U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio charged grocery bills, repairs to the family minivan and purchases from a wine store less than a mile from his West Miami home to the Republican Party of Florida while he was speaker of the Florida House, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald.
Rubio said Wednesday that he paid for all personal expenses billed to an American Express card given to him by the party to use from 2005 to 2008, when he left public office. The rest of the charges, he said, were legitimate party expenses.
Those expenses include a $1,000 charge at Braman Honda in Miami for repairs to the family car in January 2008. Rubio said the minivan was damaged by parking attendants at a political function and that the party agreed to cover half of his insurance deductible. The party also paid $2,976 for him to rent a car in Miami for five weeks.
Rubio said the party allowed him to put personal expenses on the card and the party reviewed his bill monthly.
"I was as diligent as possible to ensure the party did not pay for items that were unrelated to party business," Rubio said in a written statement. "There was no formal process provided by the party regarding personal charges."
But party spokeswoman Katie Gordon said the card was not supposed to be used for personal expenses. "The RPOF American Express card is a corporate card and is meant to be used for business expenses," she said when asked about the party's policy.
IRS rules for political parties, which are tax-exempt, require that their donations go exclusively toward influencing elections.
Records show Rubio sent payments to American Express totaling $13,900 for his personal expenses during his tenure as House speaker. But those payments were not made monthly. He made no contributions to the bill during one six-month stretch in 2007, the records show.
Charges covered by the party as political expenses include:
• $765 at Apple's online store for "computer supplies."
• $25.76 from Everglades Lumber for "supplies."
• $53.49 at Winn-Dixie in Miami for "food."
• $68.33 at Happy Wine in Miami for "beverages'' and "meal."
• $78.10 for two purchases at Farm Stores groceries in suburban Miami.
• $412 at All Fusion Electronics, a music equipment store in Miami, for "supplies."
Rubio's campaign could not find records to explain many of these expenses Wednesday night. But Rubio stressed that GOP staffers also may be responsible for some expenses, since they also had access to the credit card.
Though Rubio said he tried to pay all his personal expenses, at least some ended up on the party ledger, records show. Three payments to a Tallahassee property management group, which Rubio described as personal, were paid by the party, totaling $1,024, state and credit-card records show.
Rubio also booked six plane tickets for his wife using his GOP credit card. It was unclear how many, if any, of those trips his wife actually took; in some instances, she did not fly and Rubio was credited by the airline.
"My wife was the first lady of the Florida House of Representatives, and it is absolutely appropriate for her to accompany me to official events and party functions," Rubio said.
Rubio was among at least a half-dozen high-ranking Florida lawmakers given GOP credit cards in recent years, allowing them to spend donations to the party outside public view. Revelations that former chairman Jim Greer and executive director Delmar Johnson charged chartered planes and lavish meals to their cards sparked a grass roots rebellion and the election of new leadership last week.
State Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, the new party chairman, has resisted calls to release the statements of all party credit cardholders but said he will order an exhaustive audit that would uncover any improper or illegal activity.
On Wednesday night, Rubio sent a letter to Thrasher accusing his GOP rival in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race, Gov. Charlie Crist, of leaking the credit card documents to the press.
"It is clear these internal documents were taken from the RPOF by former chairman Jim Greer or someone working for him and were leaked to the media by the Crist campaign," Rubio's letter said. "These actions are an appalling act of political desperation."
Crist's campaign declined to comment Wednesday evening.
Both Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, the leading Republican candidate for governor, have said they did not have party credit cards.
In 2008 alone, the GOP paid $1.8 million in American Express charges, state records show. More than $100,000 was spent on Rubio's card from November 2006 to November 2008.
The majority of the expenses on Rubio's card covered travel costs as he trekked across the state and the country in his dual role as House speaker and party leader.
Rubio visited Orlando, St. Petersburg and Pensacola, flew to New Hampshire in 2008 to campaign for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and went to the party's national convention that year in Minneapolis.
Rubio also billed the GOP for expenses in Tallahassee during the legislative sessions in 2007 and 2008. The bills include nearly $4,100 in restaurant tabs during the 2007 and 2008 sessions — from a $409 bill at a Macaroni Grill to a $7.09 charge at a Chick-fil-A.
When Rubio became speaker, he spent about $400,000 in tax dollars to remodel offices and build a members-only dining room so lawmakers rushing to meetings or in the throes of negotiations would not have to leave the Capitol to eat.
The GOP also paid more than $7,000 for Rubio's flights between Tallahassee and Miami during the 2007 and 2008 sessions, the records show.
In his statement, Rubio said he "erred on the side of caution'' to save taxpayer dollars by charging these items to the party.
"This decision ultimately saved taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars and avoided the appearance of taxpayers subsidizing my political activity," Rubio said.
Election law experts say party credit cards should cover only expenses aimed at influencing elections — fundraising, voter registration and candidate recruitment — to adhere to IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations.
"If you can look at an IRS agent with a straight face and say this was for electioneering purposes, that's fine. If you can't, you shouldn't do it," said Tallahassee lawyer John French. "It's got to pass the smell test."