WASHINGTON – The Republican National Committee’s finance director and his deputy were forced out Friday as the organization still reels from reimbursements for donors to attend a lesbian bondage-themed nightclub in Los Angeles.

RNC chief of staff Michael Leavitt sent an e-mail message to committee members telling them of the changes in the fundraising department and promising a strong strategy heading into crucial midterm elections in November. A replacement for finance director Rob Bickhart and deputy Debbie LeHardy, expected to be longtime Republican fundraiser Mary Heitman, was to be announced soon.

The finance team’s ouster came late on a Friday as the RNC prepared for a major meeting with its state party chairs in the Washington area next week. The RNC became a late-night joke and questions arose about chairman Michael Steele’s tenure after financial reports showed lavish spending, including almost $2,000 for a night at a sex-themed nightclub with topless entertainers.

In a prepared statement, Steele said, “We are well-positioned for victory this fall and look forward to working with Mary to continue to improve upon our strong fundraising numbers and provide the support necessary to win elections.”

Steele was not present at West Hollywood’s Voyeur nightclub on Jan. 31 when a group of young Republicans ran a tab picked up by the RNC. After reporters noted the bill in a funding report, Steele dismissed chief of staff Ken McKay. That shake-up prompted one of Steele’s top advisers, Curt Anderson, to leave the committee’s circle of consultants. As a close confidant, Anderson helped Steele make many of the party’s decisions.

Allison Meyers, a staffer blamed for the outing, also lost her job. The committee said it would be reimbursed by a donor who had attended.

After the first reports of the trip to the sex-theme club, an internal audit found “significant deficiencies” in RNC operations. That report said the tab from Voyeur was reimbursed with a forged signature but reported it was “questionable” whether Bickhart had reviewed the reimbursement.

That report also recommended a contract with Bickhart’s company — eCapitol Direct — be ended. The audit said the contract could be worth as much as $270,000 on top of Bickhart’s salary as an RNC senior official.

“This contract should be canceled,” RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen wrote to members in March. RNC spokeswoman Katie Wright said it had been canceled.

Before the issue could be forced at the RNC meeting, new chief of staff Leavitt told committee members that Bickhart and LeHardy were no long involved with donors’ dollars.

“While we appreciate their service to the RNC and wish them well in future endeavors, the chairman felt it was important to restructure the department in order to continue to improve on our strong fundraising numbers,” Leavitt said in an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press. “We are well positioned for victory this fall and this will only help us to provide the necessary resources to defeat Democrats across the country.”


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