Real estate dealings have hampered Rubio's finances

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Posted: Jun 08, 2015 2:36 AM
Real estate dealings have hampered Rubio's finances

During Marco Rubio's first year in the Florida Legislature in 2000, the then 29-year-old lawmaker filled out the required forms detailing his personal finances. On the line listing his net worth, Rubio wrote: "0."

Since then, he has risen to lead the state House as speaker, won election to the U.S. Senate and earned at least $4.5 million at a series of six-figure jobs and by writing a best-selling memoir. Yet his net worth has improved only modestly.

Like many Americans in the days since the recession, Rubio and his family — he has four children — have struggled in the housing market.

Factor in some questionable moves with money and a hefty load of student loans, and it's clear that the Republican presidential candidate's real estate dealings often have been a drag on his finances despite an income most would relish.

"He's like any normal American with four kids that has a mortgage," said Bernie Navarro, a past president of the Miami-based Latin Builders Association, who has advised Rubio on his real estate transactions. "He goes through what any normal family goes through, living with a salary, and he has to make adjustments."

Rubio made two in the past few weeks:

—he sold a home in Tallahassee, Florida, that he owned with a former colleague. That freed Rubio from a monthly payment on an interest-only loan and the cost of upkeep. But he lost money on the deal.

—he consolidated the debt on his primary residence in West Miami, Florida. The original mortgage required only payments of interest on the principal in its first decade. Rubio has only paid off about 4 percent of overall principal since buying the house.

At end of last year, Rubio was worth no more than $355,000, according to an analysis of his personal financial disclosures records filed with the Senate. That does not include any equity he may have in his West Miami home or proceeds expected from his second book, published in December.

Rubio, 44, has written and spoken of being torn between a drive for public service and the need to support his family. At times, he has made decisions that put politics ahead of his personal comfort or financial security.

He and his wife, Jeanette, moved in with his mother-in-law to make ends meet at the start of his career. Late last year, he liquidated a retirement account, saying he might need the cash for everything from a new refrigerator to college for his eldest daughter.

At other points, Rubio's political connections have helped financially.

One of Rubio's biggest political backers, Miami billionaire Norman Braman, hired Rubio as his lawyer after Rubio left the Florida Legislature in 2008, and Braman funded a teaching position at Florida International University that Rubio still holds.

Braman's foundation also pays Rubio's wife to advise it on charitable giving.

Rubio isn't shy about his relative lack of wealth, which is a far cry from the financial standing of his fellow Floridian and rival for the Republican nomination, former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Rubio told conservative activists in Nevada last week that "the latest one I've heard now from some is I'm not rich enough to be president."

In an interview, Rubio said, "The cost of living goes up, and you can just imagine how people who make a quarter of what I do face today."

Rubio's career began in politics, and he rarely has not held office or worked for those who do.

After graduating from the University of Miami's law school in 1996, the then-25-year-old worked as the South Florida coordinator for Bob Dole's presidential campaign. Dole lost soundly to President Bill Clinton, but Rubio impressed Florida GOP powerbrokers; one, Al Cardenas, offered him a job.

Rubio had planned to join a local prosecutor's office after the election, but the job paid less than $30,000. Cardenas was offering $57,000.

Rubio wrote in "An American Son," his 2012 memoir: "I wanted to be a prosecutor. I wanted to gain courtroom experience. I relished the excitement of trying cases and had little interest in the land use and zoning law that Al practiced. But I had student loans to repay. I wanted to get married. And I wanted to help support my family so my father could at last retire."

Despite the financial incentive, the job at Cardenas' firm couldn't hold Rubio's interest. Less than two years later, he was running for office, winning a seat on the West Miami city commission and landing a job at another law firm. Roughly a year after that, he moved up to the Florida House, but his new firm deducted Rubio's $27,000-a-year lawmaker's salary from his paycheck.

