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Ex-Florida Republican Party chairman pleads guilty to grand theft

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida pleaded guilty to money laundering and theft charges on Monday, preempting a trial that threatened to reveal some potentially embarrassing details about the party that dominates politics in the state.

Jim Greer, who was indicted in 2010, entered five separate guilty pleas in an Orlando courthouse in a last-minute deal with prosecutors. Jury selection in his long-awaited trial had been scheduled to get under way a short time later.

"We had an awful lot of people that didn't want the trial to go forward," Damon Chase, Greer's defense lawyer, told reporters after the guilty pleas were entered in open court.

"Once again, James Greer is falling on his sword for a lot of other folks," he said.

Chase did not elaborate. The case against Greer, who had maintained that he did nothing criminal or unusual in his role as Republican Party chairman, centered on his creation of a company, Victory Strategies, to handle fundraising duties for the party.

While serving as the paid chairman of the party, he then contracted with it through Victory Strategies to fundraise in exchange for 10 percent of all major contributions.

Greer contended that Republican leaders, including former Governor Charlie Crist, knew about the arrangement and approved it. But in a deposition filed with the court last week, Crist denied knowing that Greer was taking a percentage of party donations for himself.

Crist testified that since one of Greer's primary duties as party chairman was to raise money, it would have been improper for him to be paid again through Victory Strategies.

Crist and other well-known Florida politicians, including a former State Senate president and former State House speaker, had been expected to testify at Greer's trial. Their testimony, and details about some of Greer's free-wheeling spending practices, threatened to cast an unwelcome spotlight on the Republican Party's expenses and fundraising tactics.

Crist, Greer's onetime ally and friend, served a single term as Republican governor of the fourth-largest U.S. state.

He unsuccessfully ran as an independent for a U.S. Senate seat in a race against rising Republican star Marco Rubio and is now widely believed to be planning a new run for governor in 2014 as a Democrat.

As part of the plea deal in court on Monday, an organized fraud charge against the 50-year-old Greer was dropped. But he could still face up to 35 years in prison. Sentencing is set for March 27.

(Editing by Tom Brown, Cynthia Johnston and Nick Zieminski)

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