Rubio’s Campaign Says All of His GOP Credit-Card Spending Is Now Open to Inspection. That’s Not True.

The campaign has yet to make public two months of credit-card statements—the two most expensive of his tenure in the Florida statehouse.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Jan. 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

Half a dec­ade after polit­ic­al op­pon­ents star­ted pick­ing over Marco Ru­bio’s use of a Flor­ida GOP cred­it card from his state­house years, Novem­ber was sup­posed to have been the end of it.

That was when Ru­bio’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign re­leased 22 months of pre­vi­ously un­dis­closed Amer­ic­an Ex­press state­ments—and seemed to have got­ten the de­sired ho-hum re­ac­tion from a polit­ic­al press that failed to find a scan­dal which would ground the first-term sen­at­or’s rising star.

Ex­cept it might not be the end of it, after all.

Be­cause des­pite the cam­paign’s sug­ges­tions that all of his cred­it-card state­ments are now open to in­spec­tion, two months’ worth are not—the two biggest spend­ing months, as it turns out.

Ru­bio’s charges between mid-Oc­to­ber and mid-Decem­ber 2006 totaled $25,481, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tion­al Journ­al re­view of the billing state­ments that are avail­able and the Ru­bio cam­paign’s $182,073 tally of his total spend­ing over the four years. The dark peri­od also in­cludes Ru­bio’s single biggest per­son­al ex­pense on his party card, a $10,000 fam­ily re­union that he later said was charged by mis­take.

The cam­paign did not re­spond to Na­tion­al Journ­al ques­tions about the two miss­ing months of state­ments. Nor did it re­spond to a series of ques­tions raised by the cred­it-card state­ments that have been re­leased.

This means that just weeks be­fore the first con­test of the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primar­ies, Ru­bio’s cam­paign has yet to achieve full trans­par­ency re­gard­ing his party cred­it card—leav­ing open the pos­sib­il­ity that more rev­el­a­tions will fol­low.

The two miss­ing months come halfway through the four years Ru­bio held the party cred­it card. But about the only charge pub­licly known in that peri­od is for a re­union he held at the Mel­hana Plant­a­tion in Thomas­ville, Geor­gia in Novem­ber 2006 to cel­eb­rate his swear­ing-in as the state House speak­er. Ru­bio has ac­know­ledged that his party Amer­ic­an Ex­press card in­ap­pro­pri­ately paid $10,000 in room charges and ca­ter­ing for that event—a bill that his re­l­at­ives sub­sequently re­paid with in­di­vidu­al checks to cov­er their shares.

“My travel agent mis­takenly used the card to pay for a fam­ily re­union in Geor­gia,” Ru­bio wrote in his 2012 auto­bi­o­graphy, An Amer­ic­an Son, in which he ex­plained that “a few” per­son­al items were charged to the card over the four years, at least on one oc­ca­sion when he ac­ci­dent­ally “pulled the wrong card” out of his wal­let.

That still leaves $15,000 in spend­ing in those two months un­ac­coun­ted for, and Ru­bio’s cam­paign isn’t provid­ing any more in­form­a­tion.

And about those pre­vi­ous dis­clos­ures…

Ru­bio’s cam­paign on Nov. 7 re­leased state­ments cov­er­ing charges from mid-Janu­ary 2005 to mid-Oc­to­ber 2006 for the card giv­en him by the Flor­ida GOP to pay ex­penses in­curred while con­duct­ing party busi­ness. His state­ments from mid-Janu­ary 2007 through Oc­to­ber 2008 have been avail­able since 2010, but his camp re­leased the oth­ers after me­dia re­ports ques­tioned why he hadn’t re­leased the earli­er ones.

As the Miami Her­ald and Tampa Bay Times found in an ana­lys­is of the cred­it-card state­ments dis­closed in Novem­ber, Ru­bio also rang up dozens of small charges from gas sta­tions, fast-food res­taur­ants, and gro­cery stores that totaled over $5,000 in those 22 months. All of those came not on out-of-town trips for the party, but in and around his West Miami home. Among them: $12.37 at Lu­is Galindo’s diner, $10.87 at a Denny’s, and $43.07 at Tio’s Li­quor. (When the Ru­bio cam­paign lis­ted charges that the can­did­ate had re­paid out of pock­et, those were not among them.)

In a Nov. 7 news re­lease, Ru­bio’s cam­paign re­peated his stand­ard state­ment about the party cred­it card: “Marco paid his per­son­al charges dir­ectly to Amer­ic­an Ex­press. The Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida did not pay for any of Marco’s per­son­al ex­penses.”

Ru­bio crit­ics see more than a string of ac­ci­dents: They see a law­maker who, des­pite an an­nu­al in­come that topped $300,000, in­ten­tion­ally used a party card for per­son­al ex­penses. “He used that card more like it was cash in his pock­et,” said former Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­or Mike Fas­ano, who 15 years ago brought Ru­bio in­to House lead­er­ship as a deputy whip. “Ex­cept it was some­body else’s cash.”

Wheth­er he should have been us­ing a com­pany cred­it card for per­son­al ex­penses at all has long been in dis­pute.

While Ru­bio wrote in An Amer­ic­an Son that he would do things dif­fer­ently if he had the chance—“In hind­sight, I wish that none of them had ever been charged”—he has con­sist­ently ar­gued that he did noth­ing im­prop­er be­cause he paid all his per­son­al ex­penses dir­ectly to Amer­ic­an Ex­press after re­view­ing the bills.

