Charlie Crist went to Disney World! Now who paid for it?
It was the eye-catching headline.
A Republican Party of Florida investigation into party finances, released Sept. 17, 2010, revealed that former party chairman Jim Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist spent a weekend with their families at Disney World in 2009.
The cost: More than $13,400.
The tab: Picked up by Republican Party of Florida donors.
To make things more interesting, Crist almost immediately declared it untrue.
"My family paid for our personal expenses," Crist responded Sept. 18. "I have a copy of a bill to my wife that was paid for by my family as it relates to the Disney trip. Clearly, the Republican party bosses have attacked my family and my family's integrity, but also perpetrated a fraud on the people of Florida with this report."
Who paid for what? How much? And how do we know?
PolitiFact Florida reviewed Crist's weekend Disney getaway seeking answers. What we found is that while the governor tried to pay his own way, it's difficult to say with certainty that every dollar came from his pocket and not the wallets of party donors.
Crist, his wife Carole and her two daughters spent less than 48 hours at Walt Disney World yet racked up at least $3,300 in charges on Carole Crist's American Express card.
That's on top of $11,228.89 of charges billed to Republican Party of Florida cards, according to the PolitiFact Florida review.
Like many Americans who make the Disney pilgrimage, the Crists spent more than they planned.
"This Disney thing is a mess, there (sic) trying to charge the Gov rooms 1,300 a night," Greer e-mailed RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson at one point during the weekend trip to Disney's Contemporary Resort. "He and Carol (sic) are hot, and my card and hers is (sic) being charged thousands."
Charlie Crist's credit card charges
For the record, the Republican Party -- in the financial investigation and the accompanying press release -- never said Crist used party money to pay for his Disney trip. But it was widely interpreted that way.
Just check the headlines. "Fla. GOP audit shows, Crist denies, party paid for his Disney, other trips," -- Palm Beach Post. "GOP audit shows Gov. Charlie Crist went to Disney on party's credit card" -- Tampa/St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP. "Audit: Crist, Greer took trips to Disney World on GOP credit card," -- Tallahassee Democrat.
Party spokesman Dan Conston was careful to not suggest the RPOF paid for Crist, but said the Disney trip confirms that Crist either was complicit or recklessly oblivious to Greer's lavish spending as party chairman.
"Time and again Charlie Crist was present while Jim Greer was blowing through hundreds of thousands in party money," Conston said. "Crist wants us to believe he didn't benefit from Greer's spending. But does he really expect anyone to believe he didn't even notice it?"
And Crist, on the Disney charges, reaffirmed he paid his own way: "We paid them. Any time it's personal, I pay personally."
Armed with public records, news accounts, e-mails, and the Crists' itemized receipt from Disney's Contemporary Resort, PolitiFact Florida endeavored to piece together the Crist/Greer vacation from June 12-15, 2009, with an emphasis on what money was being spent.
Plans for the weekend began to take shape in late May 2009, when Greer told his executive assistant to arrange for rooms June 12-15 at Disney's Contemporary Resort -- the upscale resort closest to the Magic Kingdom theme park. Greer wanted to reserve suites for the adults, two double bed rooms for the children, and an additional room for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents protecting the governor.
FDLE covered its own costs on the trip -- $411.75, excluding agent salaries, spokeswoman Heather Smith said.
As for theme park tickets, Greer asked his assistant about getting some from Disney. They often donated tickets to the party. But not for Crist, Greer said. "Governor couldn't take anything like that," Greer's assistant, Lela Whitfield, wrote in an e-mail after speaking with Greer.
Fast forward to Friday, June 12, which began as a workday for Crist. After spending the morning at a bill signing in South Florida, Crist and three staffers flew in a state plane from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Myers for an education bill signing at the Lee Charter Academy. Crist spent about 25 minutes at the school.
At 1:45 p.m., the state plane left Fort Myers bound for Tallahassee but without Crist as a passenger, according to flight logs kept and published by the state.
