WEWAHITCHKA -- He once controlled the Republican Party of Florida, flying on chartered jets, drinking top-shelf bourbon and mingling with the rich and powerful.
Now Jim Greer lives at Gulf Forestry Camp, a low-security prison in a remote patch of the Florida Panhandle and a world away from the life he lived as a confidant of former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Near the halfway point of his 18-month sentence for grand theft and money laundering, Greer agreed to speak exclusively with the Herald/Times about his old life and his new one.
The man who used to answer to “Chairman” has a new title: Inmate No. C07705.
On the surface, prison has been good to the 51-year-old Greer.
Seated at a conference table at nearby Gulf Correctional Institution, where prison officials arranged an interview, Greer looks noticeably thinner. He says he has lost 40 pounds.
He’s also tanner than when Floridians last saw him in an Orlando courthouse in February. The tan is the result of six-hour days on a work crew, pulling weeds and picking up trash in nearby Port St. Joe.
He says he wakes up each morning at 4 a.m., attends church services on Tuesdays and Sundays, and teaches inmates studying for their GEDs about the three branches of government.
“I teach social studies and civics,” he said, “believe it or not.”
He is eligible for a work release transfer, has a spotless disciplinary record and has few complaints about prison life.
“When you’re down in a ditch, it’s 100 degrees and you have a Weed Eater, it’s not the most pleasant thing,” Greer said. “But it’s not North Korea. We’re not being beaten every day.”
During a 75-minute visit, Greer talked about life in prison, the friends he thought he had and the people (he seldom gets specific) that he blames for his downfall. He tantalizes about a possible tell-all book.
“I have a lot of knowledge of a lot of things,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll tell them and maybe someday I won’t.”
Greer’s sudden and surprise guilty plea to charges that he used a consulting firm to steal money from the state party, after years of proclaiming his innocence, spared a parade of powerful politicians from certain embarrassment.
It also raised questions about his motives. As part of a settlement, Greer paid $65,000 in restitution to the state Republican Party, though his finances were so depleted that he said his family needed food stamps.
Greer denied that he or his family received money in return for his guilty plea. He said he decided to end the case for his family’s sake after nearly three years.
“I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t win. There was no way they were going to let me win,” Greer said.
With five children, including a 1-year-old daughter, Greer said he felt guilt for the years when his family ranked second to his political career.
“If it included me going away for 15 months, that’s what I had to do,” he said.
Greer remains convinced that his downfall was partly due to his close relationship with Crist, who over time alienated many influential Republicans. But he cited his own conduct, including “my arrogance” as party boss.
Now his cuff links and tailored suits have been replaced by sneakers and standard-issue prison attire known as “state blues.” Briefings from paid spokesmen have been replaced by USA Today and news on Panama City TV stations.
Gulf Forestry Camp is for nonviolent inmates. Greer does not live in a cell and instead sleeps in an open dormitory-style area with bunk beds for inmates. He buys Diet Cokes and tuna sandwiches at a prison canteen, and the party chieftain who used to bask in the glow of media attention enjoys his anonymity.
Prison food is tolerable, he said, until he speaks to his wife Lisa on the phone in suburban Orlando and hears that she is serving lasagna and French bread to their children.
“Whatever it is, I eat it,” Greer said. “Spinach goulash or something.”
Just another inmate
Many fellow inmates don’t know who Greer was, but that is likely to change.
He’s scheduled to be released from prison next July, just as Florida voters begin to pay more attention to the 2014 governor’s race. He knows his notoriety makes him an obvious target for negative TV ads, especially if Crist runs as a Democrat against Gov. Rick Scott, as is widely expected.
Greer was once Crist’s close ally, but ironically, the disgraced former GOP leader may be an effective Republican weapon against Crist.
“I expect to turn off the TV as often as I can so my kids don’t have to see the commercials,” Greer said. “I suspect that next year I will be a major part of the election.”
The Republican strategy is summed up by the party’s current chairman, Lenny Curry: “The reality is that Charlie Crist and Jim Greer are tied together. Charlie Crist picked Jim Greer and now Jim Greer’s in prison,” Curry said.
Greer laughed loudly when asked if prostitutes attended a Republican Party fundraiser in the Bahamas that included Crist in 2008. The claim originated from the state GOP’s former executive director, Delmar Johnson, who was the chief witness against Greer and was Greer’s partner in the consulting firm Victory Strategies. Johnson turned against Greer to avoid prosecution.
“I don’t know who exactly was there. There were a lot of people there, and I didn’t ask the occupations of who was there, but I had no personal knowledge of prostitutes being in the Bahamas,” Greer said. “That’s another one of those stories.”
Greer said he has cards and letters of support. The logs from the Department of Corrections show his only visitors have been his wife Lisa, their children and a relative. Lisa Greer, who lives more than 300 miles away, paid a visit in June, and he said they talk on the telephone daily.
Greer still identifies himself as a Republican and criticized his party for a lack of voter outreach, dismissing the current chairman, Curry, as a figurehead leader who answers to Scott, party staff members and “a few lobbyists.”
“The idea that any political party would take advice from Jim Greer is absurd. It’s almost laughable,” Curry said when told of Greer’s comments. “He had his opportunity and now he’s in prison.”
Curry said the party spent the past two years in a rebuilding mode because Greer had mismanaged its finances.
“We almost couldn’t pay to have the garbage taken out,” Curry said.
The coming campaign for governor means Greer won’t be able to bury the past. He will remain linked to Crist, even though the two men are estranged and Greer’s career in politics appears over.
“Charlie’s a cut-and-run kind of guy. Don’t go up the hill in a battle with him, because you may turn around, and he’s not there with you,” Greer said. “Charlie’s a loyal person when it benefits his self-interest.”
Told of Greer’s comments, Crist said: “Everybody has a right to their opinion. I think it speaks for itself.”
As he talked, Greer recalled driving with Crist to the Orlando Sentinel for an editorial board meeting during Crist’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Along the way, Crist said he wanted to make it easier for convicted felons to regain their civil rights so they can vote.
Crist streamlined civil rights restoration, but Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet imposed new restrictions in 2011 that required felons to wait for five years after their release before they can seek clemency.
Those restrictions will prevent Greer from casting a vote in 2014, and for many years to come.
“I hope to someday get my rights restored. We’ll just have to see,” Greer said. “When I get out, I’ll just start over again as best I can.”