Sen. Marco Rubio preferred to get rained on Monday than answer questions about a criminal investigation into his long-time friend and ally, Congressman David Rivera.
Rivera is the subject of a federal grand-jury investigation into whether he steered tens of thousands of unreported cash to a Democratic congressional candidate who ran against a rival of the Republican.
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald first reported the allegations when two longtime Rivera campaign vendors said he was behind the effort that’s now under federal scrutiny.
Rivera has attacked the vendors’ credibility, but Rubio had nothing but good things to say about the two.
“I’ve always had positive dealings with them,” said Rubio, who tried to say as little as possible about Rivera before an aide whisked him away in the rain at an event.
Meantime, top Republicans from Washington D.C. to Tallahassee to Miami are laying the groundwork to field new challengers for the District 26 Congressional seat in the event that Rivera loses the race to Democratic challenger Joe Garcia.
A powerful new name, meanwhile, is being floated in Miami-Dade: Jeb Bush Jr., son and namesake of the popular Florida governor who lives in Coral Gables.
State Sen. Anitere Flores is at the top of the list as future congressional candidates as well as Marili Cancio, an attorney who ran against Rivera in the Republican primary in 2010.
Rubio, who had said he was “troubled” about a separate criminal investigation into Rivera, has begun to distance himself from his longtime friend, with whom he owns a Tallahassee home.
Rivera no longer attends high-profile events with the senator or presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who held an event in Rivera’s Kendall-to-Key West district where Rivera was the only top Republican no-show.
Rivera was also absent Monday from The Versailles restaurant for a campaign rally for fellow Republican Congressman Connie Mack, who’s running against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.
The Versailles event was headlined by Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
A poll of 400 likely voters conducted by a Republican pollster last week showed Rivera trailing Garcia 33-43 percent. The National Republican Congressional Committee has blocked off no air time to help Rivera’s campaign, which has had relatively low fundraising numbers for a congressional incumbent.
Rubio, who owns a Tallahassee home with Rivera, helped Rivera raise funds before the latest allegations surfaced, though he expressed discomfort with the year-old federal investigation into Rivera that stemmed from a secret $500,000 payment from a dog track.
Rivera has denied wrongdoing in this latest case involving an unknown political newcomer named Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran against Rivera rival Joe Garcia in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary race for the Kendall-to-Key West seat.
During the race, Sternad repeatedly went after Garcia, sending out a mailer that repeated a line of attack from Rivera over Garcia’s divorce.
Sternad sent out at least a dozen different types of mailers to tens of thousands of voters. The costs of printing the mailers, targeting the recipients and sending out the mailers were never originally reported by Sternad – a potential violation of campaign-finance laws that require congressional candidates to list their contributions and expenditures.
Sternad’s initial reports gave no indication that he had the finances to pay for the mailers, let alone send them out.
“Well, I don’t know anything other than what I’ve read in the press,” Rubio said. “Obviously, he’s a friend. We always wish him the best.”
When asked about what Rivera has to do next, Rubio didn’t answer as he turned away from a Herald reporter, shook hands with a supporter and then walked out into the rain at the end of a campaign event at The Versailles restaurant.
One campaign vendor, John Borrero of Rapid Mail and Computer Services, told The Herald that he was paid a total of about $47,000 by Sternad’s campaign to send out the mailers. All but $9,000 was paid in cash, much of it stuffed in envelopes.
Borrero, who initially said Rivera wasn’t involved in the campaign, later acknowledged that Rivera was.
The campaign vendor who helped identify voters, Hugh Cochran of Campaign Data, also told The Herald that Rivera was behind the Sternad campaign. He showed The Herald a copy of an email concerning the data that he sent to Rivera’s campaign email account.
Rivera, who previously had denied any involvement in Sternad’s campaign, said he was mistakenly sent the email.
But Cochran said it was no accident.
Sternad, who initially denied wrongdoing, is now cooperating with the FBI. He amended his campaign finance forms to show some of the expenditures that he had hidden, but the forms still don’t show how he could the printing costs for tens of thousands of mailers.
Borrero has given the FBI some of the envelopes that had been stuffed with cash. Cochran said he has furnished authorities invoices in which he later used Wite-Out to disguise Rivera’s name at the request of the congressman.
Both Cochran and Borrero have worked for Rivera’s campaigns for years and have helped Rubio as well. After the two made their statements to The Herald, Rivera began to question their integrity.
Rubio defended their work.
“I’ve known (them) they’ve been around in politics a long time,” Rubio said when asked about the two men.
Are they trustworthy?
“I’ve always had positive dealings with them,” Rubio responded, interrupting the interview to take photographs with well-wishers and admirers.
When told that the two men both identified Rivera as being behind the Sternad campaign, Rubio demurred.
“I’m not going to get into the back and forth of all that,” he said.
Asked if he thought the men were telling the truth, Rubio said again: “I’m not going to get into the back and forth of that. I have nothing negative to say.”
Rubio ignored a follow-up question about what Rivera should do next as an aide led the senator away into the rain.