MIAMI — 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 front-runner for the U.S. Senate, and his wife. A Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times analysis of the expenses found:
• 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.
• 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.''
• 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.
"The bookkeeping in [that] committee was not always perfect,'' Harris said. ``Marco will talk to his accountant and they will take whatever steps are necessary.''
Harris e-mailed the Herald/Times a list of expenses that the committee should have disclosed, including $7,000 in travel reimbursements to Rubio, bank fees, checks to consultants and credit card payments. Harris said the payments made to Rubio's wife, a homemaker, were reimbursements for travel expenses charged to her credit card. State law allows officers of these committees to be reimbursed for their expenses.
By the end of 2003, Rubio had locked up enough votes to become speaker three years later. He created a new political committee, Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, to ``educate the public about conservative leadership in government.'' It raised more than $386,000 from healthcare companies, a cigarette maker, car dealers, sugar growers and other Tallahassee players.
In his written statement, Rubio said both of his committees paid for the costs of traveling the state, meeting donors, formulating policy and supporting conservative candidates.
"I am proud of the work we have done to advance conservative ideas and principles,'' he said. "The purpose of these two committees was to provide a platform to pay for the costs associated with this work.''
The second committee helped pave the way for Rubio's speakership and "100 Ideas'' initiative. The innovative effort was supposed to solicit strong ideas from the public that would drive the Florida House agenda.
But about two-thirds of the money went to Republican political consultants, records show, including $91,000 to Bridgett Gregory Nocco, a fundraiser from New Port Richey, and $113,000 to Richard Corcoran, a Republican strategist who went on to oversee House campaigns and serve as Rubio's chief of staff.
Corcoran, now a candidate for a Pasco County state House seat, declined to detail how he earned the $113,000 through 2004, beyond planning and helping implement the "100 Ideas'' project. Newspaper reports indicate the "100 Ideas'' project didn't solicit ideas until late 2005.
"I was hired for strategy and the strategy was to have a bold agenda,'' Corcoran said when asked about the committee's spending. "That was my role, and beyond that I cannot address.''
Rubio's second political committee also paid $3,500 to his mother-in-law's company for rental car services and spent more than $10,000 on "couriers,'' who included Mauricio Giraldo, Jeanette Rubio's cousin; Carlos Fleites, her half-brother, and Orlando Cicilia, Rubio's nephew.
Harris said he did not know why the accountant did not list them as political aides. At 18 and 19 years old, the three were unable to rent from a car rental agency, Harris said, so they rented a van from the mother-in-law's freight company to do political work across the state in 2004.
"They were traveling all across Florida going on precinct walks, helping on campaigns and personally delivering checks,'' Harris said, noting that Cicilia is now working as a travel aide on Rubio's Senate campaign.
More than $74,000 in expenses by the committee -- about one dollar of every five spent -- were never accounted for in papers filed with the IRS. Harris noted these were for expenses under $500 and do not have to be disclosed. He refused to detail them to the Herald/Times.
Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government shut down in 2005 as Rubio gained access to another source of money for political activities: an American Express card backed by the Florida GOP. Rubio's bills included thousands of dollars in personal expenses, which he says he fully repaid, but the Herald/Times found some he did not cover.
"He's playing fast and loose with the rules,'' said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida, a government watchdog group.
Gov. Crist did not have a credit card but has acknowledged former party chairman Jim Greer picked up some of his expenses on his card.
Rubio has already admitted he used the GOP's credit card to double bill the party and state taxpayers in 2007 for flights from South Florida to Tallahassee. He said he would pay the party back about $3,000 for the flights and consult with his accountant about amending his tax return with the additional income.
During the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions, records show Speaker Rubio charged more than $3,700 in meals on his party credit card at the same time he was receiving the state's $126 per day "subsistence'' to help cover legislators' food and lodging. Harris said the meal charges were for political purposes, though the speaker's successor typically oversees political activities for House Republicans and lawmakers are not allowed to raise money during session.
Rubio received $10,000 for meals and lodging from the state in 2007 and 2008. Still, the credit card records obtained by the Herald/Times showed Rubio regularly dined out at the party's expense -- from a $14.24 bill at Andrew's Capital Grill & Bar to $184.15 at Masa, an upscale "Asian-fusion'' restaurant.
"It would be entirely inappropriate for Marco to use [taxpayer] money to pay for meals that were political in nature,'' Harris said. "As a general rule, the subsistence payments went to subsidize lodging for Marco and any time he spent money for a political meal he made sure that the party paid for it.''
For his last year as speaker, Rubio reported a net worth of less than $8,400, despite earning $69,000 from Florida International University, $45,000 from the state and $300,000 from Broad & Cassell. The father of four had more than $900,000 in debts, including two mortgages on properties in Miami and Tallahassee, a home equity loan and a student loan.