As the race heats up for the White House, new attention is being paid to questions raised about the way Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) used campaign cash during his time in the Sunshine State’s Legislature.
When Rubio entered the Florida House of Representatives in 2000, the then 28-year-old was laden with debt. The Tampa Bay Times described him as “barely solvent” as he plotted his ascent to Speaker of the House in 2006 and the lead up to his 2009 run for the U.S. Senate. During this time, Rubio apparently used the resources of his two political committees and an American Express credit card from the state Republican Party for some of his personal expenses.
The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times investigated Rubio’s questionable bookkeeping in 2010. Those reports showed Rubio’s free use of his party credit card to cover personal expenses like a $135 haircut, trip to a local liquor store and $10,000 family vacation. Rubio said at the time that honest bookkeeping mistakes were made and insisted he reimbursed the state party when necessary to pay for personal charges.
Mother Jones revisited those reports this week and suggested Rubio’s handling of his finances could “bring national scrutiny” and haunt him as he is poised to pursue a White House bid in 2016.
Reached for comment, Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon dismissed the Mother Jones and Florida press reports.
“That report was nothing more than proven inaccuracies and false attacks from liberals trying to distract from Senator Rubio’s optimistic vision for our country in the 21st century,” Sammon told Business Insider.
The allegations surrounding Rubio’s finances fall in two major areas, his credit card usage and his political committees.
Rubio’s American Express credit card from the Florida Republican Party
- Rubio was given an American Express card backed by the Florida GOP from 2005 until Nov. 2008, when he left the State Legislature.
- Questions emerged in 2010 about more than $100,000 charged to the card, beginning in 2006 when he was elected House Speaker.
- Rubio defended those charges as legitimate and said he had paid $16,000 to the party to cover personal expenses (like a $135 haircut at a high class Miami barber shop in 2007) that were unrelated to party business.
- In November 2006, $10,000 was charged to the card for a Rubio family vacation at Melhana Plantation, an antebellum resort in Georgia. Rubio told the Times the charge was a mistake by a travel agent and said he mailed a check directly to American Express to pay for it.
- Additional personal expenses that were never reimbursed include $68.33 for “beverages” and a “meal” from Happy Wine liquor store near Rubio’s West Miami home that also serve tapas and $765 from Apple’s online store for “computer supplies.”
During his time in the Florida House, Rubio started two separate political committees, Floridians for Conservative Leadership and Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government. The groups received an estimated $600,000 in less than three years.
Floridians for Conservative Leadership
- Created in Dec. 2002 with the purpose to “support state and local candidates who espouse conservative government policies,” the committee was seen as a vehicle to drum up support for Rubio’s push to become House speaker in 2006. The entity was registered with the state of Florida, with the ability to give contributions to political candidates.
- Raised more than $228,000. $4,000 was distributed as direct campaign contributions to other candidates.
- Rubio’s wife, former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Jeanette Dousdebes, served as committee treasurer. $5,700 was paid to his wife primarily for “gas and meals.”
- The Committee was registered t0 Rubio’s West Miami home. Close to $85,000 was spent on office/operating costs and $65,000 for administrative costs.
- Over 18 months, $89,000 was spent on political consultants, $14,000 was paid to Rubio for reimbursements, $51,000 in credit card payments for food, lodging and airfare. No details were provided on who was traveling or the locations of the transactions.
- A 2010 investigation by the Florida newspapers showed that $34,000 in expenses, including a $7,000 reimbursement to Rubio himself, had not been disclosed, as required by state law.
- Rubio’s then campaign adviser Todd Harris, told the Times in 2010, “The bookkeeping in (that) committee was not always perfect.”
Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government
- This committee was created in late 2003, and shut down in 2005, with the mission to educate the public about conservative leadership in government. It raised more than $386,000. The committee was registered with the IRS as a 527 fund, but it was not registered with the state of Florida. It was not allowed to donate money to political candidates.
- $14,000 paid to his mother-in-law and Rubio relatives for courier services.
- More than $74,000 in expenses by the committee was never accounted for in papers filed with the IRS.
- Rubio’s then-campaign adviser said in 2010 the unspecified expenses were for transactions under $500 and did not have to be disclosed by law.
