With polls showing his U.S. Senate rival on his heels, Gov. Charlie Crist reversed course Friday and said he would return all campaign donations from people who worked at alleged swindler Scott Rothstein's law firm in Fort Lauderdale.
In a meeting with the The Miami Herald's editorial board, Crist was asked about Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater's pledge to give back contributions -- not just from Rothstein himself but also from his associates at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
"I am doing the same," Crist said. Later Friday, Crist's campaign said he was "in the process'' of returning $76,250 from 35 employees of Rothstein's firm.
Crist had previously returned money from Rothstein and his wife, but had refused to do the same with the money from the firm.
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Crist's reversal comes more than two weeks after Rothstein was charged with multiple counts of racketeering. Federal officials said that the law firm had been making payroll with tainted money and that some lawyers had been illegally reimbursed for making campaign donations.
Since then, Crist has refused to return money from Rothstein associates because he said he needed proof of wrongdoing.
But Friday, Crist reversed himsely, saying he had a "duty'' to return money that could be tied to Rothstein's firm.
"You don't have one in front of you and I don't have one in front of me, and I'm talking about a crystal ball," he said. ‘‘I'm not clairvoyant. Wish I were but I'm not. . . . But once you find out what has occurred, then you do have this duty to return it, and if there are others that are tied to it, return it as well, and we're going to do that."
Crist said he would return the money "as quickly as possible."
State chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, announced Friday that she, too, plans to give up money from lawyers of the firm, who contributed at least $7,025. She is running for governor. Atwater is running for her office.
Crist's remarks about Rothstein came during a broader conversation about cracking down on public corruption in Florida, which he said would be a priority for him during the 2010 legislative session. Crist recently removed Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones from office after she was charged with grand theft, but once a special election to replace her was scheduled, Spence-Jones said she would run for her old seat.
What would Crist do if she won? "I hesitate to say, but I think there might have to be another special election," he said, suggesting that he would oust her from office a second time.
Crist also responded to questions about the growing clamor for Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer to resign: "I think they're wrong. I think he's doing a good job. People can get ginned up on an issue without having all the facts."
Asked if he could support any increase in utility costs sought by Florida Power & Light, Crist said "It's hard for me to imagine that." Crist has opposed FPL's request for a 30 percent increase in the base rate on electric bills.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.