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.