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Criminal probe targets ex-GOP chief in Florida

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida has launched a criminal investigation into the state Republican party's recently ousted chairman and a company he secretly hired to raise donations, state officials and local media said Wednesday.

The investigation targeted Jim Greer, who resigned as state party chairman in January amid accusations that he misspent party funds, a political source confirmed.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not identify Greer by name but said in a statement that it was investigating "possible criminal activity surrounding a former senior official of the Republican Party of Florida and Victory Strategies, LLC."

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported that Greer was the majority owner of Victory Strategies and that the company benefited from a secret contract that paid it commissions on money raised for the party.

Greer could not immediately be reached for comment but previously denied misspending party funds. Considered a moderate, he said in January that he had been wrongly accused by party conservatives who were conducting an ideological purge that threatened to split the party ahead of crucial November elections.

The investigation comes at a time when the party is already dealing with embarrassing revelations about spending by the Republican National Committee, which spent thousands of dollars at lavish hotels and paid $1,946 for meals at a West Hollywood nightclub featuring topless dancers and bondage themes.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, said the current Florida party chairman, John Thrasher, had given him information two weeks ago from the state party's financial audit, which was filed on Wednesday with state election supervisors.

"This information indicates there may have been criminal activity surrounding a former senior official of the Republican Party of Florida and a company called Victory Strategies, LLC," McCollum said. "Upon learning this very serious and concerning information, I immediately referred the matter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement."

McCollum, Thrasher and the FDLE said they could not comment further because the matter involved an ongoing criminal investigation.

Florida Democrats have urged Governor Charlie Crist, who is also a Republican, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising contract and the allegations of misspending.

"Exactly what did Bill McCollum know about Jim Greer's secret sweetheart deal to leave this job and precisely when didn't McCollum know it?" asked Democratic Party Chairman Karen Thurman in statement.

"Only an independent investigation by a special prosecutor can legitimately determine if crimes were committed by Republican politicians and officials."

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)