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Here’s why Marco Rubio’s corporate card saga isn’t really a scandal

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“People need to understand what they’re talking about. It wasn’t a credit card. It was an American Express charge card secured under my personal credit in conjunction with the [Republican] Party. Bills would be mailed to me at home. Every month I would go through it. If there was a personal expense, I paid it. If it was a Party expense, the Party paid it. Now I recognize in hindsight I would do it different to avoid confusion. But the Republican Party never paid a single personal expense of mine — personal expense. This is unfortunately when this was initially reported in the press, it was made into something bigger than it actually is. I wouldn’t do it the same way again to avoid all these stories but the Republican Party never paid any of my personal expenses.”  

— Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), interview on “Good Morning America,” Nov. 4, 2015

Rubio’s handling of his state Republican Party-issued corporate card is under renewed scrutiny, as he emerges as a leading candidate for the GOP nomination. In a recent appearance on “Good Morning America,” Rubio addressed questions over his corporate card usage.

His answer gave us pause. His explanation seemed to rebut many of the claims we have read in recent media coverage of the credit card controversy. Was he rewriting history? We decided to dig into his explanation and the series of events that unfolded since the story broke in February 2010. And we found, for the most part, his story matches up.

The Facts

From 2005 to 2009, the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) issued corporate cards to about 30 people, including legislators, senior officers, staff and fundraisers. Rubio was speaker of the state House of Representatives from November 2006 to November 2008. 

A February 2010 Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times report found Rubio was one of the state officials who charged personal expenses to party-issued corporate cards. This revelation came amid a larger scandal that found top officials in the state Republican Party ran amok misusing party funds with little to no oversight.

Rubio is correct that the card was a shared liability charge card. In fact, all American Express corporate cards in the U.S. are charge cards, which is a type of credit card that requires the bill to be paid in full every month. Late fees are incurred on the cardholder.

Rubio had told the Herald and Times that the party allowed him to put personal expenses on the card. He and the party reviewed the monthly bills. Rubio would identify personal expenses and pay those charges directly to American Express, he said. Rubio was running for U.S. Senate at the time of the report. He accused his opponent, then-Florida governor Charlie Crist, of leaking his corporate card statements to the media out of desperation.

It’s unclear what the party’s policy was over personal charges on the corporate card — or if party officials even knew what what the policy was. Contemporaneous news coverage shows conflicting statements by party officials. A party spokeswoman told the Herald and Times that the card was not supposed to be used for personal expenses.

A month later, the same spokeswoman told PolitiFact Florida that personal expenses were not explicitly prohibited, but that such expenses “were expected to be paid through a reimbursement, or in some cases directly to American Express.” She told PolitiFact Florida that there was no written policy on the use of the cards.

Yet a September 2010 independent audit of the party’s credit card usage found that there was, indeed, a policy in its — surprise! — policy manual. Corporate cards were “for RPOF business use only,” the manual said, and some cardholders also were told verbally that they could only use the card for party-related business. But auditors also found poor internal controls for handling expenses, and that spending ultimately was done at the approval of then-party chairman, Jim Greer. (Greer was forced to resign as chairman over the controversy and later was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing $125,000 from the party.)

In his 2012 memoir, “An American Son,” Rubio wrote that he charged $160,000 in party-authorized charges between January 2005 and October 2008. His 2007 and 2008 records showed he paid $16,052 in personal expenses incurred on the card to American Express, and the party picked up $93,566 in charges related to party business.

The Herald and Times questioned some of his business charges, such as repairs to his family minivan that was damaged by parking attendants at a political function. (The party agreed to cover half of his insurance deductible, according to the Herald and Times report.) The meals he charged to the party card especially came under scrutiny, as Rubio received a $126 per diem given to state legislators to help cover food and lodging. 

Other questionable charges ranged from $25.76 at Everglades Lumber for “supplies,” and $765 at Apple’s online store for “computer supplies.” At the time of the report, Rubio’s campaign did not provide an explanation for these charges. The next day, however, the campaign explained the charges questioned by the news outlets were incurred for business purposes. For example, the $25.76 charge was for office supplies, and the Apple store charge was for a computer hard drive and software to store political files.

While Rubio claimed he went through the bill monthly to pay his personal expenses, the Herald and Times reported there was a six-month period in 2007 where he made no contributions to the bill. Todd Harris, a top Rubio aide, offered a simple explanation to The Fact Checker: “We went back and looked. For that six-month period of statements, the reason Marco made no personal payments to AMEX is because he had no personal charges.”