Rubio was dogged by questions about his spending when he ran against then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for Senate in 2010. During that campaign, Crist said Rubio used his political committees as “slush funds.” Crist also claimed Rubio used his office in the legislature to “enhance his personal enrichment.”
Rubio managed to escape the scrutiny and was victorious over Crist in 2010.
But now that Rubio is eyeing a larger stage and is expected to run for President in 2016, his history will again be called into question.
Though seen as the underdog in Florida since he will presumably face his former mentor, the state’s former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in the Republican primary race, Rubio is still seen as a serious contender.
The Washington Post reported this week that Rubio is expected to receive $10 million in backing from billionaire Miami car dealer Norman Braman in the presidential race. (Rubio’s wife works part time for Braman’s charitable foundation.)
Updated (5:15 p.m.): With comment from Rubio’s office.
Marco Rubio’s Career Bedeviled by Financial Struggles
WEST MIAMI, Fla. — For years, Senator Marco Rubio struggled under the weight of student debt, mortgages and an extra loan against the value of his home totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 2012, financial salvation seemed to have arrived: A publisher paid him $800,000 to write a book about growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants.
In speeches, Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, spoke of his prudent plan for using the cash to finally pay off his law school loans, expressing relief that he no longer owed “a lady named Sallie Mae,” as he once called the lender.
But at the same time, he splurged on an extravagant purchase: $80,000 for a luxury speedboat, state records show. At the time, Mr. Rubio confided to a friend that it was a potentially inadvisable outlay that he could not resist. The 24-foot boat, he said, fulfilled a dream.
Many of those troubles have played out in an unusually public way, leading even some of his supporters to worry. As he rose in politics, he sometimes intermingled personal and political money — using a state Republican Party credit card years ago to pay for a paving project at his home and for travel to a family reunion, and putting his relatives on campaign payrolls.
Other moves seemed simply unwise: A few weeks ago, he disclosed that he had liquidated a $68,000 retirement account, a move that is widely discouraged by financial experts and that probably cost him about $24,000 in taxes and penalties.
In the past week, he sustained a new loss when he sold his second home in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, for $18,000 less than he and a friend paid for it a decade ago. The house had previously faced foreclosure after Mr. Rubio and his friend failed to make mortgage payments for five months.
These were not isolated incidents. A review of the Rubio family’s finances — including many new documents — reveals a series of decisions over the past 15 years that experts called imprudent: significant debts; a penchant to spend heavily on luxury items like the boat and the lease of a $50,000 2015 Audi Q7; a strikingly low savings rate, even when Mr. Rubio was earning large sums; and inattentive accounting that led to years of unpaid local government fees.
Mr. Rubio has acknowledged missteps: using personal credit cards to pay for his campaigns (a bad idea, he said); appointing his wife, Jeanette, as a treasurer of a political action committee (ill advised, he said); and using the party money for the reunion trip (an accident, he said). Mr. Rubio, in his 2012 memoir, “An American Son,” confessed a “lack of bookkeeping skills” and an “imperfect accounting system.”
In private conversations, Mr. Rubio has told friends that he learned how to manage money through trial and error. His poor, immigrant parents — his father a bartender, his mother a hotel maid — had little money to manage, he told them.
In a statement to The New York Times, Mr. Rubio said, “Like most Americans, I know what it’s like for money to be a limited resource and to have to manage it accordingly.”
He added: “Our primary financial motivation over the last 15 years has not been to become wealthy. It has been to provide for our children a happy upbringing and the chance at a great future.”
Mr. Rubio’s allies said his financial blunders were the scars of a self-made man, who rose to prominence despite lacking the wealth and connections that eased the path for so many of his rivals.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” said Dennis Baxley, a Florida House member and fellow Republican who served in the Legislature with Mr. Rubio. “That’s part of the excitement of Marco.”
It shows, Mr. Baxley said, that “an ordinary person without the financial support structure can do this with a tremendous amount of drive.”
The Rubios have taken steps to stabilize their finances in recent years, aided primarily by proceeds from his two books. Since 2012, they have put away at least $150,000, given $60,000 to charity and refinanced the mortgage on their primary home to lower the monthly payments. (Mr. Rubio set up college funds for his four children at birth, an aide said.)
