Marco Rubio spent lavishly on a GOP credit card, but some transactions are still secret

During last week's debate, Marco Rubio deflected questions about his financial discipline - most recently, he liquidated a retirement account - but those questions will only intensify. [AP photo]
During last week's debate, Marco Rubio deflected questions about his financial discipline - most recently, he liquidated a retirement account - but those questions will only intensify. [AP photo]
Published Nov. 4, 2015

It has become legend in Florida political circles, a missing chapter in Marco Rubio's convoluted financial story: two years of credit card transactions from his time in the state House, when he and other Republican leaders freely spent party money.

Details about the spending, which included repairs for Rubio's family minivan, emerged in his 2010 U.S. Senate race. But voters got only half the story because the candidate refused to disclose additional records.

Now Sen. Rubio's past is under fresh scrutiny as he emerges as a top presidential prospect. During last week's debate, he deflected questions about his financial discipline — most recently, he liquidated a retirement account — but those questions will only intensify.

"For years, I've been hearing that his credit cards are a disaster," Donald Trump said Tuesday during a news conference in New York City.

The Tampa Bay Times asked Rubio's team for the records in June and again in early October.

A top strategist, Todd Harris, said Tuesday they would be released soon, possibly within the month, but declined to answer questions about what they might contain.

As speaker of the Florida House, Rubio was one of about a half-dozen lawmakers given Republican Party of Florida credit cards. During the Senate race, the Times/Herald obtained Rubio's statements from 2006 and 2007, showing he routinely charged personal expenses, from a $10.50 movie ticket to a four-day, $10,000 family reunion.

In those two years he charged about $110,000, and he said he sent about $16,000 to American Express to cover personal expenses, though the expenses were never detailed. In a 2012 memoir, he wrote, "From January of 2005 until October of 2008 I charged about $160,000 in party-authorized expenses."

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Marco Rubio's personal finances clash with call for fiscal discipline

Rubio defended use of the card; the minivan, he said, was damaged by a valet at a political function and the party paid $1,000, half the insurance deductible. Items that were personal were paid directly to American Express, he said, though records show that did not happen on a monthly basis. After reporting by the Times/Herald, Rubio did pay the Republican Party of Florida $2,400 for plane flights he double-billed to state taxpayers and the party.

Charlie Crist, Rubio's opponent in 2010, tried to make the spending an issue, but Rubio rode a tea party wave to blow past the then Republican governor, the start of national attention that has propelled him into the presidential race. Through it all, Rubio has refused to provide credit card statements from 2005 and 2006.

"Those credit card statements are an internal party matter. I'm not going to release them," he told the editorial board of the Times-Union of Jacksonville in September 2010.

Attempts by reporters and Rubio's rivals to obtain them have fallen flat, leading to speculation about what they might contain.

Brad Herold, executive director of the state GOP, told the Times on Tuesday that the party "has filed all necessary and required reports with the Florida Division of Elections and will not be releasing any additional information on historical finances."

Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist from Tampa, said he asked Rubio during the Senate run if there were any issues that would arise and the candidate disclosed to him charging for "flooring" in his West Miami home. But as questions grew about Republican spending in general — the party chairman, Jim Greer, would serve time in prison — Rubio insisted he had done nothing improper.

"There is nothing to drop. I have the statements now. It is all mostly a bunch of commercial airlines, rental cars, hotels and travel restaurants. Any personal charges were paid by (me) directly," Rubio wrote Ingram in an email on Dec. 24, 2009. Ingram wrote back, "I hope you're right."

In his 2012 book, Rubio did not mention flooring. "I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers." He attributed the family reunion expense in Thomasville, Ga. — a celebration of him becoming House speaker — to a mistake by his travel agent, who used the wrong card.

"There are always these things with Marco, like, 'Oh, let me just explain that,' " Ingram said in interview this week. "You want to look at the guy and say, 'You're not a lawyer defending a client in a criminal trial trying to get them off by saying whatever needs to be said.' He explains things away enough to convolute the issue and then people don't even know what the question was."

A Florida man filed an ethics complaint against Rubio in 2010, and in 2012 the state ethics commission cleared him, though an investigator said the level of "negligence" exhibited by Rubio's confusion between the GOP American Express and his own MasterCard, and failing to recognize the error on monthly statements, was "disturbing."

Now questions are resurfacing. During the GOP presidential debate last week, a CNBC host ran down Rubio's history and asked if he has "the maturity and the wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy."

His response avoided the question. "You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I'm not gonna waste 60 seconds detailing them all."

The next morning, television commentator Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, said he was "stunned" moderators let him off the hook instead of pointing to records. "And yet everybody's going, 'Oh, Marco was great.' No, Marco lied about his financials."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.