Florida Republican Party's credit card use examined

By Miami Herald
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Federal law enforcement agencies have begun a criminal investigation of the use of credit cards issued by the Republican Party of Florida to elected officials and staff members, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

The U.S. attorney's office in Tallahassee, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service are involved in the probe. It grew out of a state investigation of former Florida House speaker Ray Sansom, who was indicted on criminal charges that he stashed $6 million in the state budget for an airplane hangar for a friend and campaign donor.

Katie Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, said she could not confirm the investigation or comment.

In a separate inquiry, the IRS is also looking at the tax records of former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio, who is now a U.S. Senate candidate, and other Republicans to determine whether they used their party credit cards for personal expenses, according to a source familiar with the preliminary inquiry.

Political parties, which are tax exempt, are allowed to spend money only on political activities, such as raising money, running campaigns and registering voters.

The IRS opened the "primary" investigation to see whether there is enough evidence to support a full-fledged criminal inquiry, according to a source familiar with the examination. Rubio said Wednesday that he has nothing to hide.

Rubio billed the party for more than $100,000 during the two years he served as the state's House speaker, according to credit card statements obtained by the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times. The charges included repairs to his family's minivan, grocery bills, plane tickets for his wife, and purchases from retailers including a wine store near his home and Apple's online store. Rubio also charged the party for dozens of meals during the annual lawmaking session in Tallahassee, even though he received taxpayer subsidies for his meals.

Rubio said that the billings all related to party business -- the minivan, for example, was damaged by a valet at a political function -- and that he repaid the party about $16,000 in personal expenses.

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