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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 11:24 AM

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Ex-Florida GOP chair gets 1 1/2 years for stealing

The former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida was sentenced Wednesday to one-and-a-half years in prison for stealing $125,000 in party funds, marking the fall of a man who once was one of the most powerful political figures in the state.

Associated Press

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ORLANDO, Fla. —

The former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida was sentenced Wednesday to one-and-a-half years in prison for stealing $125,000 in party funds, marking the fall of a man who once was one of the most powerful political figures in the state.

Jim Greer, 50, was sentenced in an Orlando courtroom, more than a month after he pleaded guilty to four counts of theft and a single count of money laundering. The guilty pleas in February ended Greer's trial before it started.

Circuit Judge Marc Lubet handed down a sentence Wednesday that was less severe than the three-and-a-half years in prison requested by prosecutors. Lubet explained that he went with a more lenient sentence because Greer had already paid $65,000 in restitution to the Republican Party of Florida and because Greer's former right-hand man, Delmar Johnson, had committed the same crimes but hadn't been charged.

Johnson had been scheduled to be prosecutors' star witness and was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. He didn't return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.

"I feel that this crime deserves prison," Lubet told Greer. "You egregiously violated a position of trust."

After the hearing, Greer was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. His attorney, Damon Chase, said Greer had entered the guilty pleas to avoid the risk of a jury convicting him and getting a lengthy prison sentence.

"Mr. Greer did fall on his sword for this one," Chase said. "He did what he felt was best for his family. He feels good about it ... Next year, he will be spending time with his family and everything will be fine."

An attorney for the Republican Party of Florida said he received a $65,000 wire transfer representing Greer's restitution from Jacksonville attorney Hank Coxe on Monday. Stephen Dobson said he didn't know how Greer came up with the money, given that the former chairman has reported being financially strapped since his arrest in 2010. Chase refused to answer questions about where the money came from and Coxe didn't return a phone call and email Wednesday afternoon.

Greer also has agreed to drop a civil lawsuit against the Republican Party of Florida. The lawsuit accused the party of failing to pay him a severance.

"Eighteen months in prison for somebody like Jim Greer," Dobson said. "I don't think anybody thought a couple of years ago that he'd go to prison like this."

The trial had threatened to expose the underbelly of Florida's dominant political party and its formerly high-spending ways. Some of Florida's most powerful politicians were scheduled as witnesses, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and several state House and state Senate leaders.

Topics covered in pretrial depositions included allegations of prostitutes at a state GOP fundraiser in the Bahamas, the drinking habits of Crist and intraparty strife.

Prosecutors said Greer funneled almost $200,000 to a company he had formed with Johnson to help with fundraising for the Republican Party of Florida. He kept $125,000 of the money funneled to Victory Strategies for himself. Under the arrangement, Victory Strategies would get a cut of all party fund-raising after Greer and Johnson took over that responsibility from a fulltime fund-raiser. Johnson contacted law enforcement officials after Greer stepped down as the party's chairman.

Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Michael Williams said failing to charge Johnson was the cost of doing business.

"With Delmar Johnson, that's always the risk. We wouldn't have had a case without him either," Williams said. "That is something we just have to live with. We have to do that every day of the week."

Greer was vice mayor of the small central Florida town of Oviedo when Crist surprisingly picked him to be the state party chairman after he led local efforts to help Crist get elected governor in 2006. He previously was the president and CEO of a company that provides training to the hospitality industry on how to comply with alcohol laws.

The plea arrangement was reached at the last minute. Jury selection was set to begin early last month, but neither Greer nor prosecutors had appeared in the courtroom an hour after the trial was supposed to start.

Until he entered his guilty pleas, Greer had contended that party leaders, including Crist, knew about the financial arrangement that gave Greer's company a cut of party money in exchange for fundraising efforts. Greer had said he was targeted because of his support for Crist, who later defected from the GOP to run as an independent for U.S. Senate but lost to Rubio. Crist is now a Democrat and is being touted as a potential challenger to incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott next year.

During the sentencing hearing, Chase once again said Crist knew about the financial arrangement with Greer.

Crist has denied ever knowing about the arrangement. Pre-trial depositions and an affidavit have offered conflicting statements as to how much Crist knew.

"If you're asking me, `Do I think he knew?' I look at it in more simplistic terms," Williams said. "He is running the state at the time. Did he get lost in the weeds with Jim Greer fund-raising? ... We didn't share the concerns that the defense did."

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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