In his book, Rubio said he was unsure he could keep his full-time job while spending months at the state Capitol. In 2000, he listed the value of his household furnishings at $5,000 on state records but reported more than $160,000 in student loan debt plus $30,000 in "assorted credit + retail debt."

To save $1,500 a month in rent, Rubio and his wife moved in with her mother. He was climbing the GOP ranks, but, "I imagined telling my children someday that I had been the majority whip of the Florida House but ... had to leave politics to make a living," he wrote in his book.

A headhunter helped Rubio land a new job, this one with a $93,000 salary at a law firm that wouldn't hold his time in Tallahassee against him. It was enough for the Rubios, who had their first child in 2000, to buy a 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom house in the working-class West Miami neighborhood where Rubio grew up.

The Rubios would sell that house near the peak of the Florida real estate bubble for more than twice what they paid for it. The buyer was the mother of a neighbor — a chiropractor who unsuccessfully lobbied Rubio to extend a state insurance provision and was later prosecuted for violating campaign finance laws unrelated to Rubio.

A few years later, in 2003, Rubio secured the votes needed to become state House speaker. Not long after that, he moved up to a new, politically connected law firm and a much bigger salary: $300,000 a year. He was moving homes, too.

In March 2005, Rubio and a fellow state lawmaker, David Rivera, went in together on a house in Tallahassee to live in while in the state capital, making no down payment and taking out a $135,000 mortgage that initially only required interest payments. Meanwhile, the Rubios upgraded to a newly built four-bedroom 2,600-square-foot home with a pool in West Miami.

Real estate records show the Rubios made a 10 percent down payment to buy that $550,000 house. He says he paid cash for upgrades to the home before construction finished.

A little more than a month after the Rubios closed on the house in December 2005, a bank owned by one of his political supporters appraised the house at $735,000 and gave Rubio a $135,000 home equity loan. Rubio has said the add-ons to the house, plus Florida's heated real estate market, justified the appraisal.

It was around this time that other issues in Rubio's finances started to surface.

He shut down two political groups — one run out of his house — that had come under scrutiny for tens of thousands of dollars in poorly explained expenses. In his book, Rubio acknowledged the committees were "an accounting mess."

Rubio also gained access to a state Republican Party charge card in 2005, which he says he inadvertently used at times to pay for personal items.

Records from 2007 and 2008 show Rubio charged about $160,000 to the card, including $1,000 for repairs to the family minivan after it was dented by a valet at a political event, a $134 bill at a hair salon and numerous meals and airline flights.

Rubio has said most of the spending was the legitimate expense of building party infrastructure, but he paid $16,000 of the charges personally.

They became a campaign issue when Rubio ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, but not one that kept him from winning handily.

Once in Washington and making a $174,000 salary as a senator, Rubio still felt the bite of his old real estate transactions.

The bank moved in 2010 to foreclose the house in Tallahassee after Rubio and Rivera fell behind on the payments. Rivera paid $9,200 to bring the house out of foreclosure, and the pair sold the house for $117,000 last week — $18,000 less than the original purchase price.

(Federal prosecutors have said Rivera, who served one term in Congress, is being investigated by a grand jury in a campaign finance case unrelated to Rubio.)

The collapse of the housing market in Florida haunts Rubio, too.

The home next to his in West Miami was foreclosed, which he says is part of the reason why the county has assessed the value of his current house at $400,000 — well below the price Rubio sought when he put it on the market in 2013. The asking price was $675,000, but it didn't sell.

"We wanted to see if we could get the right price," Rubio said. "We had offers, but I'm not going to give it away."

He decided to refinance his initial mortgage and the separate home equity loan. On May 26, Professional Bank in Coral Gables, Florida, wrote Rubio a $604,000 mortgage at 4.5 percent interest, according to records and Rubio's campaign.

Navarro, the Rubio backer who owns a real estate firm and helped him with the refinance, said that lowers Rubio's monthly payment by about $1,000 a month.

"It was a good financial move for him," Navarro said.

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Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/nickriccardi