Gov. Charlie Crist has been pushing an investigation of the Florida GOP credit-card mess. It may end up working as well as the rest of his campaign tacks — in other words, it may backfire.
Since February, Crist has flogged Marco Rubio, his opponent in Florida’s GOP Senate primary, for charging more than $100,000, including thousands in personal expenses, on party-issued plastic. Press conferences, web ads, television debates — Crist talked about it everywhere. Then, earlier this month, he went a step farther, calling on the U.S. Attorney in Tallahassee to conduct a “full, independent investigation . . . including but not limited to potential credit card abuses and financial irregularities that might have IRS implications.” Crist, sinking in the polls, saw Rubio’s credit card as his ticket back to contention.
This week, Rubio’s expenses are once again back in the spotlight, but so is Crist, thanks to a growing ethics cloud around the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) that threatens to rattle both campaigns. Three federal agencies — the FBI, the IRS, and the U.S. Attorney’s office — are investigating the possible misuse of credit cards by state GOP officials, with Rubio reportedly coming under focus by the IRS. Disturbingly, many of the RPOF politicos under the feds’ spotlight have close ties to both the Crist and the Rubio camps. The question is whether certain RPOF leaders knowingly misused their tax-exempt funds by enabling party brass to load up American Express cards with personal expenses.
According to the Miami Herald, the current probe, which started as an investigation into former Florida speaker and Rubio ally Ray Sansom, has blossomed into a full-bore inquiry into former RPOF chairman Jim Greer, Crist’s close friend and booster. Former RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson and Rubio himself are also included. Sansom, for his part, already is dealing with theft and conspiracy charges for funneling millions of tax dollars toward a developer.
If the feds find that that any of the officials abused GOP funds, they could face charges of tax evasion and an expanded criminal inquiry. As of Tuesday, Rubio said that he had not been contacted by federal investigators, even as reports emerged that the IRS had opened a “primary” investigation into him, Johnson, and Greer.
The question facing Rubio is this: According to documents obtained by the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, Rubio allegedly billed the RPOF for more than $100,000 during his two-year tenure as speaker, for items such as plane tickets, hardware from Apple’s online store, and products from a wine store. Since those documents came to light, Rubio pledged to repay the party for double-billing several plane flights, and on Wednesday, he sent the RPOF a check for $2,417 for the tickets. “These are the only expenses we have been able to identify in our records that should be reimbursed,” he said. Fixing a checkbook oversight is one thing, but should Rubio also have declared certain RPOF expenses as income?
Crist, of course, says yes. “We don’t believe it’s income. It’s not,” Rubio retorts. “Whatever the law is, we’re going to comply, but I don’t think it’s income.” “There is absolutely nothing to this,” adds Todd Harris, a Rubio adviser. “Anyone who is looking into it or the investigation will quickly come to the same conclusion.”
As much as Team Crist may want to make this election about Rubio’s mismanaged credit cards, the governor’s allies are the ones who may ultimately come under closer legal and ethical examination. Al Hoffman, the former RNC finance chairman, was interviewed by the FBI several weeks ago. “Definitely they asked about the relationship between the Crist campaign and the party, relative to the co-mingling funds,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “I believe they’re after any federal election law violations, tax avoidance issues, and criminal fraud. . . . They had Jim Greer’s travel expenses and wanted me to react to some of the issues surrounding that debacle. . . . There wasn’t one single question asked about Marco Rubio.”
Greer (the hand-picked chairman whom Crist defended until he resigned) and Johnson spent more than $1 million on RPOF credit charges last year, on flowers, greens fees, meals, and hotels. They also were able to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from the party via a consulting business they set up on the side to manage party donations. When Attorney General Bill McCollum heard about this, he asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct a criminal inquiry. Though Crist has been supportive of investigations of “everyone” who used a party credit card, his close association with Greer, who’s at the center of this storm, is a political liability.
During his back and forth with Rubio over expenses, Crist has always maintained that he was above the fray, since he never used an RPOF credit card. While he may not have used one personally, the plot thickened for the embattled governor on Wednesday when the Orlando Sentinel reported on recently revealed hotel-invoice records. Those records show that Crist, along with future U.S. senator George LeMieux (his former chief of staff), and others stayed at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort in early January 2009 on the RPOF’s dime, for, of all things, Greer’s reelection as RPOF chairman. Greer and Johnson picked up the $26,000 tab for, among other things, Crist’s “presidential suite,” mini-bars, and in-room movies.
Both Republicans’ responses to the news of investigations this week are indicative of how they hope to use, or brush off, the credit-card issue, as well as growing concern about a public perception of the RPOF as having a culture of corruption. The latter may ultimately influence the race more than any bickering over expenses. “Getting this information out in the open will be the best way to deal with it,” Rubio said. “As far as my spending is concerned, it was for legitimate political purposes. When I made personal charges, I paid for them directly to American Express . . . I welcome the chance to set the record straight once and for all.”
While Rubio hopes to make sunshine the best disinfectant for the Sunshine State GOP, Amanda Hennenberg, a Crist spokeswoman, has rushed to tie the rumored investigations to Rubio’s character. “This speaks to a wider issue that undercuts Speaker Rubio’s credibility when it comes to his fiscal conservative credentials, as well as raises questions about this political insider’s use of public office for his own personal enrichment,” she said in a statement. “As we have said before, when it comes to Speaker Rubio, it’s not what we know, it’s what we don’t know YET” (her capitals).
Who will be hurt most by these investigations? NBC’s First Read observes: “This is a reminder that Rubio, despite his popularity with the GOP base, isn’t that well known and not completely vetted. And it’s not helpful to him in trying to woo indie voters in a general if attack ads can factually claim ‘under federal investigation.’” That’s true, but both campaigns are now equally tarred by their association, at the highest level, with a dysfunctional, potentially criminally liable state GOP.
Indeed, for Crist, slinging mud was marginally effective in the short term, but it’s helped conservative voters to become increasingly fed up with the entire RPOF operation, which has hands in both the Crist and Rubio campaigns. As the Orlando Sentinel rightly urged in an editorial, “Republicans ought to be outraged. At the dinners, at Mr. Rubio’s $100 haircut, at Mr. Greer’s term heading the party, and at Mr. Crist for having Mr. Greer run it.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A passage in this article was amended to specify that Rubio is only reportedly under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, while the Florida GOP the subject of a wider federal probe.