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Ties That Bind

Will a longtime friend of Marco Rubio’s compromise his larger ambitions?

On April 19, Republican Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a policy breakfast in Washington. The ostensible topic was his proposal for a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, but it wasn’t long before the conversation drifted to vice presidential talk. Since the start of the Republican primary, Rubio has been named at the top of nearly every short list of likely running mates—and for good reason. He is young, charismatic, and popular with both the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. He has a reputation for being serious about policy. He is a Hispanic in a party that badly needs to do better with Hispanic voters. And it hardly hurts that his home state is Florida.

Of course, when the inevitable question arose, Rubio declared in his surprisingly youthful voice, “I don’t want to be the vice president right now.” Was it because he was too inexperienced, the interviewer asked? Rubio, a lively speaker with a canny sense of comic timing, said no. “I’m older than I look,” he explained. “I’ll be forty-one this year, but I feel forty-two.” Later, he said: “Three, four, five, six, seven years from now, if I do a good job as vice president—I’m sorry—if I do a good job as a senator ...I’ll have the chance to do all sorts of things.” The gaffe was striking not least because it was a rare moment in which Rubio seemed to be caught off-balance. But Rubio was adamant that he wasn’t angling to be on the presidential ticket. “I think the Senate is a very valid place to shape and drive American policy, foreign policy, which I enjoy deeply,” he said. “If I were running for vice president, I would have to answer questions about my dog.”

All of these coy denials only seemed to heighten Republican interest. And, in the following days, Rubio did all the things one would expect of someone who wanted to be vice president: He gave a well-received foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution and appeared with Mitt Romney, by that point the all-but-certain nominee, at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. But, in the midst of this media blitz, there was one bit of news that didn’t quite fit: Politico reported that Rubio was planning to hold a fund-raiser at an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant for a Florida congressman named David Rivera.

Given that conservative excitement over Rubio was approaching fever pitch, it was a strange move indeed. For a year and a half, Rivera had been under criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. In September, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had named him one of the 19 most corrupt members of Congress. Rivera, in short, was not the kind of person for whom someone auditioning to be vice president would want to hold a fund-raiser.

But Rivera also happens to be Marco Rubio’s closest friend in politics. And, during the course of their friendship of 20 years, he has been instrumental in Rubio’s rapid rise from West Miami commissioner to U.S. senator. A Republican colleague in the Florida House describes their relationship as “one step below blood.” As a result, if Rubio makes it on to the Republican ticket, questions about his dog may be the least of his problems.

THE SON OF FIRST-GENERATION Cuban immigrants, David Rivera was born in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Miami when he was nine. He went to an evangelical high school and, at the age of 14, volunteered for Youth for Reagan. After that, he was hooked on politics for life. Not long after college, he landed a job as a legislative assistant for Florida Senator Connie Mack. In 1990, at the age of 24, he was executive director of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party. Colleagues attribute his success to a combination of exceptional political smarts and hard work. Rivera had a reputation as the guy who would come in earlier than any other volunteer and leave after the lights had gone out.

It was through his work with Republican campaigns that Rivera met a young college student named Marco Rubio. “They came out of this intensity of the Reagan revolution as very young guys,” says Dennis Baxley, who later served with both men in the Florida House. Rubio had also grown up in Miami, one of four children born to a bartender and a maid, both of them Cuban immigrants. He attended a small college in Missouri on a football scholarship, eventually ending up at the University of Florida. In 1992, when Rubio was 21 and Rivera was 27, they both volunteered for Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s congressional campaign. Their friendship continued during the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential bid, when Rivera was Bob Dole’s South Florida campaign manager and Rubio was the campaign chairman for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

When the 26-year-old Rubio ran for a seat on the West Miami Commission, Rivera donated money to his campaign, according to a forthcoming biography of Rubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia, a reporter for The Washington Post. In 2000, Rivera helped Rubio again in a race for a vacant Florida House seat, recalls J.C. Planas, a Miami lawyer who served with them in the Florida House. “Marco was probably going to get to where he was regardless, but David—especially early on—helped Marco a great deal,” he says. Another former colleague says Rivera looked out for Rubio “like a big brother.” In 2002, Rubio had a chance to return the favor: When Rivera decided to make his own run at the Florida House, Planas remembers that Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, helped with the campaign.

