Florida Republicans have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the proper response to a bracing ethics alarm. They can vote against Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed opponent of Governor Charley Crist in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
Whatever Rubio’s virtues, ideological or otherwise, he set off the alarm with this: according to a carefully researched story in the Miami Herald, Rubio used his party credit card—his business credit card, issued to him by the GOP to use for party-related expenses only—to pay for things like:
- $765 at Apple’s online store
- $25.76 from Everglades Lumber
- $53.49 at Winn-Dixie in Miami
- $68.33 at Happy Wine in Miami
- $78.10 for two purchases at Farm Stores in suburban Miami.
- $412 at All Fusion Electronics, a music equipment store in Miami
In addition, he may have given the card to staffers who also charged questionable expenses on it.
Hear that alarm yet?
Rubio is now fulminating that the records were obtained and released in shady fashion by political opponents, but he’s trying to change the subject; it doesn’t address that ringing sound. Election law holds that party credit cards are to be used only for expenses directly related to winning elections, such as fundraising, voter registration and candidate recruitment. Anything else is liable to be a violation of IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations. But this isn’t a matter of misunderstanding election laws. Rubio used his company’s credit card to pay his own bills.
Why should this disqualify Rubio for high political office? If you can’t answer that, you shouldn’t be a U.S. Senator either. This is using your employer’s money, without permission, for your own benefit—stealing, in other words. Ethically, it is virtually indistinguishable from paying your bills by skimming money from the company treasury. Rubio says he was always going to pay back the funds, which is exactly what every single embezzler says after he or she is caught.
Repeat after me, Florida voters: you don’t elect people to offices carrying the public trust when you can’t trust them. The number of legislators, state and national, who have misused and abused taxpayer funds for their own purposes just within the last ten years is so long that the list would triple the size of this post. Most of them had no prior record of financial misconduct until well after they were elected, and the opportunities for enrichment still gradually corrupted them. Does it make any sense to elect a man to the U.S. Senate who already has shown that he doesn’t comprehend or respect basic fiduciary duties? It does not.
It also makes no sense to elect leaders whose own conduct encourages, rather than discourages, unethical conduct in our society.
Why didn’t Rubio’s own ethics alarms start ringing the second he considered the unethical idea of using his party’s credit to pay for his personal needs? You should know the answer to that question too: his alarms don’t work properly. The U.S. Senate, a place famously hard on the operation of the best ethics alarms, is no place to begin repairing malfunctioning ones.
Lawyers who use their client’s funds for personal expenses get disbarred, in Florida and everywhere else, every day of the year. They get disbarred because this conduct is considered to be sufficient proof that they lack the character and ethical instincts to be trusted by future clients, and the bar associations and courts protect the public by making sure such lawyers don’t get the chance to misuse those clients’ funds too. It does not make any sense at all to apply a lesser ethics standard to a candidate for U.S. Senator.
No, Marco Rubio’s own ethics alarms aren’t ringing, but the sound is still loud and clear. Listen, Florida Republicans. It tells you all you need to know about a candidate you can’t afford to trust.