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.
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.