Some observers were puzzled by the close bond between Rubio and Rivera, because outwardly they were so different. Rubio was a devoted family man with boyish good looks—even now, at 40, he still looks like he doesn’t need to shave. “He was a star since the beginning,” says Rebeca Sosa, the mayor of West Miami when Rubio was a commissioner. “He was kind to everyone, so everyone loved Marco.” He was also a dynamic public presence. A former speaker of the Florida House, Allan Bense, recalls a speech Rubio once gave about the American dream that “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

Rivera, by contrast, has puffy half-moons under his eyes, and his black hair is graying at the temples. He is not married and has few interests outside politics. Though people who know him say he is charming in person, he clearly prefers to operate behind the scenes. “He’s not good-looking. He understands politics very well. [But] he’s not the face of anything,” says Jeff Garcia, a Democratic political consultant who ran a congressional campaign against Rivera. And, while Rubio made everything look effortless, Rivera always seemed to be working. One fall, during Rivera’s first term, several Cuban-Americans from the Miami-Dade delegation went river rafting in rural Georgia over a long weekend. One night, when they were watching “SportsCenter” in the cabin, Planas recalls that Rubio ribbed Rivera because, even in the woods, he was wearing his tie tightly knotted at the collar.

Their differences went deeper than appearances. While Rubio is known to be genuinely enthusiastic about policy, Rivera simply loved the game of politics: People who worked with him in the state House described him as “Machiavellian,” “calculating,” and “brilliant.” Rubio, Baxley says, was “the idealist”; Rivera—whom he compared to Karl Rove—understood the “architecture.” He was also fiercely loyal. “If I was ever in a knife fight and was allowed to bring a second, I’d bring David Rivera,” says Fred Brummer, a former Republican colleague of the pair.

After Rivera entered the House, the two men formed the kind of symbiotic partnership that is familiar in politics—Rivera was the Rove to Rubio’s George W. Bush. “David and Marco were joined at the hip,” says Carl Domino, who served with both men. The two politicians even bought a house together in Tallahassee that they shared during the legislative session. Rivera orchestrated Rubio’s election as the House’s first Cuban-American speaker, tirelessly working to secure votes from the freshman class. Rubio then appointed Rivera to be his rules chairman—the person who dictates the legislative agenda. “David wasn’t afraid to bash heads for Marco, and he actually got a little bit of joy out of it,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant in Tallahassee. Bob Levy, also a Tallahassee political consultant, told me that, when he needed to lobby for clients, it was Rivera he went to see. “Any time he told me bad news,” Levy recalls, “I knew it was coming from Marco.”

With Rivera as his enforcer, Rubio was free to build coalitions instead of tearing people down, and the result was that he was popular with nearly all of his colleagues—Democrats and Republicans alike. “No one got mad at him,” says Bense, the former speaker. Before long, it became clear that Rubio was headed for bigger things. Positioning himself to the right of the moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist, he advocated for steeper cuts in property taxes, opposed environmental regulations, and filed suit against Crist for circumventing the legislature in signing a deal expanding gambling in the state. At one point, Rubio toured the state soliciting ideas from Floridians in town halls. And he developed his own special interests, too. He created a committee dedicated to developmental disorders and advocated for a bill that mandated insurance coverage for kids with autism. (By contrast, colleagues were hard-pressed to come up with an issue that Rivera was passionate about, apart from Cuba policy.)

Rubio and Rivera made a formidable team. “[Rubio] would not have accomplished as much, he would not have been as successful, and it goes both ways,” says Garcia. But their bond could sometimes make it difficult for other legislators to get close to Rubio. “I think several members of my delegation will tell you that our relationship with Senator Rubio would probably have been much better had it not been for David’s presence,” says Planas. “I don’t really understand the dynamic of their friendship.”

