The GOP has been on a crazy bender for more than half a century, but even many party officials can see that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are too unhinged for the American people to swallow. Hence, Marco Rubio — who’s no genius but can appear on TV without terrifying a majority of the civilian population — was thrust forward in Iowa by GOP puppeteers as a last-gasp effort to save the party from flat out lunacy.
And it worked. Mr. Rubio finished third in Iowa with 23 percent of the vote, thereby prompting an outpouring of support from Wall Street. He was poised for takeoff in New Hampshire, but to his handlers’ horror he repeated his lines at a key debate like a terrified Bar Mitzvah boy practicing in front of the mirror before tripping on the stage stairs, and was mercilessly pillaged by then-candidate Chris Christie, who said, “There it is everybody. The 25-second memorized speech.”
But Mr. Rubio rebounded in South Carolina and came in second in Nevada, and at this point he’s pretty much the last of the chip-implanted Manchurian Candidates that the GOP establishment can use in their quest to derail Trump.There are just a few small problems.
Mr. Rubio has a long track record of corruption that his political enemies will have a simple time exploiting. Most problematically, the FBI has for years been investigating David Rivera, one of Mr. Rubio’s best friends and long-time political allies, and arguably one of the most corrupt members of congress in Florida’s colorful history.
The feds have until 2017 to bring charges against Mr. Rivera, according to this Miami Herald story, and given that evidence against him is strewn about like pizza boxes after a frat house kegger it’s hard to imagine what’s taking so long. As part of its investigation the FBI has probed Mr. Rivera’s ties to Mr. Rubio and their mutual involvement in various shady deals, two sources have told me.
A third source, with direct knowledge of the situation, told me that the FBI refused to cut a deal with a businessman facing indictment who provided federal and state investigators with evidence that Mr. Rivera took a $100,000 bribe from a gambling executive based in Broward County.
The bribe came in the form of a $100,000 campaign contribution. Mr. Rivera agreed to take the cash during a secret meeting with the executive, ran it through a political entity that he claimed his mother was running, and used the money to pay for his personal expenses, said the source, who is a well-connected lawyer in Florida.”
Mr. Rivera and Mr. Rubio — who each received large legal campaign contributions from the gambling industry — subsequently voted against allowing the Seminole tribe to expand its gambling operations in Florida, exactly as the alleged bribe-offering executive wanted.
Of course, the FBI is a highly politicized institution dependent on congressional approval for its budget and historically has gone after political contributors and small-fry politicians while ignoring flagrant corruption by more powerful elected officials. The Herald’s story, which ran in late 2015, speculated that if former Florida state representative and U.S. congressman Mr. Rivera’s close friend Mr. Rubio were to become a serious presidential contender, “prosecutors might want to steer clear of the politically charged case, to avoid the appearance of meddling with an election.”
Mr. Rubio and Mr. Rivera met in 1992 when they both worked for GOP Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Ballart, as I noted in the Observer last month. Mr. Rivera advised Mr. Rubio during his first campaign for the state House in 2000 and Mr. Rubio helped Mr. Rivera win a House seat in 2002. In 2005, Mr. Rivera rounded up the votes Mr. Rubio needed to become Speaker of the Florida House.
Until last year Mr. Rubio and Mr. Rivera co-owned a house in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital.
“They were thick as thieves,” a former senior official in the Florida GOP who knows both men told me.
In recent years Mr. Rubio has been shy about publicly associating with Mr. Rivera — especially after various state and federal law enforcement agencies began investigating his friend over numerous allegations of corruption. Those allegations probably help explain why Mr. Rivera lost his seat in the U.S. Congress in 2012 and then was humiliated in 2014 when attempting to regain it, winning only 2,209 votes (8 percent).
