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Rubio's Ethics Becoming Issue In Senate Campaign

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During the two years that Marco Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, a tobacco company that was a significant donor to Rubio was uniquely spared from legislation that would have required it to abide by the state's settlement with tobacco companies.

The Dosal Tobacco Company is a powerful player in the Miami Cuban-American community. A relatively small company before the major tobacco settlement, it was exempted from the tobacco settlement that would have required it to pay the same tax as its competitors. That advantage has helped it grow to the point where it is now the third-largest seller in the Florida market. The state of Mississippi, where Dosal is also sold, requires it to pay the same tax as the other companies. But not Florida.

"If Dosal can afford to pay their fair share for the health costs of tobacco users in Mississippi, why shouldn't they pay in Florida?" said former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth in an April 6 letter to Senate President Jeff Atwater urging an up-or-down vote on proposed Florida legislation to impose a fee on non-settling manufacturers. Dosal didn't return a call requesting comment. [UPDATE: See Dosal comments below.]

Forget a vote. While Rubio was House Speaker, the bill didn't even get introduced. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the Florida House fought over roping Dosal into the settlement. In 2007 and 2008, nobody introduced the bill -- a fact that gains importance given the all-powerful nature of the Florida Speakership, where a Speaker can unilaterally remove disobedient members from chairmanships, from committees and even, as has been done in the past, from their parking spots.

Asked about his advocacy on behalf of the tobacco company which has contributed to his campaign, his spokesman said the Senate candidate has nothing to hide. "Marco believes in limited government, less taxation and less regulation, and he welcomes the support of those who agree," said Alex Burgos, Rubio for Senate communications director.

The Dosal connection fits into a broader pattern of Rubio behavior that is coming under increasing scrutiny as the Tea Party darling surges ahead of primary rival Charlie Crist, whose campaign is teetering on the brink of annihilation.

In the general election, Rubio faces the possibility of an independent bid from Crist and must also contend with Democratic challenger Kendrick Meek, now a congressman from South Florida. Rubio has even been floated as a potential 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Times is reporting that the Internal Revenue Service is investigating Rubio for improper use of a Republican Party credit card.

Rubio has come under fire for multiple ethical deviations:

  • Rubio's law firm lobbied on behalf of an earmark sponsored by Rubio.
  • Rubio earmarked money to Florida International University and later got an unadvertised job at the school. The former school president, Mitch Maidique, said he was "worth every penny."
  • Rubio inserted special language at the behest of his friend Max Alvarez to help him win a turnpike contract.
  • After appropriating millions of dollars to Miami Children's and Jackson Memorial Hospitals, Rubio formed a lobby shop and got contracts with the hospitals.

"We all have a voting record and we all have a track record," said Meek when asked by HuffPost about the Dosal connection. "But the kind of boldness that Speaker Rubio has had, as it relates to what may be considered by a number of Floridians as smacking of connection and cronyism, is something that should be exposed and should be talked about."

Meek said he was unfamiliar with the details of Rubio's connection to Dosal, but said that it was wrong to give special tax treatment to any one company.

"Just from the response that you've given me, that you've gotten from the Rubio campaign, there are no apologies for protecting certain companies versus the entire industry," said Meek. "Now, if he was against the entire industry from being taxed or something, then that's another story, but when you pick an individual company out -- It's the first I've heard of it, but I guess we'll all like to know how he was able to carry that out."

UPDATE: Sarah Bascom, a Dosal spokeswoman, confirms that Rubio assisted the company in its efforts but says, as Rubio does, that there is nothing wrong about the relationship. "Yes, the Speaker did not approve of taxing just one company that was in his backyard," said Bascom. The real culprit, she says, is Philip Morris, which has been trying for years to rope Dosal into the settlement, even though the small company was not lying to Congress or marketing to children, which Philip Morris was guilty of.

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