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That time Marco Rubio helped his convicted cocaine trafficker brother-in-law get a real estate license

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Marco Rubio's presidential aspirations have long been dogged by vague unsubstantiated allegations that he is a "risky bet" with skeletons in his closet that could prove damaging in a high-profile election. This week, Scott Higham and Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post became the first reporters to put some meat on these bones with a story alleging that as Majority Whip of the Florida House of Representatives Rubio "used his official position to urge state regulators to grant a real estate license to his brother-in-law, a convicted cocaine trafficker who had been released from prison 20 months earlier."

It's a story about the side of Rubio's family that he doesn't like to talk about, a sign of the kind of problems that may be hurting Rubio in the invisible primary, but it's also a story about the growth of a troubling kind of employment protectionism in state governments across America. One question, after all, is whether Rubio should have used his official position to help get his brother-in-law the legal right to sell real estate in Florida. Another question is whether a person with a cocaine conviction who wants to sell real estate in Florida should need to call in a favor from his brother-in-the-law the powerful politician in order to be able to do so legally.

Who is Orlando Cicilia, and what did Marco Rubio do for him?

As previously reported by the same Washington Post duo, when Marco Rubio was 16 years old his sister's husband, Orlando Cicilia, was arrested and convicted on charges of trafficking millions of dollars in cocaine. Rubio was close with his brother-in-law at the time of his arrest and has cited the Cuban-style Christmas celebrations at Cicilia's house as his fondest childhood memories. According to the Post, "Cicilia hired Rubio to wash his dogs, giving the football obsessed teen money to buy tickets to Miami Dolphins games."

Perhaps more relevantly Cicilia remained close to Rubio and his family after the arrest.

Indeed, two years after Cicilia's release from prison he and Rubio's sister were added to the deed of Rubio's childhood home, where the couple now lives with the senator's mother, Oriales Rubio. Cicilia served as the real estate broker commissioned with finding office space for Rubio's 2010 Senate campaign, and Rubio's PACs and campaigns have paid more than $130,000 to Cicilia's sons Daniel and Orlando in consulting fees.

As part of that close relationship, it seems that Rubio helped out Cicilia with a letter to the Florida Real Estate Commission when Cicilia was applying for a license in 2002. You see, in Florida a convicted felon who wants to sell real estate needs to get his application approved by the state's seven-member Real Estate Commission. They are appointed by the governor, with a budget controlled by the state legislature, and they decide on a "case-by-case basis" with no particular objective standard in mind which ex-cons can and cannot sell real estate. Under the circumstances, the recommendation from a powerful state legislator likely carried a lot of weight, and Cicilia got his license.

When recommending Cicilia to the board, Rubio neglected to mention that the applicant in question is married to his sister, a decision Rubio spokesperson Todd Harris defended to the Post on the curious grounds that Rubio "believed Orlando should be judged on his own merits and felt it would be highly inappropriate, and could be perceived as exerting undue pressure, if his letter stated that Orlando was a relative."

Occupational licensing is a huge problem

While using your political office to do favors for your cocaine trafficker brother-in-law is not a great look for any politician, the good news for Rubio is there does not appear to have been any actual problem with Cicilia becoming a licensed real estate broker. As far as anyone can tell, since getting out of jail Cicilia hasn't had any trouble with the law and has just been doing his job.

The larger question here is why Florida makes it so difficult for a person who doesn't have well-connected patrons to sell real estate. The specific case of Florida's realtor licensing requirements hasn't been studied in detail, but in general academic studies of state-level licensing rules reveal a landscape that is more about blocking competition than helping consumers. When Benjamin Powell and Evgeny Vorotnikov studied real estate licensing in Massachusetts, they found that a legislative move to make the licensing project more stringent "fails to find any improvement in the quality of service" but "reduced the number of licensed active agents by 39 to 58 percent" which "increased the income of those who remained by 11 to 17 percent."

This is typical, according to a survey done last year by the Obama administration's Council of Economic Advisers, which reviewed the academic literature and found that "most empirical evidence does not find that stricter licensing requirements improve quality, public safety, or health."

Instead, licensing rules reduce competition and raise prices. They also pose a substantial barrier to upward mobility for vulnerable populations, including ex-convicts like Cicilia looking to reintegrate into society and find legitimate careers.

According to a 2012 survey by the libertarian Institute of Justice, Florida's state government is among the worst offenders in terms of licensing. "Florida's occupational licensing regime is in the top tier as one of the most restrictive in the nation," according to the report. "The state enforces burdensome laws that deter entry into 45 of the 102 low- and moderate-income occupations surveyed." All told, out of the 50 states, Florida's licensing laws are the fourth most burdensome — a striking result for a state that has been subject to consistent governance by Republican Party politicians theoretically committed to small-government principles for over a decade.

As an influential member of the state legislature and someone with direct family experience with the problematic aspects of Florida's licensing regime, Rubio could have pushed for broadly beneficial reform. Instead, he sent a letter on behalf of his brother-in-law.

How big a deal is this for Marco Rubio?

On its own, the story of having done a favor for his brother-in-law does not seem incredibly damaging. No state funds were misused, and nobody seems to have been harmed by Cicilia getting his real estate license. Cicilia appears to have benefited from family connections to a powerful politician when many other people in broadly similar circumstances were less fortunate, but if anything the problem is that Florida politicians make it too hard to get real estate licenses in general, not that it was too easy for Cicilia.

That said, the original Roig-Franzia and Higham Washington Post article on Cicilia made it clear that they are closely scrutinizing the Cicilia-Rubio relationship and believe there is some dirt to be found. The story of the real estate license is the first fruit borne by that inquiry. If it's also the last, they can congratulate themselves on having unearthed something more substantial than the luxury speedboat story the New York Times came up with in June, but it would probably take more than this to seriously damage Rubio's prospects.