But Mr. Rivera was spotted in Iowa during the caucuses with a Washington lobbyist, Dana Hudson, who is one of Mr. Rubio’s most passionate supporters. Mr. Rivera and Hudson posed for a photo at a Hooters, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
One of the schemes the FBI is looking into involves Mr. Rivera secretly receiving about $1 million in the mid-2000s from the Havenick family, which has long thrived in Florida’s notoriously crooked dog track betting industry, whose roots trace back to Meyer Lanksy, Al Capone’s CFO. Mr. Rivera was paid — through a cut-out entity named Millennium Marketing; his name didn’t appear anywhere on the contract— to successfully promote a ballot referendum that gave the Havenick family exclusive rights to offer slot machines at local racing track venues.
When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigated the case back in 2011, Alex Havenick, the family patriarch, described Mr. Rivera as the “chief strategist” for the slots referendum campaign and said his family was grateful for the “unbelievable results” he obtained. Mr. Rivera denied any wrongdoing and the FDLE never charged him, probably because the case was politically sabotaged.
Mr. Rivera and Mr. Rubio later voted against legislation — which was also opposed by the Havenicks — that would have allowed all racetracks to offer their customers slots and thereby ended the family’s monopoly.
Back in 2007, Mr. Rivera organized “Havana Nights” fundraisers that raised $1.4 million for the state GOP. “The events featured a yacht cruise, salsa lessons, dinner at the former Versace mansion and personal concierges available 24/7,” the Miami Herald reported at the time. “The generous contributions come at a time when the industry—dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons—is losing attendance and profits, while the parimutuels in Tampa and Broward County may soon face increased competition from Indian casinos.”
In the aftermath of the event then-House Speaker Mr. Rubio came out strongly against a gambling compact being negotiated by Governor Charlie Crist and the Seminoles, which would have allowed the tribe to offer Las Vegas-style slots as well as table games, according to the Herald.
“Rubio’s argument — that the tribe is entitled to nothing more than slot machines — echoes those made by the parimutuels, especially those in Broward, which say that granting table games to the Seminole gives them an unfair advantage,” the Herald reported. The newspaper said that Mr. Rivera bitterly denied that Mr. Rubio’s opposition to the Seminole compact was linked to the massive donations the GOP received from the gambling industry. ”Whether [parimutuels] supported the event had nothing to do with the House having antipathy toward the compact,” he said. “There’s zero correlation.’’
The alleged bribe offered to Mr. Rivera I mentioned above, which is previously unreported, came from a Broward County gambling executive, my source told me.
Mr. Rivera and Mr. Rubio were also involved in another dubious deal in the mid-2000s that is breathtakingly brazen even by Florida’s promiscuous standards and which was partially unraveled over many years by a joint FBI/DEA task force. One of the key figures in the scam was Alan Mendelsohn, a GOP lobbyist and fundraiser who raised about $2 million that he funneled to numerous Florida politicians or used for his personal benefit, according to his subsequent indictment. Of that amount about $1.5 million came from a crooked businessman named Joel Steinger.
Steinger was the founder and CEO of a private company called Mutual Benefits Corp., through which he pulled off a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme that targeted elderly South Florida retirees and members of the state’s gay community. Mutual Benefits Corp. also helped a South American drug cartel launder money, evidence compiled by a the FBI/DEA task force showed.
Mendelsohn funneled money to politicians through various political entities, including a political committee he set up called The Ophthalmology PAC. Steinger gave him money in the hopes of winning political support for a bill that would exempt Mutual Benefits Corp. from state regulation. Mendelsohn also got money to pass along to politicians from a few other dubious players, including a credit counseling firm and gambling companies.
In April of 2004, both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Rivera voted for legislation that exempted Steinger’s Mutual Benefits Corp. from regulation. In May of 2004, the SEC ordered the emergency shutdown of Steinger’s firm.
Mr. Rubio and Mr. Rivera each got $50,000, easily ranking them among the biggest recipients of Ophthalmology PAC cash. Mr. Rubio received his payout from Mendelsohn in December of 2003 through a PAC he set up called Floridians for Conservative Leadership.
