By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
In what has become a regular habit for Marco Rubio’s campaigns, the Federal Elections Commission has again flagged the senator’s presidential committee for possibly skirting federal law limiting the types and amounts of donations it can receive.
The FEC’s latest questions about questionable behavior indicate a pattern that shows Rubio’s political committees have played fast and loose with rules governing campaign financing, according to Noah Bookbinder, executive director for the elections watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington (CREW).
“There seems to be a willingness by Sen. Rubio’s campaign and groups associated with it to doing things that are outside the rules and are not allowed,” Bookbinder said. “They push the envelope. It’s only when they feel pressure that they have retreated from those kind of tactics.”
In December, CREW requested that the Senate Ethics Committee investigate Rubio for allegedly paying his book author Mark Salter $20,000 for “strategic consulting” around the same time both worked on the 2012 memoir. The watchdog group also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service last year against Conservative Solutions Project, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization that spent $8 million in television ads promoting the Florida Republican.
Meanwhile, Rubio’s campaign has been racking up inquiries from the FEC regarding its donors. Since the beginning of the year, the commission has identified more than $1.2 million in questionable donations.
According to a March 28 letter sent to Rubio committee treasurer Lisa Lisker, FEC analyst Laura Beaufort cited $783,823 in “excessive, prohibited and impermissible” contributions that the campaign received in February. For comparison, the campaign for Jeb Bush, who dropped out prior to Rubio, received $29,189 in prohibited donations during the same period, according to the FEC.
The FEC letter was sent two weeks after Rubio suspended his presidential campaign following an embarrassing second-place finish in Florida’s winner-take-all Republican primary to frontrunner Donald Trump, who trounced the senator by 18 points on his home turf.
The 44-year-old pol, who said he will retire from the Senate after his term ends, still hopes to play a spoiler if the nomination is contested at the Republican National Convention this summer. According to recent media reports, Rubio intends to keep the delegates he won.
On the outside chance Rubio were to become the nominee through a contested convention, it would appear the campaign intends to maintain its war chest for the general election until told otherwise.
In an April 12 response to the FEC, Lisker said the campaign is re-designating 84 contributions received in January and February for the general election that total a little over $1 million. Yet only 16 contributions totaling $119,950 are being refunded.
Rubio’s Senate spokeswoman Kristen Morrell did not respond to emails seeking comment. Over the phone, one of his aides told FloridaBulldog.org that Rubio’s office only accepts media inquiries submitted electronically. Lisker ignored multiple requests for comment via voicemail at her office and home.
Since 2009, Rubio’s Senate and presidential committees have received 23 “request for additional information” letters, or RFAIs, according to the FEC’s website. The letters typically alert treasurers to questionable contributions and request an explanation as to why their campaigns accepted possibly illegal donations. In many cases, those contributions are either refunded to the donor or applied to a general election if the donation was incorrectly logged for a primary election.
In 2012, Rubio’s committee agreed to pay an $8,000 civil penalty to the FEC after the commission determined it accepted $210,173 in excessive contributions during his senate campaign six years ago. The sloppy bookkeeping has persisted through his presidential campaign. Last September, it refunded more than $120,000 in contributions the FEC tagged as excessive.
In a February RFAI, FEC analyst Beaufort documented $540,676 in “excessive, prohibited and impermissible” contributions the Rubio presidential committee received in January. In late March, Lisker notified the FEC that the campaign had sent refunds to 45 of the 101 donors listed in the February RFAI.
Beaufort’s most recent RFAI included a 31-page list of 93 donors who gave more than the maximum $2,700 limit allowed per individual per election. Beaufort also singled out $10,000 in excessive contributions from two Super PACs, $6,710 in prohibited contributions by individuals with a foreign address, and $2,500 combined from three organizations not registered with the FEC.
“The frequency of these additional inquiries and other potential problems with Sen. Rubio’s campaigns is a little bit alarming,” Bookbinder said. “We should really be figuring out how we can reign in people disregarding or breaking the rules.”