Did Marco Rubio’s Donors Fund a Book That Put $800,000 Into Rubio’s Pocket?

One way or the other, the campaign knows, but it won’t say.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio addresses supporters Wednesday at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township, Michigan.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Dec. 13, 2015, 8 p.m.

Marco Ru­bio didn’t in­tend to write a mys­tery when he sat down to pen his life’s story, but that’s what An Amer­ic­an Son has turned in­to—or at least the tale of its writ­ing has.

Here’s what’s known:

1)    In 2012, Marco Ru­bio’s “lead­er­ship PAC” paid $20,000 to Mark Salt­er, Sen. John Mc­Cain’s long­time coau­thor. It says so in the group’s fil­ings with the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

2)    Salt­er helped the Flor­ida sen­at­or write his book. Ru­bio thanks him for this in the book’s ac­know­ledge­ments: “I am grate­ful to Mark Salt­er for help­ing me or­gan­ize and re­vise the manuscript on a tight sched­ule.”

3)    Ru­bio in 2012 net­ted an $800,000 ad­vance for the book, which he re­por­ted as out­side in­come on his Sen­ate fin­an­cial dis­clos­ure form for that year.

And here’s what is not known, what the cam­paign has thus far de­clined to dis­cuss, and what could land Ru­bio on the wrong side of Sen­ate Eth­ics rules:

4)    Was the $20,000 from Ru­bio’s Re­claim Amer­ica PAC to Salt­er for his work on the book?

For his part, Salt­er says no. In emails to me last month, he said he was paid for his work on the book dir­ectly by the pub­lish­er, Pen­guin, through its Sen­tinel im­print. Salt­er said the $20,000 from Ru­bio’s PAC was for “pro­jects un­re­lated to the book.” He de­clined to spe­cify what that work was, and sug­ges­ted ask­ing Ru­bio’s cam­paign.

The Tampa Bay Times, though, says the an­swer is yes. In 2013, to­ward the end of a lengthy art­icle about how Ru­bio built his brand, the pa­per wrote: “Ru­bio used his PAC to pay $20,000 to Mark Salt­er, a strategist who helped run John Mc­Cain’s 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, for help writ­ing a mem­oir.” Ru­bio’s aides, who have a repu­ta­tion of de­mand­ing cor­rec­tions for even the smal­lest per­ceived er­rors, nev­er com­plained to the pa­per.

And for its part, Ru­bio’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign has been un­will­ing to clear up the dis­crep­ancy. When I first asked Ru­bio’s cam­paign about Salt­er and his pay­ments on Nov. 3, spokes­man Alex Con­ant replied: “I’ll refer you to his book’s ac­know­ledg­ments.” Six weeks and four fol­low-up quer­ies later, Con­ant still has not answered what ex­actly that means.

Why does a $20,000 ghostwrit­ing fee from three years ago mat­ter? Be­cause if Ru­bio used lead­er­ship PAC money to help pro­duce a book that put money in his own pock­et, he may have vi­ol­ated Sen­ate Eth­ics rules—not something a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in the heat of primary sea­son wants to be deal­ing with.

It ap­pears un­likely that even if they were for the book, the lead­er­ship PAC’s pay­ments to Salt­er vi­ol­ated any laws. While it is il­leg­al for a can­did­ate to be­ne­fit per­son­ally from an ac­tu­al cam­paign com­mit­tee for a par­tic­u­lar of­fice, there ap­pears to be no elec­tion-law pro­hib­i­tion against us­ing “lead­er­ship PAC” money in ways that per­son­ally be­ne­fit can­did­ates. The com­mit­tees are lightly reg­u­lated, and are of­ten used by would-be pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates to travel the coun­try, pay con­sult­ants, and oth­er­wise lay the ground­work for a pres­id­en­tial run be­fore form­ally start­ing a cam­paign. (For the 2016 elec­tion cycle, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, and even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont, among oth­ers, had lead­er­ship PACs.)

Robert Maguire of the non­par­tis­an Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics said that even if Ru­bio’s pay­ments to Salt­er were for his help with the book, they were prob­ably leg­al from an elec­tion-law stand­point. “The rules of what you can and can’t do for lead­er­ship PACs is pretty much wide open,” he said. “This doesn’t strike me as even the most egre­gious.”

Ru­bio’s prob­lem is that he is a sit­ting sen­at­or, and that Sen­ate Rule XXXVIII, para­graph 2, states: “No (polit­ic­al) con­tri­bu­tion … shall be con­ver­ted to the per­son­al use of any mem­ber or any former mem­ber.”

The Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter’s Paul Ry­an (not the cur­rent House speak­er—dif­fer­ent Paul Ry­an) said that Sen­ate Eth­ics rule could well be in­ter­preted as ban­ning the use of lead­er­ship PAC money on a book that winds up per­son­ally profit­ing a mem­ber. “Then it be­comes a ques­tion of, well, has Sen­ate Eth­ics ever en­forced this?” Ry­an said.

Just sev­en weeks shy of the Iowa caucuses, Ru­bio worst-case scen­ario isn’t what the Eth­ics Com­mit­tee might do to him fol­low­ing a lengthy in­vest­ig­a­tion, giv­en that he’s already made it clear he plans to leave the cham­ber next year either way. It’s what his GOP rivals might do with this new tid­bit in those sev­en weeks, giv­en Ru­bio’s already well-doc­u­mented prob­lems with money.

We will up­date this story if Ru­bio or his cam­paign does de­tail what that $20,000 to Salt­er in 2012 was for.

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