As Marco Rubio considered his options for a new career after stepping down as Florida House speaker, he found that the housing bust had depleted demand for the kind of land-use law he had practiced in the past.
But Rubio quickly discovered that his experience as a high-ranking lawmaker could be a lucrative calling card.
Even before he left office in late 2008, his longtime aide sent a letter on behalf of a new private consulting group Rubio was launching, seeking business from a potentially major client: Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami’s busy public medical center.
That was an initial step in what became a profitable two-year stretch for Rubio between his time as a state legislator and his 2010 election to the U.S. Senate. Although he spent much of his time on the campaign trail, Rubio built a consulting and legal practice that made more than half a million dollars.
“People who achieve those kind of positions have a lot of juice, to use a fairly vulgar term,” said Marvin O’Quinn, the former Jackson chief executive, during a recorded interview with a state ethics official who investigated Rubio’s business deals. O’Quinn said it was a “no-brainer” to extend a $96,000-a-year contract to a firm led by someone with the kind of connections of a former speaker.
Another client, Miami Children’s Hospital, hired Rubio’s firm on a $102,000-a-year contract seeking guidance from a well-known Cuban American on cultural questions, the hospital’s chief executive told an investigator. One example: whether Hispanic customers might prefer an emphasis on diabetes or dentistry.
“They’re far more interested in teeth,” chief executive Narendra Kini recalled Rubio advising the hospital.
Rubio’s business deals during the period between his Tallahassee and Washington chapters demonstrated the ways he leveraged his enduring power inside government to make a profit on the outside. And they add to the contradictory picture of his personal finances that has emerged as his presidential campaign has gained traction — of a young man who struggled financially even as his personal income soared along with this political success.
This account is based on a Washington Post review of public records as well as previously unreported depositions recorded by Florida ethics officials who investigated a complaint filed by a political critic who, among other things, alleged that the former speaker had scored clients as remuneration for his legislative support. The inquiry found no evidence to support the allegation.
In a 2012 sworn affidavit, Rubio called the complaint “frivolous” and “politically motivated.” He said that he secured the contracts as a private citizen and that the deals had “absolutely no bearing on any officials decisions I made at any time during my service as an elected official in the Florida House of Representatives.”
Asked whether Rubio’s political profile played a role in building his client base, spokesman Todd Harris said, “You would have to ask the people who hired him.”
Several of Rubio’s clients said the benefits of hiring a former speaker were clear.
Kini told an investigator that it was Rubio’s “exposure” in office that led him to conclude he’d be a “good connection to the community.” Describing Rubio as his personal “think tank,” Kini said Rubio would prep him before meeting with local organizations. He said he and Rubio spoke frequently over the phone, including in evenings, but that Rubio produced no “written document or work product.”
Another client, Court Options, a firm that contracts with prosecutors to provide classes to people facing legal problems, hired Rubio because he “understood the landscape” of government, company co-founder Ruben Valdivia said in an interview with The Post.
Rubio initially launched his consulting career through his law firm, Broad and Cassel, which had employed Rubio during his speakership to help provide advice and recruit more Hispanic partners. With the housing market faltering and Rubio looking for new opportunities, the firm then tapped Rubio to head a newly opened practice called Florida Strategic Consulting, Rubio recalled in his 2012 memoir. Aspects of Rubio’s consulting work were first reported in 2009 by the Miami Herald.
“I agreed, and began looking for new clients who needed help building stronger relationships with local business and civic leaders,” he wrote.
An early target client was Jackson Health Systems, parent of the crowded, cash-strapped hospital that serves Miami’s poor and uninsured residents and had looked to Speaker Rubio for help.
In his final year as speaker in 2008, Rubio backed inserting $20 million for Jackson into the state budget — in effect making up for a 2006 decision by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to veto a $20 million line item for the hospital.
In October 2008 — about three weeks before Rubio stepped down — his longtime aide Viviana Bovo wrote a proposal on behalf of the new firm to the Jackson Memorial chief executive.
“With the prospect of even more budget reductions and rate cuts looming on the horizon, our advocacy efforts will assist you in keeping JHS at the forefront of all legislative and budgetary decisions,” she wrote.
The hospital accepted the proposal on Dec. 1, just after Rubio left office, agreeing to pay the firm $8,000 a month. Officials told the investigator that the payment was split, $5,000 to Rubio and $3,000 to Bovo.
