When spending by Marco Rubio's political committees came under scrutiny, state Sen. Mike Fasano was one of the first to tee off against the U.S. Senate candidate.
"Having expenditures in the tens of thousands of dollars to pay off credit cards, it's clear to me it was being used to live off of. The Rubios were living off it,'' Fasano told the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald earlier this month.
Little surprise there: Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is one of the most loyal and outspoken supporters of Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio's primary opponent.
But as more questions have surfaced about Rubio's political and personal expenditures, someone else has been pulled into the controversy: Richard Corcoran, Rubio's former chief of staff — and one of Fasano's closest friends.
On Tuesday, the Times/Herald reported that Corcoran, who is now running for House District 45, ran up hefty bills on a GOP-issued credit card for dinners with his boss, personalized chairs for Republican leaders and $4,600 for electronics, among other expenses.
And Fasano found himself in an awkward position: What did he have to say about Corcoran?
"Richard Corcoran is a great friend and one of the most loyal people I've ever known. I read that article this morning and thought to myself that, like me, he's sometimes too loyal," Fasano said Tuesday.
Fasano said he drew a distinction between Republican leaders and Republican staffers such as Corcoran who were following orders.
"There was a culture of entitlement at that time, starting with Marco Rubio, on to his handpicked successor Ray Sansom and (former GOP chairman) Jim Greer," said Fasano.
"It was the culture at the time. And Richard was an employee getting paid to do what he was told. I wouldn't be surprised ... that Marco Rubio and other members had access to Richard Corcoran's card number and used it at their leisure."
Republican officials issued Corcoran the card, which was in his name, after he took a job as the party's point man for House races in late 2004. Close to a dozen other staffers also used it to book hotels and pay for travel, Corcoran said.
Days before Rubio was sworn in as House speaker in late 2006, he and his top deputies took a chartered plane to Washington, checked into a $600-a-night-hotel and hired a chauffeur — all on Corcoran's party-issued card.
Corcoran and others continued to use the card after Rubio named him his chief of staff, said Corcoran, who resigned from the $175,000-a-year job in March 2007 to run for a state Senate seat in Citrus County. He raised $185,000 in two weeks but quit the race amid attacks over his conduct in a previous campaign.
Corcoran also used the card to pay for a $20 haircut and more than $400 in airline fees for a canceled family trip to Spain. He said he paid back those personal expenses.
For his part, Corcoran says the credit card went toward legitimate expenses of getting Republicans elected and helping advance the party's agenda.
"We have an obligation to our donors, you have to feel completely confident that we'll pursue that agenda you believe in and we'll pursue it prudently," he said.
Does he believe he did that with his card? "I know I did," he said.
Corcoran, now a contract attorney for Pasco Sheriff Bob White, is running in a tight primary for House District 45, which represents Pasco and Pinellas counties. Incumbent Tom Anderson is being forced out by term limits.
Corcoran's leading opponent is Pasco School Board member Kathryn Starkey.
If Starkey plans to make an issue of the credit card uses, she isn't driving it home yet.
"My take on it is while everyone thinks this will greatly affect the outcome of our race, I'm concerned about my party. We're the party of fiscal conservatives," Starkey said Tuesday. "Let me just say I'm disappointed and concerned for my party. But again I'm going to focus on my race. I feel I bring a different message to the voters, a different background and set of goals."
Fasano and Corcoran met about 25 years ago when both were young Republicans in Pasco. Corcoran knocked on doors for Fasano in his early campaigns. Fasano was a fixture at the Corcoran family home and is close now to Corcoran's wife and children.
In recent months, Fasano has worked for Corcoran in his bid for House 45, sending out a campaign letter on Corcoran's behalf and alerting the media about Corcoran campaign events.
So does the party credit card issue make Corcoran vulnerable?
"I have no doubt that during the campaign, it will be used against Richard, unfortunately," Fasano said. "I just hope that anyone who does it against him tells the truth, the entire truth."
And the truth is?
Corcoran "didn't do it on his own," Fasano said "He was ordered to get a plane, to get hotel rooms and to book enough rooms for the legislators and their families. ... Richard Corcoran was honest, told the truth, and took the time to sit with the press and answered all their questions. I think Marco Rubio should do the same."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.