Instead, according to Senate campaign finance records, Crist booked a Southwest Airlines flight to Orlando. The total charge, which likely included a future leg, was for $275.20.
On Saturday, June 13, and Sunday, June 14, Crist's official calendar shows no public events.
The Disney resort receipt provided by the Crist campaign shows that Crist's wife Carole paid for two rooms on the concierge level of the Contemporary Resort -- not suites -- for June 12 and June 13. Each room cost the going rate, $645 a night plus $80.63 in taxes, or $2,902.52 overall. The Crist family receipt includes an additional $359.05 in hotel charges: $140 from an arcade inside the hotel, $195.27 in three dining charges and $23.78 in gift shop and other charges.
The Crists checked out on the 14th, a day earlier than expected, records show.
At checkout, two things got messed up. First, the Crists thought the rooms would cost around $300 each, not $645. And the early check out also made it harder to reconcile the Crists' bill. Carole Crist was charged $4,712.82 but only spent $3,261.57, according to the itemized charges. The bill includes a credit for the difference, $1,451.25.
Crist then spent Sunday night, June 14, at a Marriott hotel in Fort Lauderdale, campaign finance records show. The next day, Crist attended a South Florida bill signing and then visited the Hialeah Park Race track. By Tuesday the 16th, he was back in Tallahassee.
Crist's total time in Orlando: Less than 48 hours.
Plenty of questions
Determining the cost of the trip -- to Crist and to the RPOF -- and who paid for what is difficult for a number of reasons.
The RPOF investigation pegs the party's share of the trip at $13,435.59. But that number's wrong, the RPOF now admits. What was listed as a $1,103.35 charge is actually a credit, party credit card statements show. That means the RPOF portion of the trip cost $11,228.89. "The auditors meticulously and independently reviewed around 150,000 documents of a wide variety in their audit, and there was a clear and unmistakeable trend of profligate spending and mismanagement, which in many cases Gov. Crist was personally there for, and one incidental accounting oversight doesn't alter that finding," said Conston, the party spokesman.
All of the charges except one -- a $809.36 charge at nearby Universal Studios -- were billed to RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson's credit card, though he didn't attend the Orlando trip. The arrangement was very common, said Johnson's lawyer, Robert Leventhal.
More than $4,200 billed to the party was charged on June 15, after Crist already had left and was in South Florida. It's not clear Greer whether remained.
Then there are e-mails provided by the party that suggest that the Crists were paying for the children's rooms and that Greer would pay for two suites. Suites would cost $1,000 or more a night. "Suites are on my or your party card, the 2 regular rooms are all that The Gov and Carole are paying for," Johnson wrote to Greer on June 14, after questions about the bill came up.
Crist spokesman Danny Kanner said Crist and his family "stayed in the rooms that the hotel receipt shows the First Lady paid for."
What most of the RPOF charges are for only really Greer, Disney and maybe Crist, knows. The Republican Party of Florida does not have an itemized receipt for the trip like the one the Crist provided, just credit card statements showing the charges. The results of the RPOF investigation include a listing of those credit card purchases with the corresponding date. Nothing more.
Leventhal said Tuesday Johnson described the weekend as a pleasure trip, and the financial investigation, performed for the party by the law firm Alston & Bird, LLP, said the trip was "primarily not related to RPOF business." But Greer's attorney Damon Chase said the trip was fundraising, as well as creating marketing opportunities for Crist's campaign for Senate. "It resulted in more money coming into the party, than money that was spent," Chase said.
PolitiFact Florida usually attaches a Truth-O-Meter ruling to stories like these. In this case, we attempted to see if Crist and his family paid for their "personal expenses." While it's clear his family paid for two hotel rooms and other charges and were only in the Orlando-area for a short period, we can't say with certainty that the Crists paid for everything on their own. And we can't say that they didn't.
The records just aren't clear, and the folks who might know, aren't talking.