In a move sure to increase speculation he is angling to be the Republican vice presidential running mate, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is demanding the Florida Ethics Commission close out a complaint that he misused Republican and campaign money "to subsidize his lifestyle."
"This complaint was filed for political reasons, and those who support the direction this president is taking our country will undoubtedly attempt to exploit it for political reasons," Rubio wrote Friday in a letter, which was accompanied by an affidavit. "I'm not going to let them do that."
The March 2010 ethics complaint came during Rubio's Senate campaign against then-Gov. Charlie Crist and was filed by Michael D. Ryan of Fort Lauderdale, who said he based it on articles in the Tampa Bay Times (then St. Petersburg Times) and Miami Herald. The newspapers reported that Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House, routinely charged personal expenses to his party-issued credit card from 2006 to 2008.
Rubio said he repaid personal expenses. Others raised questions, such as the nearly $4,000 he billed the Republican Party of Florida for a rental car in Miami and repairs to his family minivan, which he said was damaged by a valet at a political event.
Rubio acknowledged double-billing state taxpayers and the party for eight plane fares to Tallahassee, calling it a mistake, and repaid the party.
A rising figure in national Republican politics, Rubio is considered a top candidate as a vice presidential running mate. He insists he's focused on representing Florida but questions about his past are already drawing national media scrutiny. This week, the Wall Street Journal urged him to air out any vetting problems now so he would not become the next Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle.
"Sounds like he's running for something," said Republican political consultant Chris Ingram of Tampa, who said he once offered Rubio the same advice as he launched his bid for Senate. "It's not the kind of thing a politician would want to bring up."
Before becoming speaker, Rubio started two political committees to support other candidates and raised about $600,000. He failed to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and concealed others by lumping them in credit card charges, the Times/Herald reported.
"It appears that Mr. Rubio believes that PAC stands for 'personal access to cash,' " Ryan said in the complaint, calling it a "fraud upon his donors whose donations were solicited for political purposes, not to subsidize his lifestyle."
Ryan's complaint also accused Rubio of using his position to get an unadvertised teaching job at Florida International University when the school was laying off faculty. Rubio left that job but last year began teaching again, with clearance from the Senate.
Crist attempted to use the issues against Rubio in their bitter primary, but the governor's moderate leanings proved more damaging among the conservative base. Rubio climbed in the polls and was branded a tea party hero. Crist, meanwhile, was forced to leave the GOP and run as an independent.
Rubio's victory cemented his status as a rising star and the VP buzz has only grown around the charismatic 40-year-old son of Cuban immigrants. Even if he does not appear on the ticket, he is widely viewed as an asset to the GOP, which is trying to appeal to Hispanics. And many in Florida think some day he'll run for president.
But Rubio's past has always dangled, ripe for scrutiny from reporters, political opponents and others.
Last fall he acknowledged that his parents came to the United States before Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, not after, as his Senate biography read. The error, reported in the Times and the Washington Post, was unearthed by people who do not think Rubio is eligible to serve as president because his parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born in Miami in 1971.
In his letter Friday, Rubio said he did not get official notice of the complaint until August 2011, when one was sent to his Senate office in Doral.
"The complaint was filled with false information and reached absurd and incoherent conclusions," he wrote. "Furthermore, the Democratic donor based the entire complaint on press accounts, not on any actual knowledge or evidence."
In November, Rubio provided the ethics commission with information he said explained the circumstances and cleared him of wrongdoing. His letter Friday included an affidavit. He said, for example, that the double-billed flights issue arose because he did not book his travel as speaker. He said he reimbursed the Republican Party of Florida $2,417.
He said the college job and consulting work he did with Jackson Health Center and Miami Children's Hospital — all of which seek state funding — came after he left the Florida House due to term limits.
"They were not contemplated by me during the 2008 state legislative session in any manner, way, shape or form and had absolutely no bearing on any official decisions I made at any time during my service as an elected official in the Florida House of Representatives," Rubio wrote.
The affidavit, however, does not address some of the other issues, including the political committee spending.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said Friday that the ethics commission told Rubio verbally last fall that "even if it had been true, those issues in the complaint were legally insufficient. The affidavit only addresses the remaining issues that have yet to be dismissed."
Rubio says he is confident it will be resolved. The ethics commission declined comment, as is standard with such cases.
"This complaint was filed in the middle of my campaign for U.S. Senate," he states in the affidavit. "It was actually given to the media before it was even filed and was clearly politically motivated. Though I believe it is without any merit whatsoever, I understand the important work of the Commission and urge it to complete its review of these frivolous allegations in order to close out this matter which has now been pending for almost two years."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]