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Fla. rep failed to explain thousands in expenses

Associated Press Featured Article

January 31, 2011

Fla. rep failed to explain thousands in expenses

By Associated Press ,

MIAMI (AP) — Freshman U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who is facing a state criminal investigation of his finances, paid himself nearly $60,000 in unexplained campaign reimbursements over the eight years he served in the state legislature, an Associated Press (News - Alert) examination of his records shows.

Serving as his own campaign treasurer, the Miami Republican didn't report any details for more than a third of the roughly $160,000 in expenses for which he reimbursed himself, other than simply calling them campaign expenses, according to the records.

The AP review also shows his total reimbursements far exceeded those claimed by 12 other top Florida state legislators who served with him. Those lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — usually gave at least some explanation of how the money had been spent, as required by Florida law. Rivera denies wrongdoing.

The payments mark the latest questionable financial dealings by Rivera, whose personal and campaign finances are being investigated by state and local authorities. Rivera's woes have drawn attention from the U.S. House's Republican leaders, who say they are monitoring the situation.

Responding to questions about the unexplained payments, Rivera insists he followed state and federal law and never took money that wasn't a legitimate reimbursement. It would be against state law to divert campaign donations to personal use.

"Reimbursements were for campaign–related expenditures such as travel, meals, and supplies. The campaign reports speak for themselves. All information provided was accurate and all expenses properly reported," he said in a statement Thursday through his campaign.

But James Woodruff II, an election law expert at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, said candidates are supposed to give some details of how they spent the money they are getting back — simply listing "campaign expenses" doesn't cut it.

"That's a new one. On most forms I've seen, they at least put 'office expense' or 'travel,'" Woodruff said.

The AP's examination of Rivera's campaign records show that:

— In 2002, Rivera lent his campaign $45,000, for which he was reimbursed. He listed about $10,000 more in reimbursement for travel and office supplies.

— In 2004, Rivera lent the campaign nothing but received more than $10,000 in campaign reimbursements, detailing none of his expenses.

— In 2006, Rivera took $24,932 in reimbursements in regular increments throughout the campaign. But on Nov. 2, just days before the election, Rivera loaned that exact amount back to the campaign. It would seem unnecessary to give back money at the last minute for legitimate expenses.

— In 2008, Rivera's campaign made eight reimbursements to him for $29,433, of which only $5,000 was explained, as thank–you gifts to supporters.

— In 2010, Rivera dropped a planned state Senate bid to run for an open congressional seat. His state campaign reimbursed him for $38,608, about $15,000 going to repay a loan he'd made to the campaign and to cover travel expenses. The remaining $23,000 was simply listed as campaign reimbursements.

During his congressional campaign, for which he hired a separate treasurer, Rivera did detail his reimbursements, and they were much smaller, though he initially failed to disclose any details regarding a $6,000 loan he made to the campaign.

Rivera, 45, was elected to the first of four terms in the state House in 2002 and rose to become its budget chairman before his successful bid for Congress. His finances first drew attention after it was revealed that he declared little beyond his $29,000 state salary during his years in the Florida House, along with several contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He deleted those entries after USAID said it never employed him, and he then claimed he was working for USAID subcontractors. He has refused to say what he did or what he earned.

Florida statutes require reimbursements to candidates be listed and include the name of the person or business the candidate paid, although none of the candidates reviewed by the AP did so. But even if Rivera or other legislators violated Florida campaign law, by pocketing money or not correctly filling out forms, the penalties are minor — a failure to properly document campaign spending could generate fines of $1,000 per count or possibly a misdemeanor charge. Only the 2010 campaign cycle remains within the statute of limitations, said Florida campaign finance expert Mark Herron.

Still, other lawmakers were more likely to use the general categories described by Woodruff, and they received smaller sums, the AP's examination showed.

For example, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is now a freshman U.S. senator and a close friend of Rivera, was reimbursed more than $6,000 in expenses during his first legislative campaign in 2002. But the rising Republican star, whose later reimbursements were smaller, detailed every payment with explanations such as "travel tolls" and "laser printer."

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned after he was indicted by a grand jury over questionable use of state funds, took $21,212 in reimbursements over his six years in Tallahassee. But the Panhandle Republican's reports detailed generally where the money went.

Likewise, likely future Republican State House Speaker Will Weatherford itemized with categories like travel or meals for the more than $33,000 he received during three campaigns.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, a former House Democratic leader, reported $9,622 in reimbursements during his three terms in Tallahassee. In 2006, he failed to detail what his reimbursements were for, but the total was less than $3,000.

In Washington, Democrats have jumped on Rivera, noting that the GOP campaigned on the theme of needing candidates like him who were willing to live within their means.

Asked this week about Rivera, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said GOP leaders are watching the situation.

"As I understand the allegations against Mr. Rivera, they don't involve any of his congressional service," Boehner said Wednesday. "These are activities that took place before he was elected. And I think we are waiting to see how this plays out."


AP Reporters Ben Evans in Washington, and Bill Kaczor and Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee contributed to his report.

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