The Ophthalmology PAC was by far the biggest donor to Floridians for Conservative Leadership. Mr. Rubio used the latter to pay for, among other things, courier services performed by his wife, sister and nephews; to cover the costs of meals and lodging that were allegedly campaign-related; and to pay a close friend and lobbyist who raised money for him for what was described as political consulting work.
In April of 2004, both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Rivera voted for legislation — which Mendelsohn aggressively lobbied for — that exempted Steinger’s Mutual Benefits Corp. from regulation. In May of 2004, the SEC ordered the emergency shutdown of Steinger’s firm.
As late as 2009, Mendelsohn was one of Mr. Rubio’s leading fundraisers and that year hosted an event at his home to kick off Mr. Rubio’s run for a U.S. Senate seat. That May the Broward Palm Beach New Times reported that Mendelsohn had resigned from his post as treasurer of yet another PAC he had created amid “rampant speculation” about the extent of his ties to Steinger. Mr. Rubio “doesn’t seem very concerned about any political fallout that may come as more facts emerge about Mr. Mendelsohn in the Steinger case,” the newspaper reported. “Either Rubio knows something the rest of us don’t or he doesn’t mind risking his reputation for some serious campaign dough.”
In 2011 Mendelsohn was sentenced to three years in prison for using “his political connections to assist clients in obtaining and defeating legislation,” according to his indictment. During his sentencing, Judge William Zloch, said the disgraced lobbyist’s misconduct was like a “cancer” with “tentacles” that hindered good government across the state, according to the Tampa Bay Times. (Mendelsohn’s lawyer, Alvin Entin, declined comment.)
In 2014, Steinger was sentenced to twenty years in prison. “Mr. Steinger, I could very easily sentence you to 50 years as a very justifiable sentence and never lose a moment’s sleep,” Judge Robert Scola said at the time. (Steve Haguel, Steinger’s lawyer, declined comment other than to say that he had appealed the verdict.)
Last year Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the IRS against Conservative Solutions Project, a political organization spending millions of dollars on pro-Rubio ads while masquerading as a “social welfare” non-profit. It also filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Rubio’s national finance chairman, Wayne Berman, accusing him of lying to investigators and apparently taking more than a million dollars from a non-profit. And in 2012, CREW named David Rivera as one of the “Most Corrupt Members of Congress.”
“Senator Rubio and his circle are no strangers to ethics issues,” the group’s spokesman, Jordan Libowitz, told me.
Mr. Rubio’s presidential campaign, Mr. Rivera’s attorney, Michael Band, and the FBI declined comment for this story.
In the 1980s, Joel Steinger and several relatives ran Tara Securities Group, a boiler room that ripped off a boatload of naive investors. (Martin Scorcese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street perfectly captures the boiler room, a term used to describe a fraud by which a scammer rents an impressive-looking office, lines up employees to cold call potential investors, and suckers them into putting their savings into financial schemes promising big returns that never materialize.) The Securities and Exchange Commission shut down Tara Securities Group, banned Steinger from commodities trading and, hit him with a paltry civil fine of $30,000.
Steinger had a sleazy past even before Tara Securities. Back in 1979, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission barred him from acting as a commodity trading professional for his role in another scam that involved a company called Crown Colony Commodity Options Ltd., according to his indictment and several news accounts. Steinger’s colorful career, convictions and mob connections, can be reviewed in this article.
But Steinger still had to make a living so in 1994 he started a new private company, Mutual Benefits Corp., which was in the Viaticals business. That’s the term — derived from a Latin word meaning “provisions for a long journey” — for the practice of buying life insurance policies at a steeply discounted price from desperate people who are about to die.
Steiner quickly figured out that a great place to find dying people who would sell their life insurance policies cheap was the AIDS-plagued gay community in South Florida. So he hooked up with some clinics and doctors and used them to pitch terminally ill HIV patients who were desperate for quick money and would sell their life insurance policies for pennies on the dollar.
