Surging Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio sought to tamp down an escalating controversy Saturday, releasing previously secret records that detailed his use of a Florida Republican Party credit card for personal expenses.
Rubio has maintained that he paid out of his pocket for any personal expenses on the American Express card, which he used from 2005 to 2008. But he has been beset with questions from political rivals about his spending, and been criticized by opponents for his years-long refusal to detail personal spending and release statements for most of the first two years he had the card.
Rubio’s handling of the card gained renewed attention this past week after attacks by his 2016 presidential rival Donald Trump, who accused the Florida senator of being a “disaster” with his card and living beyond his means. The attack underscored the extent to which the credit card issue, and, more broadly, Rubio’s history of amassing high amounts of personal debt, stand out as potential political liabilities as his presidential campaign gains traction.
In a news release Saturday, Rubio’s campaign portrayed the issue as resolved, listing eight personal expenses from the newly released statements that it said Rubio had paid. But the campaign did not provide documentation showing those payments.
“Marco paid his personal charges directly to American Express,” the release said. “The Republican Party of Florida did not pay for any of Marco’s personal expenses.”
The information released Saturday, first reported by Politico and later distributed by Rubio’s campaign, shows that his personal charges included $3,756 to a tile company, $599 to an auto dealership and $1,745 in hotel and car rental costs in Las Vegas, where Rubio has family.
It’s unclear whether the bulk of late fees and penalties were paid personally by Rubio or by the Florida GOP. Rubio spokesman Todd Harris said, “When Marco was responsible for late fees, he paid them. When the party was responsible because it didn’t make its payments, it paid them.” A Florida GOP spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The American Express card had been a major perk for Rubio as he rose in prominence in Florida politics. It was granted to him by the state Republican Party to pay for recruiting candidates, raising campaign donations and other expenses related to his political work.
Things quickly got messy, the records show.
After his first month with the card, Rubio was notified that the bill had not been paid on time. On top of the Feb. 16, 2005, statement, there was an admonition from American Express in bold letters: “Your account is 30 days past due.” The warning was repeated again on top of the March bill, this time with a delinquency charge of $39.78 added. Harris said that these past-due payments had been the party’s responsibility because they were related to business charges that were supposed to be paid by the party.
The problems with bill paying only worsened in the coming years. For nine consecutive months in 2006 and 2007, the past-due warning appeared at the top of Rubio’s statements. In one month alone, his card was assessed a $388 delinquency fee.
Many of the charges on the card looked like legitimate business expenses — the drumbeat of schmoozing by a rising politician. But he also used the card for expenses large and small that appeared to be more personal, including $10,000 for 20 rooms at a luxury plantation resort.
Rubio’s American Express spending first surfaced during the 2010 campaign in reports by the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times.
Rubio accused one of his GOP primary opponents — then-Gov. Charlie Crist — of leaking information about the card to the media. He reiterated that allegation last week in New Hampshire after Trump’s attacks.
“It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now,” Rubio said.
The Florida Ethics Commission investigated Rubio’s credit card spending and dismissed a citizen complaint against him. According to an internal audit commissioned by the Florida GOP, Rubio repaid the state party for six airline tickets, costing $2,417, that he had double-billed to the party and the state government. The audit report states that Rubio was able to provide proof that other charges the auditor questioned were for business purposes, but it does not provide specifics.
The Florida GOP’s policy manual prohibited using the card for personal reasons, according to the audit. But some Florida GOP officials have publicly stated that such expenses were acceptable, as long as the cardholder paid for them personally.
Rubio has had long-standing struggles with money.
When he entered the Florida legislature in 2000, he was making $72,000 a year as a lawyer at a Miami law firm. But he pegged his net worth at zero in his first three required annual financial disclosure forms.
By 2002, he was making more money, drawing in $96,000 at another law firm, plus a $28,702 legislative salary. But his balance sheet looked even worse. His net worth had sunk below zero — to negative $103,000.
Rubio’s management of campaign cash also seemed chaotic. He formed two political committees and doled out money to relatives for services and expenses. He grappled with the handling of credit cards for committee business as he criss-crossed the state campaigning among his legislative colleagues for support to be elected House speaker, Rubio recalled in his 2012 memoir. He named his wife, Jeanette, as treasurer of one of the committees.
“That decision proved to be a disaster,” Rubio wrote. “I often used my or Jeanette’s personal credit cards to pay for many of the campaign’s expenditures. When I received my statement I would spend hours trying to figure out which were political, and which were personal.”
Rubio’s wife usually didn’t join him on trips, but when it came time to pay bills, Rubio wrote, “she had to jog my memory to determine which credit card purchases were campaign expenditures, sometimes weeks after I had made them. It was an imperfect accounting system, to say the least.”
Rubio’s rising stature in Tallahassee gave him access to an even larger source of money: the Republican Party of Florida. In early 2005, when Rubio was 33 years old, the party gave him the American Express card that he would use over the course of four years. In his memoir, Rubio says it was a credit card, the same term used in an internal audit by a firm hired by the party. But Rubio has also said it was a “charge card” because balances were supposed to be paid off each month.
In his memoir, Rubio said he spent about $160,000 on his card between January 2005 and October 2008. However, until Saturday’s disclosures, his spending in 2005 and 2006 has remained largely unknown except for a few nuggets — such as the plantation resort — that have been reported over the years or were included in his book.
"For example, I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers," Rubio wrote in his memoir, "An American Son," without giving an amount.
Charges that had been known prior to Saturday included a $133.95 expense at Churchill’s, an upscale Miami barber; and payments for 20 rooms for a Rubio family gathering at Melhana, a luxury resort on an old Georgia plantation about 30 miles north of the Florida capital. The rooms each cost $504 for a three-night stay, starting Nov. 21, 2006, the day Rubio was sworn in as Florida House speaker.
Rubio has said the barber charge was to purchase items for a raffle, and he blamed the resort charge on a mix-up by his travel agent. He has said he spotted the mistake and personally covered the $10,000 cost of the resort. But an additional $6,000 in charges at the resort also went on the party card of Richard Corcoran, who was then Rubio’s chief of staff and is now a Florida legislator in line to become House speaker.
Corcoran, who is backing Jeb Bush in the presidential race, said via e-mail Saturday that Rubio’s use of the GOP card reflected “ordinary business and political expenses.”
“These are decade-old credit card statements that have been audited extensively by independent outside auditors and found to be fine,” Corcoran said.
He added that it was common practice for cardholders to charge personal expenses and then write a personal check to cover those charges when the bill arrived. “If some of the personal charges on Marco’s bills slipped through the cracks, I’m sure it was an honest mistake, and one that he has rectified,” he said.
Rubio racked up dozens of charges at hotels and restaurants — not just political hot spots in Florida’s capital, but also fast-food places and a wine shop near his West Miami home. During a one-week stretch in 2007, he incurred a $1,042 charge at Marie Livingstone, a Tallahassee restaurant, and $1,465 at Walt Disney World. He has provided few details about the reasons for his trips and who he was entertaining at restaurants.
The records show that Rubio paid for his wife to take at least 12 flights from 2005 to 2008, costing more than $5,000. Most were between Tallahassee and Miami, but there were also trips to Chicago, Aspen and Washington. In the past, he has explained her travel by saying she was the first lady of the Florida House of Representatives. No such title exists officially, but it has been used by some speakers to describe their wives.
The longer Rubio had the card, the better he appeared to get at making sure the bill was paid.
In December 2008, the month after Rubio left office in the Florida House, a statement arrived asking for the last $285 he had charged.
“Your account is cancelled,” the statement read. “Please consider a Personal Card.”
Alice Crites and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.