Billionaire Donald Trump likes to talk about his money-making prowess, but lately he’s taken to the airwaves to imply GOP presidential primary rival Marco Rubio has cut deals of his own as a Florida lawmaker.
In an ad we first saw on March 7, 2016, Trump’s campaign said Rubio had a history of shady shenanigans as Florida’s speaker of the House. The commercial included a dig about Rubio suspiciously changing his stance on an issue after money changed hands.
"As a legislator he flipped on a key vote after making a quick $200,000 from selling the house to the mother of the bill's lobbyist," the ad said.
The ad hints that Rubio was caught in some kind of pay-to-play scandal without outright accusing him of wrongdoing. Trump’s campaign didn’t elaborate for us, but it appears Rubio wasn’t guilty of much more than a somewhat odd coincidence in the middle of some protracted legislating.
The PIP battle
Let’s start by going back to 2007 and introducing Rubio’s former West Miami neighbor, a chiropractor named Mark Cereceda.
Cereceda was the lobbyist in question here, although calling him that is technically incorrect. We could find no record of him being registered as a lobbyist with the state in 2007 or any other year. He did, however, have a vested interest in the renewal of a type of auto insurance called personal injury protection, or PIP. And he let Rubio know about it.
In 2007, when Rubio was House speaker, the state’s mandated PIP coverage was going to expire. The law required $10,000 in coverage that paid for accident injuries to drivers and passengers, no matter who was at fault. It cost about $100 or $200 per year.
Then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Senate wanted to extend coverage when they met for the 2007 legislative session. The coverage was popular among health insurers and hospitals, which wanted to control costs.
But Rubio and some House members weren’t fans, saying the PIP system encouraged too much fraud. Rubio demanded extensive fraud reforms and balked at a Senate proposal that he felt didn’t go far enough.
"We have to wipe out fraud. The current PIP system has so much fraud built into it," Rubio said during the 2007 session. "An entire fraud industry has been created and unless that's addressed, there's no need to do anything."
Clearly, Rubio wasn’t going to budge on PIP without what he considered substantial fraud protections. Cereceda, who had many patients who paid for treatment with insurance, made it a personal mission to change Rubio’s mind.
He joined other doctors and chiropractors in a campaign to pressure Rubio to keep the PIP mandate alive. He went to Tallahassee to meet with Rubio. He organized demonstrations at Rubio’s West Miami office. He hired planes to fly banners over Rubio’s home and office.
And, curiously, he was tied to Rubio another way at the same time: His mother, Nora Cereceda, was buying Rubio’s house.
The house sale
Back in February 2003, Rubio paid $175,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in West Miami that was 1,340 square feet. He sold it to Nora Cereceda in April 2007 for $380,000 in a cash sale. That accounts for the $200,000 to which Trump’s ad is referring.
Well, the amount itself wasn’t so bizarre. Keep in mind this is after the housing bubble made home prices go haywire. Paying $380,000 wasn’t unheard of for a house that size within a square half-mile that year.
According to property records, a 1,413-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two baths sold for $332,500 in June 2007. Three blocks away, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home that was 1,960 square feet sold for $373,000 in May 2007.
The Miami-Dade Property Appraiser considered it a qualified sale at fair market value. Qualified simply means neither the buyer nor the seller were under any constraints or incentives, like selling a house to a family member. (The price is not such a great deal now, of course; the house had a fair market value of about $213,000 in 2015.)
Both Rubio and Mark Cereceda have insisted the transaction was completely unrelated to the PIP issue. It just so happened that Cereceda and Rubio were neighbors, and Rubio’s house was for sale.
Nora Cereceda’s husband had died and she wanted to live near her son. She was a retiree with money from a life insurance policy, so the cash sale isn’t so unusual. That’s especially true in Florida, which routinely is among the leading states in cash real estate transactions.
The house sale closed April 13. Three weeks later, on May 4, the Legislature adjourned with no deal on PIP. Rubio didn’t budge on his demands for more fraud protections, and state mandates for coverage were scheduled to sunset on Oct. 1.
But about that flipped vote …
Rubio wrote a letter to Crist on Sept. 28, months after the sale, asking the governor to include "property tax reform and mandatory auto insurance" to the list of issues to address at a previously called Oct. 3 special session, the third special session of that year.
Rubio said in the letter that both the House and the Senate had worked on reforms that would foster an agreement on PIP. He credited then-House majority whip Ellyn Bogdanoff for creating "sensible and comprehensive anti-fraud legislation."
Crist agreed, and legislators reached a compromise on Oct. 5, adding three measures to defray fraud. The final bill limited the prices that some medical facilities and doctors could charge for nonemergency care. It also required PIP clinics be owned or supervised by licensed doctors, and added $2 million to the state budget to hire more anti-fraud investigators.
The House passed the bill 105-4, with Rubio voting yes. The Senate voted 37-0.
He later noted that he considered the fraud protections sufficient, although we now know they didn’t do much to curb the problem. Fraud claims actually increased in the years immediately after lawmakers passed the 2007 PIP bill. They have since dropped after new legislation in 2012.
Rubio’s campaign didn’t comment on the ad to PolitiFact Florida, other than to point out the accusation had been proved incorrect years ago when Crist tried to use it against him during the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.
Technically, it’s impossible to say Cereceda had no influence on Rubio. But Rubio didn’t say he would never approve a PIP extension, just that he wanted more protections. The near-unanimous vote in the House shows lawmakers overwhelmingly approved of the changes.
Before we issue our rating, a brief afterword on Cereceda: In 2013, he pleaded guilty to charges he made his employees give illegal donations to political campaigns statewide. He and his brother Kemel Cereceda were given 60 days house arrest, three years of probation and fined more than $100,000. A Hialeah judge also lost her seat after taking a bribe from Cereceda.
Trump said of Rubio, "As a legislator he flipped on a key vote after making a quick $200,000 from selling the house to the mother of the bill's lobbyist."
There’s no evidence Cereceda met the state’s strict definition of lobbying, and he was not registered as a lobbyist. He did, however, pressure Rubio to extend a PIP insurance mandate the then-speaker of the House opposed. His mother also bought Rubio’s house in the middle of a legislative session that could have dealt with the issue, at more than $200,000 what Rubio paid for it. Both men deny the sale influenced debate in Tallahassee, and no one can prove otherwise.
Rubio didn’t really have a change of heart on any insurance vote. Months after the 2007 session ended, the House and Senate overwhelmingly agreed on new PIP terms that included fraud protections meeting Rubio’s expectations.
Trump’s claim has a basis in real events, but there are several problems with the ethical implication he’s making about Rubio’s time in the Legislature. We rate the statement Mostly False.