Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida now seeking his old seat as a Democrat, has received the worst type of attention at the start of his campaign: a jilted former fundraiser testifying under oath that judicial nominations were up for sale on Mr. Crist’s watch.
The testimony this week by Scott Rothstein, a onetime Crist fundraiser and prominent lawyer convicted of running a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme, stunned court observers across Florida and rocked Mr. Crist’s nascent candidacy to oust Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.
Rothstein did not appear in court for several years after his 2010 guilty plea but emerged as a defense witness in a former legal colleague’s trial. He wasted no time dishing the dirt on Mr. Crist, prompting furious denials from the Democratic candidate and his campaign.
Rothstein testified that as a fundraiser he had a “quid pro quo” relationship in which he was able to encourage Mr. Crist, then the Florida governor, to name judges to the bench in Broward County who would rule favorably for his law firm.
“For certain contributions, people were appointed to the bench ,” Rothstein said in testimony reported by local news media. “I was able to convince him to do a lot of things. He knew how that game was played. I expected him to do certain things in exchange for large contributions.”
Rothstein, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison, also testified that he used his position on a commission that nominated judges for the 4th District Court of Appeals to suggest judicial appointees Mr. Crist wanted, even though the selection process was supposed to be based on merit and free of political influence.
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“There wasn’t supposed to be outside influence through the governor’s office. But there was through me,” he told the courts.
Rothstein’s sudden re-emergence has created a political headache for Mr. Crist, who already is dealing with the challenges of running as a Democrat with positions that differ from his record as a Republican.
Mr. Crist was leading Mr. Scott by an average of about 6 percentage points in a series of polls, but those surveys were conducted before this week’s testimony.
Democratic primary challengers and Republicans alike immediately seized on the revelations to attack Mr. Crist.
The former governor dismissed the credibility of his onetime confidant and fundraiser as a convicted con man.
“Scott Rothstein fooled lots of people and, like many, I regret trusting him. But as for his false accusation, let’s remember, these are the words of a convicted felon and known liar serving a 50-year jail sentence,” Mr. Crist told The Washington Times.
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Florida Republicans noted that Mr. Crist’s top fundraiser for his campaign this year is another high-powered law firm, the personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan.
“For a guy who claims to be the people’s governor, this is the opposite of that,” said Susan Hepworth, communications director for the Republican Party of Florida. “If he was owned by a schemer the first time around, and this time around, his campaign is being funded by mega-civil law office Morgan & Morgan, it certainly is a possibility that this could happen again.”
Political analysts say the testimony is unusual because it is rare that episodes of favor-trading are recounted in such explicit detail.
“There are pretty strong laws on the books, at least at the federal level, when you are making promises in exchange for money. Even at the federal level, to be caught up in violating that law you have to be very stupid,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.
“This notion that [Rothstein] is describing that he had such leverage and influence with Crist, and that there was some kind of agreement for contributions is somewhat troubling,” Ms. McGehee said.
Some ethics analysts say Rothstein’s statements shine new light on the controversy behind politicized judicial appointments.
“I think it all gets to a basic problem of how judges get their jobs,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Ms. Sloan said judges are nominated at the federal and state levels for a plethora of political reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with their legal abilities.
Local Florida news accounts noted that Rothstein gave his testimony in the hopes of getting a reduction on his sentence.
“I’m hoping when they measure all of my good conduct they’ll give me a cut,” he said.