It was only fitting that, when Rubio decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2009, Rivera’s allies helped him, doing finance and political consulting, according to Federal Election Commission records. A year later, Rivera decided to make his own run for the House. “There was all this cross-pollination” between the teams, says one source close to Rubio’s campaign.

PUBLIC CORRUPTION was widespread in Florida during the years that Rubio and Rivera served in the Florida House. In 2008, a Justice Department report found that Florida had convicted more officials for public corruption during the previous decade than any other state. Miami, as one Democratic operative put it, would “make New Jersey and Chicago blush.”

In this case, the corruption was bred by the GOP’s dominance of state politics. Flush with cash, the Republican Party gave out credit cards to a number of leaders and staffers. In 2010, it emerged that several cardholders had charged more than $7 million from 2006 to 2009 for expenses like limousine services and rooms at the Intercontinental. The worst offender was the party chairman, Jim Greer, who used GOP funds to fly on a private jet and spent $5,600 on his son’s baptism as well as more than $1,200 for a stay at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In 2010, Greer was charged with six criminal counts after allegedly embezzling almost $200,000 from the party and funneling the money into his political-consulting firm. “I had never seen it reach this kind of level in Florida,” says Ben Wilcox, then the executive director of the state’s Common Cause chapter. “They seemed to have this sense of entitlement—that, if you raise campaign money, you can use it for whatever purpose you want to use it for, including personal expenses.”

As it turned out, the problems were far more widespread than credit cards. And soon, the spotlight fell on David Rivera. In October 2010, prompted by a series of reports in The Miami Herald, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney launched an investigation of Rivera over allegations of official misconduct, unlawful compensation, fraud, and theft. Their inquiry revealed that Rivera’s finances were almost impenetrably complex. Among other things, investigators suspected Rivera of trying to hide payments from the owner of a Miami dog track who had hired him in 2006 to help pass a local referendum permitting slot machines at gambling sites.

In Florida, legislators are legally permitted to work as consultants. However, although the $1 million contract explicitly named Rivera as the “primary provider of services,” the dog-track owner paid the money to a new company called Millennium Marketing, which had no other business of any significance and whose chief officers were Rivera’s mother and his godmother. Rivera’s mother had no marketing experience, she told investigators, but her son said he would do “the majority of the work” and they would split the money between them. After Millennium received the first $500,000, it transferred $132,000 dollars to Rivera in several installments from 2007 to 2010—sums he initially did not include on his state House disclosure forms.

In a sworn statement, Rivera’s mother said that the money was a loan, not compensation, and provided copies of promissory notes as evidence. But, when asked about the computer holding the originals, she told investigators she had thrown it away. Without the computer, investigators said they were unable to establish whether or not she was telling the truth about the payment. In an e-mail to me, the Rivera campaign wrote that it is “commonplace practice for marketing firms to subcontract consultants” and that Rivera had paid back the loans “in full with interest.” But the investigators’ reports show Rivera paying back loans to Millennium only after he had received additional money from his mother or godmother, the company’s officers. The Miami Herald and other sources have reported that the FBI and the IRS are still investigating the matter, although the Rivera campaign says it has not been contacted by either agency.

Rivera was a prolific fund-raiser, and investigators also examined the millions he solicited in campaign contributions for various races from 2004 to 2010. Investigators alleged that Rivera had used campaign funds, which he deposited in four different accounts, to pay off his own credit card bills and to cover “personal” expenses, such as Blockbuster video rentals, pet care, dry cleaning, dental care, a ticket to an off-Broadway show in New York called Perfect Crime, and travel expenses for his girlfriend. (According to the State Attorney, Rivera justified the expenses for the latter by claiming, “As a single man running as a political conservative, it was necessary for him to appear at campaign-related events with a female escort.”) Investigators also alleged that Rivera had double-billed thousands of dollars in travel expenses to the state and to his campaign funds.

Rivera denies spending campaign funds on personal expenses. His campaign says that the allegations against him are a “blatant lie” and statements attributed to him in the State Attorney’s report were “completely fabricated”; Rivera is now considering legal action.