The investors in Mutual Benefits Corp. started getting angry when people who sold the firm their life insurance policies didn’t die because that meant they didn’t get the huge returns Steinger promised them.
To ratchet up profits even more Steinger retained a doctor, Clark Mitchell, to diagnose people as being terminally ill when they were in fact perfectly healthy. Of course, the investors in Mutual Benefits Corp. started getting angry when people who sold the firm their life insurance policies didn’t die because that meant they didn’t get the huge returns Steinger promised them (up to 72 percent, according to this story). Investors complained to the Florida Attorney General, who began looking into the situation, which alarmed Steinger.
To remedy the situation, he created a variety of corporate and political entities to donate money to every Democrat in the state legislature. In the last four months of 2002, Steinger-linked entities sent checks totaling $550,000 to the state Democratic Party and $200,000 to the Democratic National Committee. (Steve Geller, a Democratic senator who was influential on insurance issues, “received $5,000 from Mutual Benefits-related sources,” the Sun-Sentinel reported back in a 2009 summary of the whole affair.)
This had the desired effect, and Democrats came together to write a piece of legislation in 2003 that exempted Viaticals from state regulation. Since Steinger’s Mutual Benefits Corp. was a private insurance and investment company, the SEC had no ability to regulate him either. So this legislation would leave Mutual Benefits entirely regulation-free.
Tragically for Steinger, the Democrats didn’t have the political muscle to get the bill passed. So he turned for help to Mendelsohn and sent him money to buy elected Republicans.
The state Republican Party received $25,000 from Steinger-linked entities in the year after the vote. A PAC associated with Kim Berfield, then Republican chairwoman of the House insurance committee got $10,000 and a PAC for future Senate leader Ken Pruitt received $2,500.
All told, Mendelsohn, his family and his major political committee contributed at least $708,000 to more than 275 legislators, legislative candidates and state causes, according to the The Tampa Bay Times. Mendelsohn’s average contribution, then, was just $2,574.55.
That’s why the $50,000 received by Mr. Rubio from The Ophthalmology PAC — one of Mendelsohn’s main vehicles to accomplish Steinger’s desires — stands out so much, especially since he got the cash just a few months before he voted to exempt Mutual Benefits Corp. from regulation.
The vote was held in April 2004 — just a month, as it turned out, before the SEC shut down Mutual Benefits Corp. The Steinger/Mendelsohn lobbying strategy was so effective that only one house member and one senator opposed the bill.
The senator, Democrat Skip Campbell, later said that legislators overwhelmingly voted for the bill for one reason only: political contributions. “It was clear to me that this was a big Ponzi scheme and would bite a lot of people,” he told the Sun-Sentinel.
The U.S. Coast Guard raided a Russian fishing vessel off the coast of California and found twelve tons of cocaine on board (under frozen squid).
But in the aftermath of the vote, Steinger, Mendelsohn, Mr. Rubio and almost the entire Florida congress were thrilled with the outcome. It looked like a win-win for them all.
There were just a few problems.
All the complaints from defrauded Mutual Benefits Corp.’s investors caused the state and then the SEC to investigate the firm. And so in May of 2004, two months after Steinger’s near-unanimous political victory, the SEC issued an emergency shut down of his company.
Alas, in 2001 something happened 3000 miles away in California that would prove to be even more fatal (and quite embarrassing) to Steinger’s Mutual Benefits Corp. and its political backers, though no one knew it at the time. What happened was that the U.S. Coast Guard raided a Russian fishing vessel off the coast of California and found twelve tons of cocaine on board (under frozen squid).
That led to the creation of the FBI/DEA task force, which traced the cocaine to Colombia, where, the Chicago Tribune reported, Mutual Benefits was marketing viaticals. The firm’s most successful contractor was Jaime Rey Albornoz, who in 2004 was “indicted as a drug cartel member along with four co-defendants, who are charged with moving millions of illegal drug dollars around the world and into Mutual Benefits investments,” according to the Tribune.