Oth­ers have a dif­fer­ent view. In 2010, the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida, fa­cing a pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare over mil­lions of dol­lars in charges by card­hold­ers, com­mis­sioned an audit by an out­side firm of all the card spend­ing. It found right in the party’s “Em­ploy­ees Policies and Pro­ced­ures Manu­al” a dir­ect­ive that the cards were “for RPOF busi­ness use only.”

A sep­ar­ate state Eth­ics Com­mis­sion in­vest­ig­a­tion spe­cific­ally in­to Ru­bio did not file charges against him, but did lead the pro­sec­utor to cri­ti­cize his use of the card. “The level of neg­li­gence ex­hib­ited by Re­spond­ent’s con­fu­sion between the RPOF Amer­ic­an Ex­press card and his per­son­al Mas­ter­Card, to­geth­er with his fail­ure to re­cog­nize the er­ror when re­view­ing the monthly state­ments, and his sig­na­ture on the re­im­burse­ment re­quests, is dis­turb­ing,” wrote Di­ane Guille­mette.

A slow drip of rev­el­a­tions

Ru­bio’s cred­it-card use first be­came a polit­ic­al is­sue be­cause of the ac­tions of his budget com­mit­tee chair­man dur­ing Ru­bio’s Flor­ida House speak­er­ship—and be­cause of Ru­bio’s sub­sequent primary battle for the U.S. Sen­ate nom­in­a­tion against sit­ting Gov. Charlie Crist.

In early 2009, just weeks after suc­ceed­ing Ru­bio in the top job, Ray Sansom was re­moved from the speak­er’s post after rev­el­a­tions that he’d in­ser­ted a $6 mil­lion line item in­to the state budget to help a con­trib­ut­or’s jet busi­ness. In the res­ult­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion, it also came out that Sansom had charged $167,000 to his Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida cred­it card—and that oth­ers who had cards, in­clud­ing Ru­bio, had jointly spent mil­lions.

Months later, someone with ac­cess to the still-private billing state­ments (pre­sum­ably someone in­side the Crist cam­paign) leaked some of them—or some por­tions of some of them—to re­port­ers at the Miami Her­ald and Tampa Bay Times, which by then were col­lab­or­at­ing on state gov­ern­ment cov­er­age. While sev­er­al stor­ies re­ferred to the Novem­ber and Decem­ber 2006 bills (par­tic­u­larly the Geor­gia re­union), neither news­pa­per pos­ted those state­ments on­line.

In the spring of 2010, with Crist’s hand-picked party chair­man Jim Greer gone and fa­cing his own leg­al troubles, the new party lead­ers de­cided to re­lease the state­ments of every­one who had held a card—but only for the peri­od of Greer’s ten­ure, which began in Janu­ary 2007 and ended in 2009.

That means any­one who wanted to see Ru­bio’s cred­it-card charges from mid-Decem­ber 2006 through late 2008 when he gave up his card could have done so start­ing in May 2010. And those wish­ing to see his charges from 2005 or from Janu­ary through mid-Oc­to­ber 2006 can do so now.

But the charges and state­ments cov­er­ing Oct. 18, 2006 through Dec. 16, 2006 re­main a mys­tery—ex­cept to Ru­bio, the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida, and, per­haps, the Miami Her­ald and Tampa Bay Times.

Trouble ahead?

Ru­bio and his cam­paign team have been keenly aware of the polit­ic­al prob­lem the cred­it card could cre­ate for him. One of his cam­paign staffers in 2010 told a Flor­ida Eth­ics Com­mis­sion in­vest­ig­at­or that he came across $2,400 in double-billed flights as he audited his boss’s travel re­im­burse­ments be­cause he be­lieved Crist “was leak­ing in­form­a­tion about the cred­it card ex­penses to the me­dia.”

Throughout that cam­paign and the first six months of his pres­id­en­tial run, Ru­bio kept the earli­er cred­it-card state­ments un­der wraps, even though a note to a former sup­port­er showed he had them in his pos­ses­sion by late 2009: “I have the state­ments now,” Ru­bio wrote in a Christ­mas Eve email. “I could use the card for whatever I want so long as I re­paid those por­tion [sic] which did not have any­thing to do with RPOF. And I did.”

A day pre­vi­ously, Ru­bio had writ­ten he was con­fid­ent there was noth­ing in the state­ments that Crist could use to dam­age him: “If there was an is­sue they would have re­leased them long ago. These guys are just big talk­ers.”

While voters in Flor­ida may have learned a good deal about Ru­bio’s money is­sues dur­ing the 2010 Sen­ate race, voters in the rest of Amer­ica have not. GOP front-run­ner Don­ald Trump has taunted Ru­bio about the cred­it card, but so far, Ru­bio’s pub­lic state­ments and the dis­clos­ures have largely suc­ceeded in re­leg­at­ing any dis­cus­sion of Ru­bio’s troubled fin­ances to the mar­gins.

Though the cam­paign has been go­ing on for a year, the first con­test in Iowa has not yet taken place, and tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in at­tack ads re­main to be spent. And with Ru­bio close to the front of the pack, a lot of those ads will likely be aimed at him. So if voters there and New Hamp­shire and South Car­o­lina haven’t heard about Ru­bio’s prob­lems with plastic yet, chances are they will—and soon.

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