Rubio's charges to GOP credit card included $134 haircut

Miami Herald/St. Pete TimesFebruary 26, 2010 

MIAMI — Marco Rubio's routine use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card for personal expenses while speaker of the Florida House brought renewed calls Thursday for the party to disclose charges racked up by former and current elected officials.

Rubio, who is battling Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the party's U.S. Senate nomination, says he repaid all personal expenses to American Express in 2007 and 2008, amounting to $16,052. The party picked up the rest of the $93,566 charges on Rubio's card, including nearly $4,000 in costs to repair his family minivan and rent a car for five weeks. Rubio said the minivan was damaged by parking attendants at a political event.

Records show the personal expenses included a $134 trip to an upscale Miami barber. Crist, called the charge "pretty disturbing.'' Rubio accused Crist of "desperate smears.''

An outcry over Republican Party spending has spiraled for months. Revelations about chartered jets and lavish meals charged by the former state party chairman, Jim Greer, and former executive director Delmar Johnson spurred party leaders to sweep in new leadership last week.

Asked whether the party should release credit-card records to clear the air before the 2010 election, former state party chairman Tom Slade on Thursday said, "Hell, yes.''

"We should not under any circumstances attempt to make this not totally transparent,'' Slade said. "We've got to take a hit for it because we have mismanaged money that people gave us and used it for purposes they did not intend it to be used.''

Miami lobbyist and Rubio donor Ana Navarro said he should have released the card statements himself.

"Marco's chicken sandwich cost a lot less than Jim Greer's lobster dinners, but that does not mean the culture at the Republican Party does not need to change,'' said Navarro, referring to a $7.09 charge at a Chick-fil-A in Tallahassee. "From top to bottom, people need to understand that one has to be extra conscientious in spending other people's money.''

Rubio campaign adviser Todd Harris explained some charges Thursday that were picked up by the party. A $765 charge at Apple's online store was for a "hard drive to store political files.'' Purchases at Winn Dixie for $53.49 and Farm Stores in Miami for $78.10 were for "soft drinks.'' Two bills from Happy Wine in Miami were for "lunch,'' though one of the charges is listed in a party report as "beverages.''

Harris said a $368 car rental in Las Vegas in 2007 was to meet a donor. Asked for the name of the donor, Harris snapped: "I didn't ask and it's not your or anyone else's business.''

In a written statement on Wednesday, Rubio said the state party agreed to pay half of his insurance deductible to cover damage to his car at a political event in 2007. He said the party also signed off on a rental car in Miami for five weeks that cost $2,976.

Rubio's campaign arranged for an interview Thursday with Chip Case, a former party staffer who said he reviewed Rubio's credit-card statements every month. Case said of the car rental: "I thought it was appropriate. It was the type of thing I think we would do for anyone in that situation.''

But party spokesman Katie Gordon said that no one specifically approved the repairs and rental because the party trusted elected officials to identify personal expenses themselves.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the party to question the former speaker of the House's judgment as to when it was appropriate to use the card,'' Gordon said. "The cardholders are members of the Legislature. Why would we not trust them to use their due diligence to repay personal expenses?''

Later Thursday, when told what Rubio's campaign and Case had said, Gordon said, "If Speaker Rubio and Chip Case said that happened, I have no reason to believe that it didn't.''

State Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, the new state party chairman, said he hopes a major accounting firm will begin an exhaustive "forensic audit'' of the party on Monday. He declined to comment on Rubio's spending and said it would not be appropriate at this point to release other credit-cardholders statements.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican front-runner to replace Crist as governor, said of releasing the credit-card records: ``To open this at the present time could compromise a criminal investigation.''

Rubio's campaign accused the Crist campaign of leaking his credit-card statements. Crist said he didn't know anything about that.

"What matters to me is that the people have the right to know how people spend their money, how they comport themselves, how they conduct themselves, before they put themselves up for public office,'' said Crist, who did not have a party card. "It's happened to the speaker. He apparently doesn't like it. That's too bad. Welcome to the NFL.''

The IRS limits tax-exempt organizations like political parties to spending money only on influencing elections. Rubio did not make monthly payments to American Express and made no contributions to the bill during one six-month stretch in 2007, records show.

Miami attorney Ben Kuehne, an election law expert who has represented the Florida Democratic Party, said some of Rubio's expenses "sound incredibly personal, not political.''

"This is party money. Not the elected officials' money,'' he said. ``The person using the card shouldn't be the one who determines whether it is business or personal. From a legal point of view there are red flags all over the place.''

Democrats in Washington and Tallahassee pounced on Rubio's credit-card use. The Florida Democratic Party called on Crist to name a special prosecutor and for McCollum to use his authority as attorney general to investigate.

``Never once in my public life did it occur to me that simply because my car was parked at a party event that if something happened to it my reflexive reaction would be to turn it over to the party to pay for it,'' said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston. ``I know most Floridians wish they could get a deal like that.''

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