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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Did LeMieux pressure Crist to get Senate seat?

TAMPA - Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp — not George LeMieux — was Gov. Charlie Crist's first choice for a U.S. Senate appointment in 2009. But LeMieux convinced Crist to reverse that decision, using "a strategy that included direct pressure on Crist,'' says former state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer in an account partially confirmed by Kottkamp. Greer, now facing criminal charges in a party fundraising scandal, said he knows what the pressure involved, but wouldn't describe it. "There's a lot more to this story that someday may be told, but I'm not ready yet to tell it," he said. "George is a strategist," Greer told The Tampa Tribune. "He strategized how to get the interview and how to get the appointment, and that strategy included direct pressure on the governor."
Now a lawyer in private practice, LeMieux is running for Florida's other U.S. Senate seat in a Republican primary facing U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers and former Rep. Dave Weldon of Melbourne. LeMieux didn't respond directly when asked to confirm or deny Greer's account. "George considers serving in the U.S. Senate a tremendous privilege," said a statement from campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix. "While in the Senate, George proved himself as a conservative problem solver and he will continue to fight to for the people of Florida when he beats Bill Nelson in November." Kottkamp confirmed that he was told he would receive the appointment, and was surprised when Crist instead appointed LeMieux. He said Greer and Crist's chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg, told him, "You're going to be in the Senate" after he agreed to conditions Crist imposed. "I think what happened was that George LeMieux really went to work on the governor — he really pressed hard," Kottkamp said Friday. He said he didn't know what arguments or pressure LeMieux used. Eikenberg, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Crist didn't return voice mail and email messages or messages left with his legal assistant at the law firm where he now works. Formerly one of Crist's closest political allies and friends, Greer is now the defendant in a criminal case that threatens to tar high-level Florida GOP leaders. He has become a pariah, alienated from former associates, including Crist. He's scheduled to go to trial in Orlando on July 30, a month before the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. He is charged with diverting party contributions to a fundraising company he secretly set up. Greer said his account of the Senate appointment isn't likely to figure in that trial. But the trial still could prove a messy affair, airing dirty GOP laundry in public. Greer maintains his innocence, saying he can prove top party leaders knew about the fundraising company and were responsible for excessive party spending he is now blamed for, and are making him a scapegoat. He says Crist instructed him to form the company and to take over party fundraising at LeMieux's suggestion, which Crist and LeMieux deny, and that party officials agreed to pay him a large severance when he left the party post, but then went back on the agreement. Greer has said he plans to write a book about his experiences that could damage Republican reputations. Crist chose LeMieux as a temporary replacement when Sen. Mel Martinez resigned from the Senate seat in August 2009. LeMieux served September 2009 to January 2011, replaced by Marco Rubio, who defeated Crist in the 2010 election. LeMieux now cites his 16-month Senate tenure with a conservative voting record as the basis of his campaign. The GOP winner faces incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in the November general election. The three people at the center of the story — Crist, Greer and LeMieux — were once close allies at the peak of Florida politics. LeMieux was long Crist's right-hand man; his chief deputy when Crist was attorney general, manager of Crist's 2006 campaign for governor, and chief of staff in Crist's governor's office. He left the governor's office in 2008 to rejoin the Gunster law firm, where he is now board chairman. Greer, an Orlando businessman and 2006 backer, was Crist's choice to lead the state party. Some Republicans charge that Greer used it as a mechanism to advance Crist's political interests. At the time he made the Senate appointment, Crist was planning to run for the seat in 2010, widely expected to win and wanted a placeholder to occupy it until then. He had a publicized series of interviews with potential appointees. At least two, Rep. C.W. Bill Young and former Sen. Connie Mack III, father of the current candidate, said they weren't interested, but other prominent Republicans were. The choice of LeMieux surprised political insiders. Democrats and some Republicans said Crist was serving his own political interest rather than picking the most qualified candidate. Marco Rubio, who defeated Crist in the 2010 election, at the time called the appointment "disappointing," and said, "George is a talented political operative and the governor's best friend, but that doesn't make him the right choice to represent Florida in the Senate." Others noted the appointee was a placeholder, not a long-term senator, and said it wasn't shocking for Crist to pick a political ally likely to reflect his own views. Kottkamp said Crist also wanted an appointee who would resign from the seat soon after the election, allowing the new senator to take office early with an edge in seniority over others elected that year. "When you think about the preconditions, it just about had to be me or George LeMieux," because few others would agree, he said. Kottkamp said he was not eager to take the appointment because it would involve leaving his family. "Erik (Eikenberg) called me and I initially said no," but agreed to meet Eikenberg and Greer at Greer's office in Republican headquarters to discuss it; a meeting also described by Greer. "Jim said the governor really needed me to (accept), and I said if it will help the governor I'll do it," Kottkamp said. After speaking to his wife, Kottkamp agreed to the conditions. Greer told him the announcement would be made in two days. He said he was surprised but relieved when Crist named LeMieux. Kottkamp said Crist never promised him the appointment directly, but he doesn't doubt Crist had made the decision. "The governor's chief of staff would never do that without it being (Crist's) direction, and neither would Jim Greer," he said. "This was typically how business was conducted. When (Crist) made decisions like this, it would be rare for him to say it directly until the end." Kottkamp said he often functioned as an intermediary in Crist appointments, while Crist stayed out of the negotiations until the appointment was made public. Crist initially leaned toward former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, but settled on Kottkamp after an anonymous website critical of Delaney appeared on the Internet, Greer said. LeMieux, meanwhile, was campaigning behind the scenes for the appointment, he said. "Charlie Crist said he was sick of it … and wanted me to get with (LeMieux) as quickly as possible to tell him he was not going to get the appointment and to stop this behind-the-scenes advocating," Greer said. He said he and Eikenberg met LeMieux at a Tallahassee Steak 'n Shake late one night a few days before the announcement of the appointment to deliver that message. LeMieux, in response, "was very persistent about getting an interview with the governor for the appointment because he wanted to remind him of all the things he had done for him," Greer said. In the next few days, LeMieux met behind closed doors, once with Eikenberg and Crist, and once with Crist alone, he said. Greer learned of the appointment when Crist later called him to the governor's mansion to greet the new senator with champagne.

wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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