Jay Weaver, Beth Reinhard and Lucy Morgan in the St. Petersburg Times:
Federal law enforcement agencies have launched a criminal investigation into the use of American Express cards issued by the Republican Party of Florida to elected officials and staff, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tallahassee, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service are all involved in the inquiry, which grew out of the state investigation into former House Speaker Ray Sansom. He was indicted on criminal charges that he stashed $6 million in the state budget for an airplane hangar for a friend and campaign donor.
In the federal case, Sansom and others could be charged with making false statements on their tax returns and tax evasion stemming from hundreds of thousands dollars in charges on party credit cards.
A spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, Katie Betta, said she could not confirm the investigation nor make any comments. Coming in a high-stakes election year, the investigation could expose the inner-workings of a party that has dominated state government and raked in millions of dollars from lobbyists and special interests.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:
The IRS is investigating that credit card unfortunateness with Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.
This all looks pretty preliminary. But what’s fascinating about this to me is that even if this ended up being profoundly damaging to Rubio, it’s really not clear to me that Crist can stay in the GOP primary. He was already disliked by the right of his party. But he’s now gone so far in tipping his hand about an independent run, I’m not sure there’s any going back.
Erick Erickson at Redstate:
Remember those credit card expenditures that Crist has been attacking Rubio over? If you don’t, Charlie’s hand picked Florida Republican Party Chairman, Jim Greer, and Executive Director Delmar Johnson, passed out American Express cards for Republican officials to serve the party’s purposes.
Johnson alone spent something like $100,000.00 in one month on his AmEx, no doubt taking lessons from Charlie Crist’s $10,000.00 mini-bar raids on taxpayer dime while in Europe.
Crist raised the issue after taking without permission Marco Rubio’s credit card statement. Rubio, serving as Florida Speaker, had one of the cards. Well, now Charlie’s Chairman, Jim Greer, along with Delmar Johnson are under federal investigation.
Along the way, though, Marco Rubio is also being looked at. Rubio used the party credit card several times for personal expenditures, but then repaid the money. The IRS will be looking into whether he abused his credit card for personal expenditures.
Given what we know already, the headline is more sensational than the facts, but no doubt the left will use it as a club. So will Crist while trying very hard to ignore that he himself and those he put in place at the party are the ones who set this all up from start to finish.
While Rubio was legally permitted to use GOP credit cards on party-related expenses, the far-right former House Speaker had charges that included “repairs to the family minivan, grocery bills, plane tickets for his wife, and purchases from retailers ranging from a wine store near his home to Apple’s on-line store.”
Rubio is, of course, currently the leading Republican Senate candidate. As a rule, federal investigations during a political campaign are inconvenient — voters are sometimes skeptical about backing suspected criminals — but for all I know, Florida GOP primary voters may believe that laws have a well-known liberal bias.
That said, headlines such as “Rubio under federal investigation” are the kind of developments that might influence Gov. Charlie Crist’s campaign plans, and for that matter, give hope to Florida Democrats who still think Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) might surprise some people.
I’m sure this will turn out fine, since the IRS isn’t part of the constitution, and James Madison believed that politicians can use their party American Express card to fix dents in the family minivan.
That brings us to the timing of this investigation. It certainly looks interesting that the DoJ and Treasury decided to start a probe in the middle of a hotly-contested race for the US Senate, but to be fair, the scandal arose just a few weeks ago, thanks to leaks that had to have originated with current or former state GOP officials. Allegations of tax evasion and misuse of campaign funds should get law enforcement’s attention when they surface, and if that puts the state GOP in a bad position — assuming anything comes of these initial probes — the politics of it seem more controlled by the leakers than the DoJ and Treasury.
The Rubio campaign says that there is nothing to this at all and points to their reimbursements in covering their charges. However, it’s a lesson to candidates everywhere to handle their own business with their own cards, and for political parties to tightly control party funds.
UPDATE: Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads