By Patricia Mazzei and Alex Leary, Miami Herald (TNS)
MIAMI — For five years, Marco Rubio has tried to put behind him the controversy of his spending on a Republican Party of Florida credit card, taking the unusual step over the weekend of making public nearly two years of American Express statements to show how he spent the party’s money.
In some ways, however, the statements, which he previously refused to make public, raise more questions about how Rubio used the card, rather than laying them to rest.
Some big-ticket expenses he rang up on the card — $1,625 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, $527 for food and drinks at Disney, $953 for a meal at Silver Slipper, the Tallahassee steakhouse — are the kind of eye-catching charges expected for someone doing party business.
But a slew of small charges at gas stations and for cheap meals — at a time when Rubio was struggling with his personal finances — suggest Rubio made the most of the ample leeway and little oversight party leaders gave employees and lawmakers to spend the party’s cash.
The Florida GOP issued corporate cards, intended for business use, during flush years a decade ago. A spending scandal threw the party into crisis five years later, around 2010, when some of the AmEx statements — including Rubio’s from 2007-08 — were made public. Rubio’s presidential campaign released the remaining two years of statements from 2005-06 on Saturday to show Rubio had repaid the party when he misused the card for personal charges.
An analysis by the Herald/Times of the new statements, however, found Rubio spent freely on the sort of items that are difficult to prove — or disprove — as party business expenses.
Rubio, then a fast-rising state lawmaker, spent $3,962 in 83 visits over 22 months to gas stations in Miami-Dade County alone, with some charges for $30 or $40 coming as little as a day or two apart. He spent nearly $1,200 on local meals costing $30 or less each, including 13 charges of $10 or less, mostly at La Carreta Cuban restaurant. Twice he used the AmEx card for flowers, and one time each at CVS, Target, Walgreens and Publix.
“Most (campaign) travel arrangements don’t pay for food when you’re in your hometown,” said Larry Noble, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group in Washington. “If it’s one mistake, that’s understandable. You’re not supposed to be constantly making mistakes.”
Rubio’s campaign had not responded to questions about the transactions as of Tuesday evening. But Rubio has repeatedly said he regrets the personal items he did put on the card. “In hindsight, I wish that none of them had ever been charged,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, “An American Son.”
The campaign has said that, over the four-year life of the card, Rubio charged about $22,000 in personal items out of about $182,000 — 73 items in all that he repaid. But the campaign hasn’t detailed all the charges, and in disclosing eight Rubio repaid from 2005-06, the campaign also missed others, such as $715.28 for “apparel accessories” at the old Syms department store in New York and $43.07 at Tio Liquor store in Miami.
The Herald/Times found Rubio spent $227 at Family Bookstores, a Christian bookseller. He charged $557 in five visits to Barnes & Noble in South Miami. There’s $1,064 at a Tallahassee Best Buy in March 2005 and $4,390.04 at a Miami CompUSA in August 2006. He made four online payments ranging from $84 to $173 to Sprint over three months.
Of Rubio’s Miami-area gas-stations purchases, two were made at a pair of stations, a Shell and a Citgo, on Jan. 22, 2005 — one for $5.02 and one for $5.03. On Sept. 10, 2006, he charged $47.44 at a Chevron station; the next day, he charged $71.41 at a Hess station. The tiniest purchases were for 73 cents and $1.39 at a Shell station in Miami, both on Aug. 27, 2005.
On New Years’ Eve in 2005 he charged $275 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Coral Gables. The same day he charged $50 at a Citgo in Miami. How those are related to party business remain unknown.
Republican Party leaders never questioned Rubio’s AmEx bills, paying them in full — if sometimes late. Numerous delinquent charges appear on the records, more than $1,600 in all, and it’s unclear who was to blame. The state GOP has effectively stopped answering questions about the cards, which a half-dozen top lawmakers had, and used, with apparently limited or no oversight. An independent audit commissioned by the party found no wrongdoing; the GOP stopped issuing the cards anyway.
Rubio has said there were times he mistakenly pulled out the card — such as when he paid more than $3,756 for pavers at his West Miami home — but also appears to have knowingly done so, repeatedly. In those instances, which grew in number over the years he had the card, Rubio said he identified the charges and paid them back, though that cannot be fully corroborated by the records now, a decade later.
“The bigger question is, how do you look at all this?” Noble said. “Was the credit card a way to subsidize his life? It may not be illegal, but as a broader matter, when you have control over money that is given and is supposed to be used for one purpose, using it for another purpose raises serious ethical issues.”
The spending questions first arose in Rubio’s 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, when the Herald/Times reported on Rubio’s 2007-08 card statements. Before Saturday, Rubio had refused to release the 2005-06 records, maintaining it was an internal party matter.
His use of the card speaks to broader issues concerning Rubio’s use of political money and his personal finances, which were shaky throughout his rise in state politics and have come back into view as he climbs in stature in the race for president.
Records show he was strapped for cash throughout his time in the state House, even as he landed a $300,000-a-year job at a law firm with interests in Tallahassee. He left office in 2008 with a net worth of less than $8,400 and had more than $900,000 in debt, including two mortgages, a home-equity loan and a student loan.
In 2003 and 2004, before getting the RPOF card, Rubio controlled two well-funded political committees created to boost his bid for House speaker. Typically such committee funds go to helping other candidates, a way of currying favor and showing party loyalty.
But Rubio gave only $4,000 to candidates. The bulk of the $600,000 the committees raised went to office and administrative costs — costs that helped enhance Rubio’s stature. He spent nearly $90,000 on political consultants and $50,000 for credit card payments.
What’s more, Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 in committee expenses, including $7,000 he paid himself, as reported in 2010 by the Herald/Times. Rubio used credit cards to pay for $51,000 in travel expenses that were never specified on his reports, breaking from practice followed by other lawmakers, though state law did not require itemization.
Rubio refused to be interviewed by the newspapers at the time. “None of our donors has ever questioned how the money was spent,” he said in a statement then. “In fact, the only one raising this question is the (Charlie) Crist campaign, which is not surprising given that they are more interested in personal attacks against me than they are in advancing conservative ideas.”
He pressed the state Ethics Commission, which got a complaint from a man who read the stories in 2010, to resolve the case and it did in 2012, clearing him of wrongdoing. Rubio declined to be interviewed by an investigator, who said the “negligence” exhibited by Rubio’s confusion between the GOP American Express and his own MasterCard, and failing to recognize the error on monthly statements, was “disturbing.”
Now that he’s a rising presidential contender, Rubio has dismissed questions about his AmEx spending in similar fashion, calling them unfounded political attacks and turning the criticism into an opportunity to relate to average voters whose financial troubles might be similar to his own in the past.
“I only have one debt in the world, which is my mortgage on the home that me and my family live in in Miami,” Rubio said told ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week. “I obviously don’t come from a wealthy family.”
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is smiling because he likes to use other people’s money. REUTERS/Brian Snyder