The party has only released records from 2007 to 2009. Rubio’s campaign plans to release his corporate card statements from 2005 and 2006 within the coming weeks.

Rubio has admitted to accidentally charging personal expenses that should have been made to his personal card. In one instance, he wrote, he pulled the wrong card from his wallet to pay for pavers. In another, his travel agent mistakenly used the party card to pay for a November 2006 family reunion in Georgia. Rubio wrote that each time, he identified the charges when they showed up in the bills and paid them to American Express, not to the Republican Party.

The family reunion charges comprised 65 percent of his personal expenses charged to the corporate card, Rubio wrote. Corporate card statement records from early 2007 show that the charges incurred a balance on his account, and that Rubio made incremental payments to American Express to pay down the balance.

Rubio says the Republican Party “never paid a single personal expense of mine — personal expense.” As far as we can tell, there appears to be just one instance from 2007 to 2009 where he repaid directly to the party for a charge he should not have made on the party card. But this was not technically a personal expense.

Rubio had double-billed the party and state taxpayers $2,417.80 in airline tickets for state business. He paid for the tickets with his party-issued card, and then submitted reimbursement vouchers to the state. Rubio repaid the money to the party by writing a check, records show.

The auditors found that this was the only personal expense that Rubio should have repaid the party for between 2007 and 2009: “We asked to obtain additional information from Mr. Rubio about certain charges. Mr. Rubio provided us with that information and a sufficient explanation to allow us to confirm that the charges we questioned were, in fact, related to RPOF business.”

A Florida resident filed an ethics complaint against Rubio for his airline charges, among other allegations. The Florida Ethics Commission confirmed it was a billing mistake. The prosecutor for the commission found that the “level of negligence” exhibited by Rubio in confusing his cards, and then approving the reimbursement requests without recognizing the error, was “disturbing.” But the prosecutor did not find probable cause for an intentional wrongful act.

The party provided a statement attributed to Brad Herold, its executive director: “The Florida GOP has filed all necessary and required reports with the Florida Division of Elections and will not be releasing any additional information on historical finances.”

The Pinocchio Test

It appears Rubio has honed his explanation over the five years since the corporate card story broke.

He says it wasn’t a credit card, but a charge card. In fact, a charge card is a type of a credit card, but he’s on point drawing a technical difference between the two. Rubio has used the term “credit card” in his 2012 memoir in reference to his corporate card charges, and it is interesting that he has begun making this distinction in interviews. (His aide told the New York Times that Rubio had adopted a colloquial term for the card for his book.)

Rubio also says the Republican Party “never paid a single personal expense of mine — personal expense.” Notice the emphasis here. There was an instance when Rubio did repay the party for an expense that should not have been charged to the party; he double-billed the party and the state for airline tickets for state business. So, that is one example where he repaid the party rather than paying American Express directly, as he often notes. But technically, it was not for a personal purpose.

We don’t make a judgment call on whether Rubio should have made personal charges, or whether some of the charges the party paid for should have been considered as “party business.” But what readers should remember is that Rubio’s total charges — about $160,000 total on the corporate card — were relatively small compared to other state party officials who ran up $500,000, even $1.3 million, on their party cards. And although other presidential hopefuls, and even media outlets, keep pointing to the February 2010 news coverage that revealed Rubio’s personal charges, subsequent reports by the independent auditor and Florida Ethics Commission are worth reading, because they tell a fuller picture of how the saga unfolded.

Rubio’s carefully worded explanation doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Geppetto Checkmark, but it is accurate enough that it does not warrant even a single Pinocchio. Perhaps the release of the 2005-2006 card statements will change the outcome.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this issue but based on the information released so far, a mountain’s been made out of molehill,  by the media and Rubio’s opponents.

[Update: On Nov. 7, 2015, Rubio’s campaign released the 2005 and 2006 statements, which we are examining in detail. According to the campaign, Rubio made eight personal charges that totaled $7,243.74 during that time. These charges were related to four events: a hotel and rental car charge for $1,745 in Las Vegas, where he extended his business trip to visit relatives; the $3,756.24 tile pavers charge he wrote about in his 2012 memoir; $599.45 at Braman Honda auto dealership and repair; and a $180 charge at a children’s sports activity center. Rubio paid all of the charges directly to American Express, not to the party, the campaign said.

During the four years he used the card, 73 of 1,307 charges were personal, totaling $22,003.19 out of $182,072.55, according to the Rubio campaign. Rubio has written that 65 percent of his total personal charges were ones he made for the November 2006 reunion.]

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