As his influence increased, so did Rubio’s spending

Marco Rubio was barely solvent as a young lawmaker climbing his way to the top post in the Florida House, but special interest donations and political perks allowed him to spend big money with little scrutiny.

About $600,000 in contributions was stowed in two inconspicuous political committees controlled by Rubio, now the Republican frontrunner for the U.S. Senate, and his wife. A Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times analysis of the expenses found:

n Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses — including $7,000 he paid himself — for one of the committees in 2003 and 2004, as required by state law.

n One committee paid relatives nearly $14,000 for what was incorrectly described to the IRS as “courier fees” and listed a nonexistent address for one of them. Another committee paid $5,700 to his wife, who was listed as the treasurer, much of it for “gas and meals.”

n Rubio billed more than $51,000 in unidentified “travel expenses” to three different credit cards — nearly one-quarter of the committee’s entire haul. Charges are not required to be itemized, but other lawmakers detailed almost all of their committee expenses.

Rubio’s spending continued in 2005 when the Republican Party of Florida handed him a credit card to use at his own discretion. While serving as House speaker in 2007 and 2008, he charged thousands of dollars in restaurant tabs to the state party at the same time taxpayers were subsidizing his meals in Tallahassee.

“Every single thing Marco Rubio did was in accordance with both the letter and spirit, not only of Florida law, but of the policies and practices of the Republican Party of Florida,” said Rubio campaign advisor Todd Harris, though he admitted the $34,000 in expenses should have been reported. “While every penny was accounted for, not all of the bureaucratic paperwork was filed and we will take whatever steps are appropriate to make sure that gets done.”

He added, “This is not taxpayer money we’re talking about.”

Rubio’s high-roller political spending belies his image as an outsider riding a wave of anti-establishment fervor and gunning to knock off Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. A Herald/Times review of other legislators’ committees shows they typically contributed far more to other candidates and reported vastly fewer credit card payments.

“Having expenditures in the tens of thousands of dollars to pay off credit cards, it’s clear to me it was being used to live off of. The Rubios were living off it,” said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a strong Crist supporter.

Said Harris: “That’s an absolute flat-out lie. And Mike Fasano should be ashamed for doing Charlie Crist’s dirty work without any regard for the truth.”

The campaign would not make Rubio, 38, available to answer questions about his political committees and party credit card. He released a written statement: “None of our donors has ever questioned how the money was spent. In fact, the only one raising this question is the Crist campaign, which is not surprising given that they are more interested in personal attacks against me than they are in advancing conservative ideas.”

In December 2002, Rubio was a 31-year-old political hot shot set on becoming speaker of the Florida House. Rounding up support from legislators across 67 counties was no easy task for a young lawyer and local government lobbyist with a net worth of negative $103,000, a mortgage and student loans.

So Rubio did what many aspiring Florida legislative leaders do — he created a political committee, Floridians for Conservative Leadership, to “support state and local candidates who espouse conservative government policies,” according to IRS records.

But for 2003, the committee spent nearly $150,000 on administrative and operating costs and $2,000 in candidate contributions. Over 18 months, only $4,000 went to candidates other than Rubio, while similar political committees gave tens of thousands of dollars to candidates.

Rubio spent the biggest chunk of the committee’s money, $89,000, on political consultants, $14,000 in reimbursements to himself and more than $51,000 in credit card expenses. Records show those expenses were for food, lodging and airfare, but do not detail who was traveling or where the expenses were incurred.

Such large credit card payments contrast with the more detailed disclosures in other legislators’ political committees. Harris noted that Rubio’s overall spending was in line with other legislators’ committees.

“Marco put his on a credit card and the other guys put theirs on a debit card. So sue us,” Harris said.

Altogether, the committee collected $228,000 in donations, including $30,000 from the Florida Crystals sugar corporation, $10,000 from U.S. Sugar, and $50,000 from a political group run by Republican fundraiser Alan Mendelsohn, a Broward County eye doctor indicted last year on corruption charges, who has also donated to Crist.

Rubio’s wife, former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Jeanette Dousdebes, served as the committee’s treasurer. In reports filed with the state, Rubio and his wife failed to disclose more than $34,000 in expenses over an 18-month period.