TAMPA — This spring Marco Rubio's momentum in the U.S. Senate race was threatened by a series of revelations about him repeatedly using GOP campaign donations to pay for personal expenses — everything from personal care products to a family reunion to groceries.
But if Rubio worried the revelations would damage his surging campaign or image as a fiscal watchdog, he sure didn't show it. On March 31, the Miami Republican's campaign wrote a check a $1,500 to St. John Neumann Catholic Preparatory School. It was listed as a "registration fee" on Rubio's federal campaign reports.
When a Miami-based Democratic blogger, Joy Reid, flagged the unusual expense on her Reid Report blog, the Rubio campaign scoffed.
"It's BS. His kids don't even go there," the campaign responded to a St. Petersburg Times inquiry. "It was to sponsor some event they were doing and as it turns out they couldn't take money from a campaign so the check was never cashed and then voided."
Turns out, though, that there was a Rubio family connection: The money went to a school fishing tournament fundraiser organized by Rubio's sister-in-law.
"He sponsored an event for a Catholic school the proceeds of which would be used for tuition assistance for needy children," said Rubio campaign adviser Todd Harris. "It's completely and totally permissible by law. … He gives to schools where he thinks there's a need. Marco's only regret in this is that the school ended up not being able to take the money."
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, Mary Ross Agosta, said the school has a policy of not accepting contributions from political campaigns, so it turned down Rubio's contribution.
Rubio declined to answer any questions during a campaign stop in Tampa Wednesday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Leading in the polls, he cautioned about 100 supporters to take nothing for granted and to prepare for negative attacks from Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and independent candidate Gov. Charlie Crist.
The campaign made no apologies for spending donors' money on his sister-in-law's private school fundraising event, but it's hardly the first time he's faced questions about how he spends political contributions.
The former state House speaker used a state GOP credit card for personal expenses. He says he always paid American Express directly for nonpolitical purchases, but had to repay the party more than $2,000 for double-billed plane tickets after the Times/Herald obtained some of those records. Rubio will not release two years of those records.
Likewise, Rubio's political committees spent tens of thousands of dollars on credit card payments and other vague expenses. Even with little or no opposition as a state House member, his re-election campaigns spent hundreds of thousands, including $1,500 for a car payment. The campaign says all expenses were campaign-related.
"There's a pattern of Rubio treating donor money as his own and as a way to help out family and friends or to benefit personally," said Reid, the blogger who also writes a regular column for the Miami Herald.
There is nothing illegal about a campaign contributing money to a charity, and Crist in 2006 gave charities tens of thousands of dollars in unspent donations, after canceling an inaugural gala that he decided would be too lavish.
Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner said there's a history with Rubio. Kanner called the private school donation "further evidence of him playing fast and loose with other people's money. His financial shenanigans are the stuff of legend, and his rhetoric of fiscal conservatism completely fraudulent."
Crist campaigned on Wednesday in Broward County, where he accepted the endorsement of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The governor looked a bit uncomfortable, though, as Kennedy railed against the "corporate plutocracy threatening now to crush out democracy," called tea party activists crackpots and said Rubio has an "I-can-be-as-stupid-as-I-want vision for our country."
At a GOP campaign office in South Tampa, Rubio noted that Crist had said he wanted to halt the name-calling and personal destruction so common in politics today. "Today in Broward County, he stood next to someone who called you crackpots, angry crackpots and actually used the word stupid to describe me," Rubio told about 100 supporters. "That sounds like personal destruction to me."
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.