Days before he was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio and his top deputies hopped on a charter plane to Washington, checked into a $600-a-night hotel hosting a Republican Party conference and hired a chauffeur to squire them around the city.
The costs were charged to the state party-issued credit card belonging to Rubio's chief of staff, Richard Corcoran, a Republican operative who had recently been transferred to the state payroll. During the five months of his $175,000-a-year job in Rubio's office, Corcoran continued spending tens of thousands of dollars in party donations for a slew of expenses, including dinners with his boss, personalized chairs for Republican leaders and $4,600 for electronics, according to American Express statements obtained by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald.
"You have meeting after meeting to talk about the ideas and about building the agenda,'' said Corcoran, who denied misspending party funds. "Every penny was worth it."
Corcoran's hefty credit card bills — $60,000 in one two-month period alone — reflect the free-wheeling party spending on travel and dining that disgraced Rubio's successor, indicted former Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin, and cost former state party chairman Jim Greer his job.
State law bans public employees from working on political campaigns while on duty.
"You have a total institutional failure of candor, accountability, transparency and internal controls that is wholly unacceptable in the private sector and even among nonprofits," said Anthony "Tony" Alfieri, director of the University of Miami's Center for Ethics and Public Service. "In the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the specter of the Republican Party squandering thousands of dollars should outrage Florida voters."
Though the Internal Revenue Service requires party money to be spent on political activities, many of Corcoran's charges were personal: a $20 haircut, more than $400 in airline fees for a canceled family trip to Spain, $1,600 at a frame shop, $1,200 for handcrafted chairs for top Republican officials and $6,773 at a Georgia resort for a Rubio family reunion.
Party reports indicate that Corcoran, who is currently a candidate for a House seat representing Pasco and Pinellas counties, did not pay those expenses back. Rubio's relatives sent checks to American Express that covered all but $714 of the hotel bill.
"I can't explain it,'' Corcoran said of the charges for the Rubio family reunion. "You know who would know is Marco. … My hunch is that somehow a mistake was made.''
Rubio, now the front-running Republican candidate for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, said Corcoran "potentially" picked up some of his expenses while serving as chief of staff "but only political expenses for the most part.''
"There might have been some that he paid, but I don't know which ones,'' Rubio said. "You're asking me about a (credit card) statement I've never seen.''
Rubio's campaign adviser, Todd Harris, said charges from Rubio's family reunion appeared on Corcoran's bill because of a proposed "leadership dinner'' for his top deputies and their spouses at the hotel. The dinner was canceled, he said, and the room and catering was given to Rubio's family.
As the incoming House speaker in 2006, Rubio was responsible for raising money and crafting strategy for GOP incumbents and candidates for the Florida House. The Miami Republican worked side by side with Corcoran, the state party's point man for House races. Rubio's political committee also paid Corcoran $113,000 to help write and promote Rubio's book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.
Days after the 2006 election cost the party seven Florida House seats, Rubio and his top lieutenants — Reps. Sansom, Dean Cannon of Winter Park and David Rivera of Miami — chartered a plane for more than $5,200 to take them to a Washington conference of GOPAC, a national organization that grooms local and state Republican leaders. The group, which included Corcoran and a couple of other staffers, spent more than $5,000 on a one-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel and paid a limousine service about $1,800.
"We never had to worry about parking and because of that we got to double up and triple up our meetings,'' Corcoran said. "We did a ton and did it all in two days.''
Corcoran, 45, described Rubio's speakership as "Camelot." Most of the charges he billed to the party while he was Rubio's chief of staff were for restaurant tabs, ranging from $63.07 at T.G.I. Friday's in Tallahassee to $435.82 at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Coral Gables. Some of the charges stemmed from hosting party fundraisers, while others were for dinners where his boss and fellow lawmakers — who called themselves "the 12 disciples'' — would formulate their policy and political agendas, Corcoran said.
"It was a time in government when things were right, and people were doing things for the betterment of society and not for themselves," said Corcoran, calling the credit card spending "more pure" than when lobbyists commonly bought legislators meals. "I will not apologize for one penny of money we spent to push the special interests out the door.''
Among other purchases Corcoran billed to the party: self-help books to hand out to legislators such as Getting Past No and Good to Great; $1,600 to frame inspirational quotes by former Gov. Jeb Bush; and $1,200 for inscribed wooden chairs for Gov. Charlie Crist's chief of staff and speakers-to be Sansom and Cannon.
Corcoran insists he paid for every personal expense charged to the card, but a check he sent for $1,110 to cover the haircut, airline fees for the family trip and several meals appears to have been mistakenly applied toward the Rubio family reunion at Melhana Plantation in Thomasville, Ga. The airline fees were charged when Corcoran redeemed 385,000 in American Express Reward points for tickets to take his wife and four kids to Spain, he said. Corcoran said he canceled the trip.
The Republican Party of Florida reviewed the monthly statements for the credit cards held by staffers and legislative leaders but expected the cardholders to identify personal expenses and pay them back, said party spokeswoman Katie Betta.
The party stopped giving out credit cards last year, after Greer cut up his American Express at a party meeting to try to quell a growing outcry over spending.
Miami Herald staff writer Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.