The joint FBI/DEA task force, which was headquartered in Palm Beach County, ultimately came across all the money that Steinger and his surrogate Mendelsohn had spread around to Florida politicians. Over the next few years the feds indicted and convicted a number of people in the affair.
They included Mitchell, the crooked doctor who falsely diagnosed people with AIDS for Steinger (and who it later turned out had defrauded Medicare as well), who pleaded guilty to fraud in 2006; and state Senator Mandy Dawson, who took tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from Mendelsohn and who was sentenced in 2012 to six months in prison for tax evasion.
(Somehow Stacy Ritter, who as a member of the Florida House voted for the Steinger-backed legislation, escaped prosecution. Mutual Benefits Corp. paid Ritter’s husband, Russ Klenet, $20,000 a month to lobby for the bill and spent $100,000 to redecorate the couple’s home. After serving in the Florida House, Ms. Ritter became mayor of Broward County and is currently a Broward County Commissioner. Last July, she was cleared by the State Attorney’s Office in three separate public corruption probes alleging she used her position for improper gain,” according to this story.)
The feds also took down Mendelsohn, who in addition to making campaign contributions to buy political influence was nailed for arranging to have “approximately $60,000 in checks [from his political contributors] sent directly to his mistress on a monthly basis for about two years,” according to his indictment. Mendelsohn was released from prison in 2014, the same year that Steinger started serving a 20-year sentence for running the Mutual Benefits Ponzi Scheme.
The federal task force reportedly wanted to go after the politicians who supported Steinger’s pet legislation, especially big recipients of his and Mendelsohn’s political cash. But that’s where things got dicey, presumably because the major politicians who supported Steinger had no intention of going to prison themselves.
First, a Florida judge sealed everything having to do with the ongoing Steinger case just as the feds were getting ready to go after the politicos, which didn’t stop the investigation but helped keep the names of the politicians involved out of the media. The Sun Sentinel newspaper went to court to oppose that, saying that the case should remain open to the public since so many prominent elected officials were under scrutiny, but the newspaper lost in court.
Rubio took $50,000 from Mendelsohn for Floridians for Conservative Leadership, his PAC, and that is quite a bit more than most of his colleagues received from the future jailbird.
However, the judge who sealed the case suddenly and mysteriously recused himself from any further involvement, confessing that he had a conflict of interest — he didn’t say what it was — that required him to step aside. Two U.S. attorneys from Florida who were prosecuting the case recused themselves as well, also citing conflicts of interest that they never disclosed.
There are a few things here that look bad for Mr. Rubio. First, he took $50,000 from Mendelsohn for Floridians for Conservative Leadership, his PAC, and that is quite a bit more than most of his colleagues received from the future jailbird. And Mendelsohn continued to raise money for him until 2009, five years after the SEC shut down Steinger’s Ponzi scheme.
Second, he used his PAC money to pay relatives like his wife, and the payments to her were made to a company she said she had shut down seven years earlier, according to records filed with the Florida Secretary of State. Furthermore, his PAC paid about $25,000 to a woman named Bridget Nocco, a former Florida House staffer, lobbyist and Rubio fundraiser. And Mr. Rubio also used his PAC to pay for meals and lodging that appear to be only remotely linked to actual campaign work and look more like personal expenses.
Third, Mr. Rubio’s close friend and ally Mr. Rivera has been “circled for years” by investigators, the Miami Herald noted in 2015, and sources have told me the feds are interested in their political partnership.
So how is it that Mr. Rubio has suddenly emerged as a hot commodity in the GOP nomination race? Well, as noted above, his chief rivals are Mr. Trump, an unhinged clown, and Mr. Cruz, a far-right cretin with appalling social views and whose main claim to fame in the foreign policy arena is that he wants to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State.
But if the FBI is in fact serious about looking into Marco Rubio, his competitors may start looking a lot more attractive, at least from an electoral standpoint.