But as Mr. Rubio, 44, seeks to counter questions about his stature and readiness for the presidency, his financial history creates particular complications. It has made him unusually reliant on a campaign donor, Norman Braman, a billionaire who subsidized Mr. Rubio’s job as a college instructor, hired him as a lawyer and continues to employ his wife.
And it could undermine Mr. Rubio’s well-crafted political persona: The senator has long portrayed himself as a champion of financial austerity, railing against excessive government spending and runaway debt.
“We have a country,” he said in 2013, “that borrows too much money.” In 2010, he diagnosed the problem this way: “If you allow politicians to spend money, they’ll do it.”
As he campaigns for president, Mr. Rubio is embracing his rough financial patches as he seeks to connect with an electorate saddled with debt and stuck in low-paying jobs. After cashing out the retirement account last year, he explained the decision in a deliberately folksy way: He needed to replace a broken refrigerator, and was also preparing for personal expenses related to his campaign.
“I’m not poor,” he said, “but I’m not rich, either.”
Mr. Rubio entered public life in a deep financial hole of his own making.
Soon after he was elected to the Legislature in 2000, he reported a net worth of zero, about $150,000 in student loan debt, and $30,000 in what he called assorted credit and retail debt.
It was the inauspicious start to a decade of big financial ups and downs. In interviews, friends and advisers describe Mr. Rubio as a young politician entering public life just out of law school, whose charisma and stardom quickly outstripped his financial acumen, leaving him unprepared to manage the expensive campaigns and lucrative career opportunities that came his way.
By 28, he was juggling a new family, earning a modest salary in the Florida House in addition to his law firm work and nursing a desire for higher office that required continual travel across the state.
“A lot of it was a function of age,” said Mr. Baxley, who mentored Mr. Rubio in the Florida House and remains close to him. “It was very challenging for him. He was a clear example of when you enter early, you have to do all of these things at the same time. And it’s hard to do them all at the same time well.”
Even as his government career took off, Mr. Rubio’s financial picture grew grimmer and the demands of the Legislature endangered his work for the Florida law firm, where his bosses became impatient with his lack of focus.
Despite an income of $90,000 in 2001, Mr. Rubio wrote in his memoir, monthly expenses became so strained that he and his wife sold one of their two cars and, along with their young daughter, moved into the home of his mother-in-law.
But the belt-tightening was short-lived. In 2003, he bought his mother-in-law’s home in West Miami for $175,000, putting no money down.
Within a few years, Mr. Rubio had landed a job at a high-profile Miami law firm paying him $300,000 a year. As he would later do with the proceeds from his book, Mr. Rubio spent heavily.
First, he bought a house in Tallahassee with another state lawmaker for $135,000, again putting no money down.
Then, by the end of 2005, the Rubios had completed the purchase of a new home, twice the size of their previous one, for $550,000. The house, among the more expensive in West Miami, stood out from the aging homes nearby: It includes an in-ground pool, a handsome brick driveway, meticulously manicured shrubs and oversize windows.
Within a few weeks of the home purchase, Mr. Rubio, then a Republican leader in the House, borrowed $135,000 through a home equity line to pay for improvements to the house, from a politically connected Miami-based bank, U.S. Century, after the house was reappraised at $735,000.
Suddenly the owner of three homes, the Rubios saw their liabilities soar to $1 million from $330,000 in just a year. Harold Evensky, a longtime financial adviser who reviewed Mr. Rubio’s public financial disclosures at the request of The Times, called the rapid accumulation of debt “staggering.”
“This was someone that was living financially dangerously,” Mr. Evensky said.
Little of Mr. Rubio’s income at this time went into savings. An analysis of his financial disclosures by Jude Boudreaux, a longtime financial planner and an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans teaching personal finance, shows that Mr. Rubio earned $2.38 million from 1998 to 2008 but ended up with an estimated net worth of $53,000 (slightly more than Mr. Rubio disclosed himself). His savings rate during that period was about 2 percent.
“Practically nothing,” Mr. Boudreaux said.
