WASHINGTON (AP) — Marco Rubio pushed Miami-Dade County officials in May 2002 to allow a multimillion-dollar industrial development to be built on restricted land near the Florida Everglades, months after he backed a law as a state legislator that made it harder for people to challenge such projects, The Associated Press has learned.
Around the same period, Rubio — a rising Republican star in the state legislature — also requested state money to be earmarked to benefit a flood-prone area around the development project.
Those efforts by Rubio, who has ascended during the GOP primary season as the leading establishment alternative to political rivals Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, provide a glimpse into how he handled the intersection of his public role as a young lawmaker and his private representation of a company that stood to benefit from his political connections.
There's no evidence Rubio violated Florida ethics rules. But his seat in Tallahassee, the state capital, put him in the position of advocating before a county commission that relied on lawmakers like him to fight for state money.
"I always had a problem when legislators would lobby at the county commission, because you always felt like if you didn't vote their way, does this mean we'll lose funds in Tallahassee?" said Katy Sorenson, a former county commissioner and Democrat who voted against the boundary change. It was established in the 1970s to protect agriculture and the water supply.
The change was approved.
Todd Harris, a senior adviser for Rubio's presidential campaign, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Rubio never lobbied in the traditional sense because he said that was illegal under state law. But Harris said that the part-time nature of Florida's Legislature means that "virtually every legislator makes their living from outside employment."
"Marco did not gain personally from this, or any other, vote because his compensation was not tied to any other specific project," Harris wrote in response to detailed questions from the AP.
Rubio's 2002 request involved Pan American, a Miami company owned by well-known real estate developer Carlos C. Lopez-Cantera. He wanted to build a project — then known as Shoppyland — west of the city, but environmental critics said it was too close to an important water source.
Lopez-Cantera did not respond to detailed phone messages left with his staff at Pan American's offices on Monday and Tuesday. His son, Carlos, is Florida's lieutenant governor and is running for Rubio's seat in the U.S. Senate. Rubio's campaign told the AP the younger Lopez-Cantera worked for his father's company, and recommended hiring Rubio to do the legal work.
At the time, Rubio was a young lawyer earning $96,000 a year at the politically connected firm Becker & Poliakoff. He asked county commissioners on May 30, 2002, to consider the Shoppyland proposal.
Shoppyland and a nearby project required moving the development boundary and provoked opposition from environmental groups. A Sierra Club representative argued the business park would cost taxpayers money and threaten the water supply of more than 1 million people.
In March 2002, Rubio was one of 73 co-sponsors of a bill that sought to fund cleanup efforts in the Everglades. The bill included language that limited who could challenge development projects based on their environmental impact. Certain nonprofits that objected also had to be in existence for a year and have at least 25 of members from the county, the bill said.
A month after voting for the bill, Rubio registered with Miami-Dade County as a lobbyist for Pan American. Further details of his efforts recorded in government documents were destroyed in 2007, a normal practice under county policy.
The development also benefited from a Rubio-backed flood-mitigation project. He requested an earmark in January 2002 for $750,000 in state funds for an early phase of the flood-mitigation project in an 83-square-mile area called the C-4 basin, documents show.
Most of the C-4 basin was outside of his district at the time. The business park was near both the center of the basin and canals important to the improvement plan.
After the boundary changes and Pan American's sale of a portion of the property for $23 million in 2008, the land has since been transformed into an industrial park with a Goya Foods Inc. operation and commercial warehouses.
Associated Press writers Curt Anderson and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.
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