Marco Rubio is quickly emerging as a freewheeling big spender of special interest cash even as the U.S. Senate candidate sells himself as a fiscal hawk. The latest disclosure: As the young state lawmaker lined up support in 2003 and 2004 to become Florida House speaker, he blew through more than $600,000 stashed in a pair of political committees and never detailed how at least 20 percent of the money was spent. The expenses the Miami Republican did disclose suggest the money frequently went to subsidize his lifestyle or to employ relatives — not to support other House candidates as his donors would have expected.
With each new revelation about the self-indulgent spending by Rubio and other Republican leaders in recent years, the message could not be clearer. A lack of transparency in campaign finance has spawned a political culture in Florida where politicians' sense of entitlement, more than the public interest, is the key driver. Republican legislative leaders are now suggesting a return to banned "leadership funds" — the slush funds filled with hard-to-track cash from special interests — as a bizarre reform. But that would be barely palatable only if real-time disclosure of contributions and expenditures were disclosed, and lawmakers are not embracing that transparency.
The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald review of Rubio's two committees show he never accounted for $34,000 spent — a violation of the law. Rubio claimed another $71,000 he spent was paid out in sums under $500, allowing him to avoid disclosing who was paid. And $51,000 went to three credit cards for unidentified "travel expenses." He also paid several family members for political work.
These disclosures are just the latest to show how Rubio exploited the perks of political office and subsidized his lifestyle as he climbed to power. Previous Times/Herald reviews have discovered he double-billed the Republican Party of Florida and state taxpayers for $3,000 in travel — money he has since pledged to return. He also billed the Republican Party for meals on the same days he received a taxpayer subsidy to be in Tallahassee. And there are lingering questions about the extensive use of state party credit cards by Rubio and other Republicans.
Rubio's campaign staffers claim that sloppy paperwork, not willful disregard of the law, is to blame. They point out that Rubio was spending political donations, not taxpayer money, in most cases. But such rationalization is a product of the corrupt culture in which they work. Donations to the Republican Party of Florida or to one of Rubio's committees are supposed to be used to influence elections and public policy, not to enhance one person's lifestyle. Rubio, the alleged outsider candidate for Senate, looks awfully like a veteran insider who manipulated the system and avoided accountability.