It was during this period of growing indebtedness, in the mid-2000s, that Mr. Rubio’s personal finances converged in unusual ways with his political activities. As he climbed the ranks of the Legislature, determined to reach the prestigious post of House speaker, Mr. Rubio set up political action committees to bankroll his political endeavors and obtained a credit card from the Republican Party of Florida.
But he struggled with the new financial responsibilities. “It was a learning curve for him to make sure everything was being paid out of the right canister,” said Mr. Baxley, the lawmaker.
The structure of the PACs was unorthodox, by Mr. Rubio’s own admission. One of them was run by his wife, and was used to reimburse the couple thousands of dollars for meals, gas and long-distance calls. The other employed three of the Rubio family’s relatives.
During his Senate campaign in 2010, his opponents pounced on the arrangement, suggesting he had used the PACs to subsidize his family’s lifestyle. “It wasn’t true,” Mr. Rubio later wrote, “but I had helped create the misunderstanding my opponents exploited.”
His use of the Republican credit card for personal expenses was harder to explain. Records showed that he charged the party’s card for stone pavers at his house and travel to the family reunion in Georgia.
Mr. Rubio blamed a travel agent for the reunion charge and said he had pulled out the wrong credit card to pay for the pavers. “I wish that none of them had ever been charged,” he wrote in his book. He eventually covered the costs of each himself, he said.
But similar practices carried over to Mr. Rubio’s campaign for the Senate, and to the fund-raising group that he created after his election, Reclaim America PAC. A review of campaign finance records shows that Mr. Rubio employed two nephews who had worked for his local PAC years earlier, as well as close friends.
Since 2009, Mr. Rubio’s political organizations have paid at least $90,000 to companies registered by one of the nephews, Orlando Cicilia III, which provided consulting and video production services.
Mr. Rubio’s supporters said his reliance on close friends and even family was not a case of patronage so much as necessity: He was running for the Senate against Florida’s popular governor, Charlie Crist, who commanded the loyalty of the state’s Republican operatives and strategists.
After the race, a new problem arose. The Federal Election Commission repeatedly cited Mr. Rubio’s campaign — and fined it more than $9,000 — for running afoul of campaign finance rules. In one case, the commission found $210,000 in improper donations, many of which violated contribution limits.
The Senate has provided Mr. Rubio with a prestigious platform, to write books, travel the world, deliver speeches and, today, mount a run for the White House. But he has told friends that the job has imposed its own form of financial hardship, and he expressed occasional envy of colleagues in the private sector.
Mr. Rubio’s Senate salary of $174,000 is far less than he earned as a lawyer and consultant, and the Rubio family expenses are significant. All four of their children attend parochial school.
He has looked for other ways to bring in cash: Shortly before running for the Senate, Mr. Rubio agreed to teach at Florida International University, for $69,000 a year. (The salary was later reduced.) Those involved in the negotiations said it was clear that Mr. Rubio’s finances were stretched.
“I think that was an issue,” said Steve Saul, who was vice president for government relations at the university when Mr. Rubio was hired. “He needed the money.”
The Rubios have further supplemented their income with royalties from his two books and Mrs. Rubio’s work for Mr. Braman, Mr. Rubio’s wealthy campaign donor.
But Mrs. Rubio’s firm, JDR Events, has had its own bookkeeping lapses. Over the past few years, she failed to pay annual business licensing fees to the City of West Miami, despite nine written notices and repeated phone calls to her home, records show.
After The Times made an inquiry with the city on May 26, a check arrived from Mrs. Rubio two days later for the $637.50 she still owed. In a handwritten note to the city, she said she had mistakenly believed her payments were up to date.
“My apologies,” she wrote.
Marco Rubio’s personal finances clash with call for fiscal discipline
For a candidate promising to put America’s fiscal house in order, Marco Rubio has a tough time keeping his own house tidy, plagued by questionable spending and sloppy accounting.
On the campaign trail, Rubio likes to say “politicians don’t create jobs.” But politics, directly and indirectly, has generated Rubio’s sizeable income, even as he has accumulated substantial debt and saw one of his homes nearly go into foreclosure.
