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.