Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio spent heavily on four re-election campaigns as a state legislator, though he never faced a serious challenge.
Between 2000 and 2006, he shelled out about $676,451 for political consulting, television advertising and other routine campaign costs. He reimbursed himself about $11,436 for equipment, travel and meals. That's also routine.
But one payment stands out: a $1,485.55 check cut on June 12, 2002, to "Marco Rubio Bank of America Auto Finance Corp." for "auto expense," according to public records.
Rubio was leasing a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee at the time from the bank, said a top adviser to his Senate campaign, Todd Harris.
Harris said Rubio was owed the money for mileage racked up during 11 months while campaigning for re-election in the central Miami-Dade district, though he didn't face an opponent. He said Rubio drove 4,070 miles, which at the Internal Revenue Service's reimbursement rate of 36.5 cents per mile, came to exactly $1,485.55.
Harris did not say why the check was made out to the bank instead of to the candidate.
"Florida election law allows for reimbursements for travel-related expenditures. This is no different than had the campaign just reimbursed Marco directly," Harris said.
Harris added: "If you are campaigning aggressively around Miami or within the district, the mileage adds up quickly."
Rubio's legislative district was roughly 30 blocks wide and 120 blocks long, encompassing South Miami, West Miami, Virginia Gardens, Miami Springs and parts of Coral Gables and Hialeah.
He did not seek reimbursement for mileage in any of his other House campaigns. Not when he first won public office in a special election on Jan. 25, 2000, after knocking out three Republican rivals and a Democrat. Not later that same year, when he failed to draw an opponent and automatically won re-election. And not in 2004 and 2006, when he faced only token opposition.
Rubio is the front-runner against Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Gov. Charlie Crist for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat.
The payment to the bank again raises one of his biggest liabilities on the campaign trail: the use of political donations to cover personal expenses.
Even as Rubio surged to the front of the Senate race as well as the national party's starring lineup, he has been forced to defend personal expenses billed to his state party-issued credit card and two political committees he started with his wife.
"It looks bad," Ben Wilcox, a board member of Common Cause Florida, a government watchdog group, said of the 2002 campaign check to the bank. "It looks like he's making payment for his car out of his campaign expense. I certainly haven't heard of this happening before. It seems to be a pattern with him in which he plays fast and loose with the rules and tries to go back and justify it once it's pointed out."
Rubio frequently billed personal expenses on the Republican party credit card in 2007 and 2008 when he served as House speaker, from a $10.50 movie ticket to more than $10,000 in hotel rooms for a family reunion. Rubio says he sent checks to American Express to cover all of his personal expenses, but he has refused to release his credit card statements for 2004 and 2005.
After the Miami Herald wrote about his 2007 and 2008 credit card bills, he acknowledged double-billing $2,400 in plane flights and paid the party back.
"There are some things Rubio can afford to buy, for everything else there's the Republican Party credit card," sneered the Crist campaign in a new Web ad.
An audit of the party's books completed last month accused Crist of taking personal trips to Disney World and New York on the party's dime. Crist has dismissed the audit's findings, arguing that the GOP is trying to destroy him in retaliation for leaving the party five months ago. The audit cleared Rubio and other current party leaders of any wrongdoing.
Last month, Rubio's campaign brushed off allegations by Tampa political consultant Chris Ingram that Rubio told him he once charged between $4,000 and $5,000 to the party's American Express card to redo his kitchen floor.
Rubio's campaign declined to say whether Ingram's recollection was inaccurate, but dismissed him as a disgruntled campaign operative who didn't get hired.