Investigators also looked into Rivera’s payments to his campaign adviser, Esther Nuhfer, a Republican consultant in her late thirties. In 2009, Rivera launched a campaign for the state Senate, raising nearly $1 million for the effort. Then, in February 2010, he abandoned his bid in order to run for Congress. Sometime after that, Rivera paid Nuhfer $250,000 for her services, nearly all of that in $50,000 checks that were written after the state Senate campaign had concluded, but, investigators allege, were backdated to look as if they were written earlier. (The Rivera campaign denies backdating checks.) The checks amounted to about 25 percent of the total money raised—well above the political-consulting industry standard of 10 to 15 percent. After she received the payment from Rivera, Nuhfer made a series of cash withdrawals in three months that amounted to $190,000. During questioning, Nuhfer stated that she had never given any of the money she was paid for campaign work back to Rivera. She told investigators the cash was used to pay campaign workers and fund get-out-the-vote efforts, and she provided handwritten notes and spreadsheet printouts as proof. She also told investigators she had not kept records of the fees Rivera had paid her for various campaigns and that, if she had a contract, she was not sure whether it was for the state Senate campaign or the congressional campaign.

In April, the State Attorney’s office dropped its investigation, explaining that it could not prosecute Rivera because of the lapsed statute of limitations and Florida’s lax campaign finance laws. But its 172-page investigative report raised plenty of uncomfortable questions for Rivera. For instance, he had claimed income from consulting work for USAID, which has no record of working with him, though it is possible USAID paid him through a third party. He had also listed Millennium Marketing as a secondary form of income from 2002 to 2005, even though the company did not yet exist. In its final report, the State Attorney’s office concluded: “As part of this inquiry we have been confronted with the fact that an elected official over a period of many years may essentially live off of a combination of contributions made in support of public office candidacies.”

After the inquiry was dropped, The Miami Herald and the city’s public radio station, WLRN, asked Rubio about the investigations of his friend. “They’re serious. David knows that. I think he needs to address those,” he said. “He’s my friend. I’ve known him before he was elected to anything and I was elected to anything. ... And that’s not going to change the friendship.”

UNFORTUNATE associations are most damaging to candidates when they confirm the public’s broader suspicion—baseless or not—about the politician himself. Barack Obama’s relationships with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers threatened his candidacy because they fueled some voters’ suspicion that Obama was un-American. Rubio’s association with Rivera could prove similarly problematic because he has also struggled with stories about mismanaged finances.

In the late summer of 2009, Rubio met a Republican media consultant and blogger named Chris Ingram at a Starbucks in Tampa to ask for advice about the Senate race. During their conversation, Ingram asked Rubio if he was concerned about anything that his opponents might use against him. Rubio told him he was worried about a charge he’d made on the Republican Party credit card for kitchen flooring in his house. But, when Ingram pressed him for details, Rubio was “vague.”

When Rubio arrived in the Florida House, he was not a wealthy man. His 2000 tax returns show that his income totaled just $82,000. In 2003, he reported an income of $122,000, but he had a $170,000 mortgage and more than $120,000 in student loans. From 2000 to 2004, Rubio reported either a negative net worth or a net worth of zero. When he assumed his speakership in 2006, however, he was working at a blue-chip law firm, with an annual income of $318,000.

As a leader in the state GOP, Rubio also had access to one of the infamous Republican Party credit cards, which he’d used to make some questionable purchases, totaling around $16,000. Some of the charges were small, like grocery store bills or a ticket to the Natural History Museum. But, in March 2010, The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times revealed a $10,000 charge for a Rubio family reunion at a resort in Georgia. The Rubio camp has maintained this was an honest error: There was supposed to be a GOP event occurring at that hotel. Rubio told the Herald that his travel agent had mistakenly billed 20 rooms on his party card instead of his personal card and that, when he discovered the error, he “had to collect payments from my family members and send the checks directly to American Express.” Eventually, Rubio admitted that the episode had been a “major mistake.”

For Ingram, the explanation didn’t add up. “Why did ... his family members think they didn’t have to pay when they checked out?” After their initial meeting, Ingram and Rubio had disagreed about whether Rubio should release his credit card statements before Crist did. Eventually, Ingram became frustrated with Rubio’s evasive responses and spoke about the kitchen flooring charges with The Tampa Tribune. Rubio’s aide told the newspaper that Ingram was taking revenge after having been “rejected” by the campaign but refused to directly address the question of whether he had purchased flooring for his home with the party card.