Florida’s likely next U.S. senator has cut a complicated financial profile since he burst on the political scene more than a decade ago, fresh from law school.
“Now more than ever people are sympathetic to the financial troubles other people have,” said Republican consultant Chris Ingram of Tampa. “But with Marco, it’s greater than that. There seems to be a pattern of behavior in which he’s not good at controlling his own money or the money of others.”
Rubio, 39 and married with four children, dismisses as a distraction talk about his use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card for personal items as well as questions about his employment and mountain of personal debt, largely due to mortgages and student loans.
“Now these are important issues, and we should discuss them, but they can’t be the only issues in this campaign,” he said in a debate Tuesday, accusing his opponents, Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Charlie Crist, of lacking concrete ideas on an array of issues.
But even as he pulls away in the race, buoyed by early support from tea party activists fed up with government spending, Rubio’s financial dealings continue to draw attention for the contradictions they raise with his message.
Climb to top fueled by political funds
When Rubio joined the Florida House of Representatives in 2000, he did not own a home, had few possessions and made $72,000 as a lawyer.
But he had $30,000 in “assorted credit and retail debt” (as described on his financial disclosure form) and in 2001 listed $165,000 in loans from the University of Florida and University of Miami Law School.
As Rubio climbed the ranks, he began to use little-noticed political committees to fund his travel and other expenses and later had a Republican Party of Florida credit card.
What emerged, records show, is a pattern of blending personal and political spending. Over and over again Rubio proved sloppy, at best, in complying with disclosure requirements.
Virtually broke, the 31-year-old lawmaker began campaigning to be House speaker in 2003 and created a political committee — Floridians for Conservative Leadership — to help elect other Republican candidates and curry their support.
With his wife serving as treasurer, Rubio did not wait for the state to authorize the committee before accepting campaign donations.
The committee listed its address as Rubio’s home, a modest place he and his wife bought in West Miami in 2002, but reported spending nearly $85,000 in office and operating costs and $65,000 for administrative costs.
Over 18 months, nearly $90,000 went for political consultants, $51,000 went for credit card payments and $4,000 went to other candidates. That’s less than the $5,700 that went to his wife, Jeanette, much of it for “gas and meals.” (Mrs. Rubio does not work and the couple file joint tax returns.)
Rubio reported raising more than $228,000 for that committee over 18 months, but he failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses as required by state law.
In four elections between 2000 and 2006, Rubio faced only token opposition. Yet he still spent nearly $670,000 in campaign funds for political consulting, television advertising and other expenses, including meals, travel and, in one case, $1,485 to the company leasing him a Jeep Cherokee. Rubio’s campaign said it was justified because he drove it all over his district.
A second political committee created by Rubio in late 2003, Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, was to “educate the public about conservative leadership in government.” The committee raised more than $386,000, much of it going to Rubio’s political strategists and consultants.
Other expenses included $14,000 incorrectly listed as “courier services” that were in fact payments to Rubio’s relatives who he said were helping with the committee’s political activities.
In 2005, Rubio had access to a new source of campaign money: state GOP credit cards. He charged more than $100,000 from November 2006 to November 2008, much of it for travel expenses and meals.
Rubio has insisted that the vast majority of those charges were for GOP business, and he directly paid off any personal expenses, though after a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald report, Rubio agreed to pay the party $2,400 for plane tickets he said he mistakenly double-billed.
He has refused to release his party credit card records from 2005 and 2006.
Rubio is adamant his use of the political committees and credit cards is above board and has denied reports that the IRS has opened an inquiry, part of a widening look at Republican lawmakers who had credit cards.
“I don’t think it looks good to the public,” said Ben Wilcox, a board member of Common Cause Florida, a government watchdog group. “It’s kind of a slippery slope where people can try to justify just about anything.”
Personal income grows with debt
As he accumulated power, Rubio’s income also grew. The $72,000 he made as a lawyer in 2000 climbed to $92,000 in 2003 then rose dramatically to $270,000 a year later, when he locked down the race to become House speaker. During the time, he was employed by three separate law firms.
In 2005, Rubio got a $300,000 job with Broad and Cassel, a large Miami firm that had done millions of dollars of legal work for the Florida House.
Rubio said in an interview that his income growth is not unlike what any young lawyer would have experienced. And he suggested he could have earned much more if he were not in politics.
“I can’t tell you what I’d be doing had I not run for office,” he said. “I could have started a business or I could be a managing partner at a law firm.”
By 2005, Rubio owned two homes in Miami and one in Tallahassee. The mortgages totaled over $794,000, records show.
In 2008, he abruptly amended his financial disclosure forms after reporters asked why he had not listed a $135,000 home-equity loan he secured on his current home, purchased in December 2005 for $550,000.
The loan came after a Miami bank, controlled by some of Rubio’s political supporters, reappraised the home at $735,000 — only 37 days after it was purchased. Rubio denied favoritism and called the failure to disclose the loan an “oversight.”
More housing trouble surfaced this year. The Tallahassee home, which he bought with fellow legislator David Rivera, nearly went into foreclosure before Rivera came up with $9,525 for missed payments and fees. Rubio said the delay was over a dispute with the mortgage company.
By the time he left office in 2008, Rubio had $903,000 in home, car and student loans. His net worth was a mere $8,332.
While he listed $165,000 in student loans in 2001, nearly a decade later he carries just over $100,000, according to his campaign. He has paid off his undergraduate loans.
Mortgages and student loans are ordinary burdens, Rubio readily points out. “These are the real world issues,” he recently told the Miami Herald editorial board.
And he sought to draw a line between his campaign call for fiscal restraint and his own finances.
“I talk about fiscal conservatism in the context of government spending,” he said. “It’s not in the context of some ideological religious adherence to some rigid ideology. It is in the context of the fact that our government spends more money than it takes in and you cannot do that over a sustained period of time without bankrupting your country.”
Opportunities arose after he left office, too
“Politicians don’t create jobs,” Rubio often says in his stump speech.
Politics, though, played a direct role in Rubio’s finances after he left the House.
• He landed an unadvertised $69,000 teaching job at Florida International University when the school was slashing staff because of budget cuts. (His salary came out of privately raised funds.)
• Also in 2008, he got a job as a political analyst for the Spanish-language TV station Univision, which paid a second dividend: keeping his image in circulation as he pondered his next run for office.
• In June 2008, Rubio formed two businesses, his own law firm and Rubio Consulting, whose clients included Univision and Marin & Sons, a Miami consulting firm headed by a Tallahassee lobbyist. On his financial disclosure form, Rubio wrote “Marin & Sons retains Rubio Consulting to introduce their clients to potential business partners in the community. Rubio Consulting does not lobby before any governmental entity.”
• He joined another consulting partnership called Florida Strategic Consultants that scored big contracts with Miami Children’s and Jackson Memorial hospitals. Rubio said he was providing advice and access to a network of contacts he culled as House speaker. “I’m not a lobbyist,” he insisted then. “It’s not my forte.”
Rubio’s financial history has been a constant thread throughout the election as a source of attack ads from opponents Crist and Meek. But Rubio has only continued to climb in the polls.
If he wins Nov. 2, Rubio will put an exclamation point on a remarkable political rise and his youth could leave him on the scene for years. But he will have to largely give up his current work because of the full-time demands of office and to avoid conflicts of interest.
His new job would pay $174,000 a year.
Miami Herald reporter Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.
Rubio’s tax records
2000 $82,710 $11,769
2001 89,879 13,883
2002 124,721 21,661
2003 122,718 17,414
2004 301,864 71,361
2005 330,106 76,739
2006 318,789 59,834
2007 308,285 54,423
2008 399,187 86,010
2009 317,531 60,611
Source: Rubio Senate campaign
PolitiFact Florida checks Crist’s attack on Rubio
Charlie Crist said in Tuesday’s debate that Marco Rubio changed his position on a bill after selling a home to a chiropractor who had been lobbying him. Read the ruling at PolitiFact.com/Florida.
attack on Rubio
Charlie Crist said in Tuesday’s debate that Marco Rubio changed his position on a bill after selling a home to a chiropractor who had been lobbying him. Read the ruling at PolitiFact.com/Florida.
Rubio’s tax records
Source: Rubio Senate campaign