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.