In April 2010, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the IRS had launched a preliminary investigation into Rubio, Jim Greer, and Greer’s subordinate, Delmar Johnson, for their personal uses of the Republican Party credit cards. Two years later, the IRS has not brought any charges. Rubio has said that he directly paid off any personal charges on the card on a monthly basis. For some, however, his actions raise serious ethical questions. “He had his own personal cards. Why did he do this, unless he was trying to get the party to pay for things that were personal expenses?” says Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, who is writing a book about the Florida Republican Party.

During his Senate campaign, questions were also raised about Rubio’s use of political campaign committees. At the start of 2003, Rubio opened what is known as a Committee of Continuous Existence (CCE), which raised more than $200,000 over the next 18 months. CCEs were originally designed for huge, dues-collecting organizations, such as unions, to participate in political activities without listing members. But, in the last ten years, Florida politicians have used CCEs to raise unlimited funds with minimal scrutiny.

Throughout 2003 and 2004, Rubio’s committee periodically dispensed money to Rubio and his relatives, including $7,000 to himself and $5,700 to his wife to reimburse her for meals, gas, and office supplies. Because of the loose reporting requirements for CCEs, it was hard to tell whether these expenses were legitimate or not. In March 2010, The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times reported that Rubio had “failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses—including [the] $7,000 he paid himself.” A Rubio spokesman, Todd Harris, conceded to the paper that Rubio had made a mistake.

In response to questions about these aspects of Rubio’s past, his spokesman Alex Conant told me, “All of these issues were discussed at length during the senator’s competitive primary and general election campaign, which he went on to win by a wide margin.” But, while it’s true that questions about Rubio’s finances surfaced during the campaign, they didn’t strike a chord with voters. In part, this was because, in the context of Florida politics, Rubio’s issues with the party credit card paled in comparison with the egregious abuses by colleagues like Greer. “Voters just weren’t listening,” says Eric Johnson, a political adviser for Crist. Johnson argues that these aspects of Rubio’s past will play differently on the national stage. “I’d be surprised with all this stuff that he’d vet for a Cabinet job,” says Johnson. “So I don’t know how he’d vet for vice president.”

THERE ARE SIGNS that Rubio might be nervous about questions surrounding his past. In March, Politico reported that his PAC had paid more than $40,000 to an outside firm to perform opposition research on him—presumably in order to figure out what other researchers might be able to unearth. He also moved up the date of his memoir so that it will appear before the biography by Roig-Franzia—the reporter who first discovered that Rubio’s parents were not exiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, as Rubio had long claimed, but left before the dictator came to power.

Rubio’s allies in Florida say that he would be smart to distance himself from Rivera. So far, though, he has refused to do so. “One of the things that’s startled me is that only in Washington are people expected to turn their backs on friends when things may not be going well for them,” he told Politico. One source close to Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign questioned his decision, saying: “I absolutely understand this long-term friendship. But I think that Marco should be focusing on himself.”

Among national Republicans, some don’t believe either the stories about Rivera or Rubio’s own financial missteps will hurt Rubio. “The facts have to be so damaging to really make an impact these days,” says a Republican media consultant in Washington. “These things come out, they are quickly consumed, and you go on to the next thing.” But not everyone agrees. “Everybody had heard that there are some rumors and innuendos out there,” one Republican powerbroker told me. “No one I know has fully probed it to figure out what that’s all about.” He added: “If you raise some peccadilloes, even if they don’t stick, it still raises enough doubt. Why go there? I don’t think you need him to deliver Florida.” Ed Rogers, a Republican media consultant, puts it more pithily: “‘The IRS investigation against me fell flat’ is not a good story.” A source close to Rubio’s Senate campaign sees it as a case of lost potential: “He is smart, articulate, and he is going to make a tremendous U.S. senator. But there are worries that you are who you surround yourself with.”

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.