U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio's routine use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card for personal expenses while leader of the Florida House escalated calls Thursday for the party to disclose charges racked up by former and current elected officials.
Rubio says he repaid all personal expenses to American Express in 2007 and 2008, amounting to $16,052. Records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald show the personal expenses included a $134 trip to an upscale Miami barber that his GOP campaign rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, called pretty disturbing.
The party picked up the rest of the $93,566 in charges on Rubio's card, including nearly $4,000 to repair his family minivan and rent a car for five weeks. Rubio said the minivan was damaged by parking attendants at a political event and on Thursday accused Crist of desperate smears.
An outcry over Republican Party spending has spiraled for months. Revelations about chartered jets and lavish meals charged by the former state party chairman, Jim Greer, and former executive director, Delmar Johnson, spurred party leaders to sweep in new leadership last week.
Asked whether the party should release credit card records to clear the air before the 2010 election, former state party chairman Tom Slade on Thursday said, "Hell yes."
"We should not under any circumstances attempt to make this not totally transparent," Slade said. "We've got to take a hit for it because we have mismanaged money that people gave us and used it for purposes they did not intend it to be used."
Slade said he wasn't particularly bothered by Rubio's card use, noting that he had raised about $12 million for the party.
Miami lobbyist and Rubio donor Ana Navarro said Rubio should have released the card statements himself.
"Marco's chicken sandwich cost a lot less than Jim Greer's lobster dinners, but that does not mean the culture at the Republican Party does not need to change," said Navarro, referring to a $7.09 charge at a Chick-fil-A in Tallahassee.
Another Rubio supporter, Javier Manjarres of the Fort Lauderdale-based Conservative Republican Alliance, said of Rubio's spending: "It raised my eyebrows. I'm not defending him. … You can't definitely say what is political work and what isn't, but it looks funny."
Rubio's campaign adviser, Todd Harris, explained some charges Thursday that were picked up by the party. A $765 charge at Apple's online store was for a "hard drive to store political files." Purchases at Winn-Dixie for $53.49 and Farm Stores in Miami for $78.10 were for "soft drinks." Two bills from Happy Wine in Miami were for "lunch," though one of the charges is listed in a party report as "beverages."
Harris said a $368 car rental in Las Vegas in 2007 was to meet a donor. Asked for the name of the donor, Harris snapped: "I didn't ask, and it's not your or anyone else's business."
In a written statement to the Times/Herald on Wednesday, Rubio said the state party agreed to pay half of his insurance deductible to cover damage to his car at a political event in 2007. He said the party also signed off on a rental car in Miami for five weeks that cost $2,976.
On Thursday, the campaign arranged for the Times/Herald to talk to Chip Case, a former party staffer who said he reviewed Rubio's credit card statements every month. Case said of the car rental: "I thought it was appropriate. It was the type of thing I think we would do for anyone in that situation."
But party spokesman Katie Gordon said that no one specifically approved the repairs and rental, because the party trusted elected officials to identify personal expenses themselves.
"I don't think it's appropriate for the party to question the former speaker of the House's judgment as to when it was appropriate to use the card," Gordon said. "The cardholders are members of the Legislature. Why would we not trust them to use their due diligence to repay personal expenses?"
State Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, the new state party chairman, said he hopes a major accounting firm will begin an exhaustive "forensic audit" of the party on Monday. He declined to comment on Rubio's spending and said it wouldn't be appropriate at this point to release other credit cardholders' statements.
Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican front-runner to replace Crist as governor, said of releasing the credit card records: "To open this at the present time could compromise a criminal investigation."
Rubio's campaign accused the Crist campaign of leaking his credit card statements. Crist said he didn't know anything about that.
"What matters to me is that the people have the right to know how people spend their money, how they comport themselves, how they conduct themselves, before they put themselves up for public office," said Crist, who did not have a party credit card. "It's happened to the speaker. He apparently doesn't like it. That's too bad. Welcome to the NFL."
The IRS limits tax-exempt organizations like political parties to spending money only on influencing elections. Rubio did not make monthly payments to American Express and made no contributions to the bill during one six-month stretch in 2007, records show.
Miami lawyer Ben Kuehne, an election law expert who has represented the Florida Democratic Party, said some of Rubio's expenses "sound incredibly personal, not political."
"This is party money. Not the elected officials' money," he said. "The person using the card shouldn't be the one who determines whether it is business or personal. From a legal point of view, there are red flags all over the place."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and John Frank contributed to this report. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.