Basically, the reporting casts doubt on Murphy's oft-repeated claims to owning a small business and to having worked as a certified public accountant (CPA). Murphy mentions these things regularly as a part of his political appeal, including in campaign ads. But both claims are being dissected for just how true they are. The CPA questions have been around for a while now, but the questions about his ownership of a small business are now compounding his résumé problems.
Murphy's campaign has pushed back on much the investigation's details, saying CBS used tricky language to twist the facts. And CBS has indeed made some clarifications since the reports aired. Politico reporter Matt Dixon tracked down a key source in the CBS story, Murphy's former business partner (and a registered Republican), who said his comments were taken "out of context."
But the base accusation — that Murphy, 33, has at times embellished his résumé — is true, said the Miami Herald's Kristen Clark, who has been covering the Senate race in Florida for months now. Clark was one of the first reporters to discover one of those discrepancies when she found Murphy was claiming he had two degrees from the University of Miami when he really had one.
The Fix spoke to Clark to get a better sense of what this all means for Murphy, and more broadly speaking, the Florida contest — a race that could very well determine which party controls the Senate next year.
THE FIX: Can you explain the question about whether Patrick Murphy was actually a small business owner?
CLARK: I don't think you can say definitively that he owned this company. When Murphy's on the campaign trail — and even this week, he was on MSNBC saying "I'm a small business guy" — he wants people to know that. Where that gets complicated is Coastal Environmental is more or less a subsidiary of his father's company, which is Coastal Construction. And you look at the business documents that were filed in the state, Murphy isn't listed as the sole owner. He's one of three directors, and he's listed third on the list.
One of the key things that was good for [CBS reporter] Jim DeFede to point out was that Murphy has never said whether he put his own money on the line for his company. And that's for people to judge how to define "owner" of a business, but putting money in seems to be a key factor in that definition.
THE FIX: How has the Murphy campaign pushed back?
CLARK: Obviously, they're not pleased. [Editor's note: They released a lengthy rebuttal to the investigation, calling it "deeply false." The Miami Herald posted it here.] But it shows the power of journalists to vet these candidates and let people know who they are and what they've really done versus what they say they've done on their talking points on the campaign trail.
Ultimately, there are questions about this candidate and the way he presented himself.
THE FIX: This CBS investigation wasn’t the first investigation by Florida’s political press into Murphy’s background. Talk to me about when you first noticed discrepancies.
CLARK: I've been covering the Democratic side of this Senate race since October. I was tasked with doing a profile on Murphy, and the No. 1 question that any reporter should do is: 'Okay, what's their résumé, and what have they done in their life, and is it true?' And the first thing I found was the discrepancy with his degree at the University of Miami. Because I had noticed in his biography he said he had dual degrees, accounting and finance. So I did a standard degree verification, and it only came back with one, and I was like, 'Wait a second. One degree is not two degrees.'
Congressman Murphy has said, 'Hey it's just a mistake, you can confuse the two.' The University of Miami even said that they have students who confuse major vs. degree. But it is a fact; you either have two degrees or you have one. And when you're a member of Congress, it would seem that your résumé should be accurate.
THE FIX: What else did you find as you kept digging?
CLARK: The strange thing we found with Murphy is there were changes in how he described himself online, depending on whether his bio was on his campaign or official office. His official bio was correct — until the month before he announced his run for U.S. Senate. All of a sudden it changed, and that's where the dual degrees have started appearing. It might be a mistake, but he's not being accurate with how he's depicting his achievements at the University of Miami.
When you have one red flag, that automatically raises your radar to say, 'Okay, if there's one, there might be more we don't know.' So along with our partners at the Tampa Bay Times, their D.C. reporter Alex Leary dug into the small business owner part, and even just the timing of Murphy's story line didn't match up. And you can see changes [about how he describes his business background.] He's no longer claiming to have been leading the clean-up efforts in the gulf. He says, 'I worked in the gulf' or, 'We worked on oil skimmers.' That is a much more narrowly tailored description.
THE FIX: Okay, help me understand how this is going to play into the Senate race (which we currently have as one of the most competitive in the nation, even with Rubio in it):
CLARK: It certainly complicates things, or at least make things more interesting. With Marco Rubio entering the race this week and the rest of the Republican candidates dropping like flies, it puts a lot of pressure on Murphy and his primary opponents [most prominently, Rep. Alan Grayson] to step up their game and explain to voters why they would be a good competitor against Rubio. And this investigation does knock down Murphy a few pegs and make him more vulnerable.
He seems to be the strong front-runner at this point, but this weakens him because it just doesn't make him look good, frankly.
THE FIX: Say Murphy wins the Aug. 30 primary. Are questions about his résumé Republicans' main argument against him?
CLARK: I think we can expect they're going to hammer it home. Marco Rubio is in the race barely 24 hours, and a super PAC backing him came out with an ad yesterday afternoon using this CBS Miami story saying 'You just can't trust Patrick Murphy.' So they're already jumping on this.
This is going to be a key attack point against Murphy. The Murphy campaign is going to return fire and say: 'Marco Rubio didn't have good attendance in the Senate, he doesn't care about his job.' So there's going to be firepower on both sides. But this investigation will play prominently in the race ahead.