Fla. judge rejects Republicans in lawsuit seeking repayment of $7.5M in Crist contributions

By Curt Anderson, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fla. judge blocks GOP quest for Crist refunds

MIAMI — Republicans upset that Gov. Charlie Crist abandoned the GOP to become an independent were thwarted Thursday in a legal maneuver to force Crist’s U.S. Senate campaign to refund about $7.5 million in contributions.

Circuit Judge Jack Schoonover in Naples refused class-action certification for the Republican donors seeking refunds. That means at least 2,000 GOP contributors would have to pursue individual lawsuits to get back money they gave the Crist campaign before he became an independent.

State Rep. Thomas Grady, a Naples Republican who sought the class certification for two unhappy donors, said he disagreed with the judge’s decision but was unsure if he would appeal. Grady said it might be better to let contributors sue the Crist campaign across the state, but it’s unclear how many people would take that route.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Grady said. “They may just go from the frying pan into the fire.”

The lawsuit threatened to tie up Crist’s remaining campaign funds in the stretch run toward the Nov. 2 election. Crist faces Republican Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite, and Democrat Kendrick Meek for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Mel Martinez, who retired.

Grady had argued that Crist broke a contract with Republican donors when he declared for the GOP nomination, repeatedly insisted he would never leave the party as Rubio surged in the polls, then did exactly that in April by becoming an independent. The Collier County lawsuit was filed by former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas John Rood, who gave $4,800, and Linda Morton of Naples, who contributed $500.

“He was running as a Republican, and now he’s not, but he’s keeping the money,” Grady said. “Crist should return the money.”

Crist attorney Scott Weinstein countered that many of those initial contributors still support Crist as an independent and it would be impossible to identify a single class who gave money solely on condition Crist remain in the GOP. He also portrayed the case as political retribution against Crist, a lifelong Republican until this year.

“The court’s decision underscores that this case is nothing more than two small claims disputes,” Weinstein said. “It’s a shame the ambassador, Mrs. Morton and their counsel have caused the courts to spend taxpayers’ money in their attempt to impose the views of a few upon thousands of supporters.”

Schoonover had earlier refused to freeze Crist’s campaign assets. He also said at a hearing earlier this week that the lawsuit was unprecedented in Florida history and that federal election law generally allows candidates to spend contributions how they see fit — as long as it’s legal.

As of June 30, the most recent reporting period available, Crist had raised $12.49 in this cycle for the Senate seat.

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