1, 2009, fundraising agreement between Victory Strategies and the GOP as chairman of the party, and Johnson signed for the newly created company.
Greer has insisted that Crist and others knew about the corporation and knew he was collecting extra money to handle fundraising after longtime fundraiser Meredith O’Rourke was terminated in January 2009.
Crist, in a written affidavit on May 10, 2010, said he was not aware of Victory Strategies, did not authorize the creation of the company and did not know Greer was receiving additional money for his fundraising efforts.
Had he known of Greer’s plans, Crist said he would have insisted that Greer fully disclose his involvement to the GOP’s executive board.
Crist has also suggested that Greer and his lawyer, Damon Chase, were attempting to tamper with witnesses in May 2012 when Chase contacted John Morgan, the senior partner at the law firm where Crist now works.
Chase, in telephone calls and emails, pushed Morgan to get Crist to change his testimony and sign a new affidavit saying he knew Greer was getting paid extra for fundraising or face embarrassing personal questions. Chase even furnished a new version of the affidavit for Crist to sign. Chase contends he was merely trying to get Crist to tell the truth.
Morgan and Crist refused to cooperate and reported the encounter to authorities as possible witness tampering. A short time later prosecutors re-interviewed Johnson and asked about the Bahamas trip. Chase’s new affidavit is now part of the evidence against Greer.
The substitute affidavit would have put Crist’s testimony more in line with statements given by Sargeant, Ballard and Jay Burmer, a GOP consultant with close ties to Crist.
Sargeant and Burmer, in separate affidavits, say they were aware that Greer and Johnson had taken over fundraising and would be paid additional money. Ballard, asked about it by prosecutors in November 2011 said Crist knew Greer and Johnson had taken over fundraising duties to save money.
“He (Crist) said it would be cheaper to have, to do it this way, that whatever Delmar and Jim Greer would cost, would be compensated for, would be less money than they were currently paying out,’’ Ballard testified. At the time the party was paying O’Rourke $30,000 a month for fundraising.
“I was surprised when Greer was charged with a crime relating to setting up a company to do fundraising for RPOF, as Greer and Mr. Johnson were acting with the knowledge and approval of Gov. Crist,’’ Sargeant said.
Some of the men who made the Bahamas trip, including Crist, say they never saw anyone that looked like a prostitute. Most of those contacted by the Tampa Bay Times didn’t want to talk about the trip at all. Several didn’t return telephone calls or refused to comment when reached.
But the Times has learned from interviews with some who attended that the group initially stayed at the Abaco Beach Resort. Some of the participants, including Crist, moved to The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, a Ritz-Carlton resort on the second night.
Crist said he never heard anything about prostitutes or bad behavior. He said he moved to another hotel on the second night because he thought the accommodations were nicer.
At least one person who attended the gathering said he left the resort and stayed with a friend for the weekend because he was “uncomfortable.’’ The guest, Tallahassee lobbyist Slater Bayliss, would not say what made him uncomfortable.
“I thought there was something else going on,’’ Bayliss said. “It was one of those things you just have a gut feeling about that something else is happening.’
Bayliss said he did not see any prostitutes but heard about them after the trip.
“I showed my face, said hi to the governor and then disassociated myself with the trip, it just smelled of nefarious things,’’ Bayliss added.
Lobbyist David Rancourt said he decided against making the trip.
“It sounds like I made a great decision,’’ Rancourt added. “I heard there were girls and a lot of drinking. I was told the Bahamian government officials were aware of what was going on and that they were appalled. I was not there and thank God I didn’t go.’’
Rancourt did not offer specifics.