Through a spokeswoman at the California hospital where he now works, O’Quinn declined to discuss Rubio. He told an ethics investigator that he decided to hire the former House speaker because “the stature he held throughout the state” meant the young former politician could get the hospital meetings with community leaders and donors who could assist it.
“To have someone like Marco introduce you and get you in to see people who might be able to help your organization, I saw as a tremendous benefit to us,” he said.
O’Quinn acknowledged that Rubio’s legislative support had been critical for boosting Jackson’s funding but said that was unrelated to the decision to hire Rubio as a private citizen. “I did not give him a contract because he had done something for us,” O’Quinn said. “That would not have been the right thing to do.”
Still, Rubio’s work for the hospital proved controversial.
Jorge Arrizurieta, who sat on the hospital’s governing board at the time, told The Post he was angry when he learned from a news account about the deal to hire Rubio. He felt O’Quinn had purposely agreed to pay Rubio’s firm $96,000 to avoid the required board approval for contracts exceeding $100,000.
Arrizurieta is now supporting Bush for president over Rubio, serving as Bush’s Miami-Dade chairman. At the time of the contract, Arrizurieta said he backed Rubio in the Senate race and feared the contract could hurt his chances. He said he met with Rubio at his office, shared with Bush at the Biltmore Hotel, to warn him off the contract.
“My message was that, politically, this is crazy,” Arrizurieta said. “It’s been maybe hours since you signed your last bill as speaker and you’re going after the bankrupt public health system that got your help?”
Harris, the Rubio spokesman, called Arrizurieta’s account “false,” noting that his role with Bush’s campaign means he is “hardly an impartial source.”
“No one ever suggested the contract was anything other than completely proper, which it was,” Harris said.
The Jackson contract shows how Rubio’s business model initially circumvented a state-
imposed two-year ban on former lawmakers lobbying the legislature. Though Rubio’s new firm’s contract required it to “advocate the interests of JHS before the Florida legislature and local governments,” hospital officials told the ethics investigator that Rubio had promised to work only with municipal and community leaders. Bovo would handle the state lobbying.
Bovo did not return a call for comment. She told the ethics investigator that she and Rubio kept their jobs separate, with the lobbying ban in mind.
“Speaker Rubio had his responsibilities with Florida Strategic Consultants. I had mine,” she said. “Like a law office. You have different employees and they all work in different fields.”
Even so, O’Quinn’s testimony suggests he saw Rubio as the draw. He said he was familiar with Bovo before the contract because she was widely seen as a gatekeeper to the speaker. “You had to go through her to get to him,” O’Quinn said.
Harris said the arrangement was not intended to skirt the lobbying ban. “Marco had nothing to do with the lobbying contract,” he said.
The setup changed in April 2009, when Rubio and Bovo left Broad and Cassel — a change that came about, he later wrote in his memoir, as Rubio decided to enter the Senate race and his partners were “understandably annoyed” that he would be distracted from the business.
Bovo launched her own firm and continued lobbying for Jackson. Rubio created another firm, Marco Rubio P.A., and signed a new contract indicating he would assist the hospital in “developing its community and public affairs strategy.” His monthly pay was cut, from $5,000 to $3,000, until he terminated the contract in September 2009, citing the demands of his Senate campaign.
While he worked for Jackson, records show that Rubio advised the hospital on at least one major policy issue: whether to ask voters and the Miami-Dade County Commission to approve a tax hike to fund operations.
Rubio suggested during a June 2009 meeting of the governing board that hospital officials meet with community leaders and “political partners” to explain Jackson’s dire financial status, according to written minutes of the meeting.
Harris said Rubio advised hospital leaders that they should not seek a tax increase.
But Jackson records show that Rubio submitted a memo to the hospital’s chief lobbyist advising that the only solutions to the financial troubles were a “combination of serious internal changes and new sources of revenue. Both changes will create substantial political and community resistance efforts.”
He went on to suggest a list of community leaders with whom hospital officials should meet to build sympathy for their cause. The list was largely composed of Rubio’s longtime political supporters, including Norman Braman and Benjamin Leon Jr., whose company is among the largest donors to a super PAC backing Rubio’s presidential bid.
Also on the list was Jeb Bush.
Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites contributed to this report.