Federal law enforcement agencies have launched a criminal investigation into the use of American Express cards issued by the Republican Party of Florida to elected officials and staff, according to sources familiar with the probe.
The U.S. attorney's office in Tallahassee, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service are all involved in the probe, which grew out of the state investigation into former House Speaker Ray Sansom. He was indicted on criminal charges that he stashed $6 million in the state budget for an airplane hangar for a friend and campaign donor.
In the federal case, Sansom and others could be charged with making false statements on their tax returns and tax evasion.
A spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, Katie Gordon, said she could not confirm the investigation nor make any comments. Coming in a high-stakes election year, the investigation could expose the inner-workings of a party that has dominated state government and raked in millions of dollars from lobbyists and special interests.
Meanwhile, in a separate inquiry, the IRS is also looking at the tax records of at least three former party credit card holders — former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, ex-state party chairman Jim Greer and ex-party executive director Delmar Johnson —to determine whether they misused their party credit cards for personal expenses, according to a source familiar with the preliminary inquiry.
Political parties, which are tax exempt, are only allowed to spend money on political activities, such as fundraising, running campaigns and registering voters. While it's commonplace for party officials and politicians to wine and dine donors, the Florida party allowed credit cardholders to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges with little oversight.
The IRS opened the so-called "primary" investigation into Rubio, the leading Republican candidate for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, and the two state GOP ex-officials to see if there's enough evidence to support a full-fledged criminal probe, according to a source familiar with the IRS examination.
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