Li'l Marco's big loan: The tale of a senator, his private-equity pal and an inexplicable appointment
Senator Marco Rubio speaks to the American Enterprise Institute (AFP)

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida appointed his longtime friend and financial adviser Bernie Navarro to an advisory committee that helped select potential nominees for federal judgeships, even though Navarro had no law degree and no legal experience. Just three months earlier, Navarro — who runs a private equity mortgage lender — extended Rubio a short-term "bridge loan" of $850,000 that allowed the Republican senator to purchase a house.

This article first appeared in Salon.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently unethical or suspicious about taking out a bridge loan. As the name suggests, they are often used in business or real estate transactions to bridge the gap between more conventional and permanent forms of financing. Homeowners can use bridge loans, for instance, to complete the purchase of a new home while they wait for their current home to sell, as was apparently the case with Rubio.

But this case seems noteworthy for a number of reasons, starting with the long, close personal and financial relationship between Rubio and Navarro. Furthermore, Rubio received his loan from Benworth Capital, Navarro's company, on Jan. 18, 2021, but did not disclose it publicly for more than a year and a half, until his most recent financial disclosure form on Aug. 30, 2022. In April of 2021, after receiving the loan from Benworth but long before disclosing it, Rubio appointed Navarro to the Southern District Judicial Advisory Commission, which was responsible for picking finalists for several important federal appointments in south Florida, including U.S. district judges, U.S. marshals and the U.S. attorney.

Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications at the advocacy group End Citizens United, said he saw a clear "threat of conflict of interest" in Rubio's relationship with Navarro. "It becomes worse when you actually are in debt to the person and you put them on a board that gives them special access [to give] advice to you," he added, "and it becomes even worse when you don't disclose it."

Navarro has extensive career experience in real estate finance, investment, development and construction, but has no evident qualifications to serve as an adviser on judicial appointments. According to the Benworth Capital website, the company offers bridge loans with "a less stringent approval process" for real estate buyers with "less than perfect credit."

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Those transactions have led to a certain amount of controversy over the years. In 2017, Benworth foreclosed on the family home of a 14-year old girl with cerebral palsy. Her parents had stopped making monthly payments, saying they had been "misled into taking out a high-interest, short-term loan ... that they could not afford to pay back," the Miami Herald reported. Ultimately, the family was allowed to stay in their home, after Benworth agreed to a settlement of $240,000 — nearly $100,000 more than the original loan amount.

In 2020, Navarro registered Benworth as a "woman-owned business," in an attempt to fast-track receipt of emergency COVID relief funds under the Paycheck Protection Program. Salon was unable to determine whether one or more women own at least 51% of the company, which is the federal government's definition of that term.

Navarro's two companies, Benworth Capital and Presto Payday, received at least $308,000 in COVID relief while his firm processed PPP loans. Benworth has continued to expand, opening an office in Puerto Rico, and donating more than $56,000 to Republican candidates and PACs, along with $14,200 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Rubio and Navarro reportedly met in Florida Republican circles, and became friends long before the former entered politics. In April of 2015, Navarro hosted an intimate gathering for Rubio and a group of friends, family members and political allies at Navarro's suburban Miami home, trumping the senator's announcement by introducing him as "the next president of the United States."

Navarro hosted several fundraisers for Rubio, first for his short-lived presidential campaign and then for his 2016 re-election to the Senate, serving as finance chairman for both campaigns. Navarro has personally contributed over $25,500 to Rubio's campaigns and associated PACs throughout his career.

There is nothing manifestly illegal about Rubio's personal or financial relationship with Navarro, although it points toward a number of unanswered questions. But as Adam Bozzi of End Citizens United sees it, this is a textbook example of how shadowy backstage deals involving money and influence have contaminated American politics.

"Giving these types of people influence where they can advocate for judges that will help corporations or help themselves rather than consumers or Florida families," Bozzi told Salon, "that is the kind of quid pro quo corruption that hurts people and turns off voters."