On Oct. 17, two weeks before the November election, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan refunded $5,000 in contributions made by five former employees — one of whom had claimed that he and others were pressured to donate to Buchanan in violation of federal law.
But voters never knew about the refunds. It was not until March — four months after the Sarasota Republican won a third term — that the ex-employees' names finally showed up on a report that Buchanan's campaign filed with the Federal Elections Commission.
Buchanan, a multimillionaire car dealer, has been dogged by allegations of illegal contributions since he first ran for Congress in 2005-06.
Three years ago, Carlo Bell, former finance director for Buchanan's Nissan Dodge in Venice, filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that the firm's general manager told him and other employees in 2005 that they "needed to contribute" to Buchanan's campaign.
The race for the seat in the 13th Congressional District proved to be extremely close, with Buchanan initially trailing his main opponent in raising money.
The Nissan Dodge employees each wrote a check for $1,000 and received $1,000 back in cash. Federal law bans "undisclosed conduit reimbursements" in which a donor makes a contribution by funneling it through someone else.
Buchanan, whose district includes Manatee County, denied wrongdoing, and Bell's FEC complaint is still pending. But a Buchanan finance report filed after last year's general election shows that the campaign had refunded $5,000 to the "United States Treasury c/o Federal Elections Committee" on Oct. 17.
No names appeared on subsequent finance reports until the FEC told the campaign to be specific. In March, the campaign committee identified the donors as Bell and four other former Nissan Dodge employees.
The FEC requires campaign committees to send contributions thought to be illegal to the Treasury Department, not to the donor.
An expert on campaign finance law says the refunds likely meant that Buchanan's campaign made a deal with the FEC last fall.
Then the campaign "went to extraordinary lengths to cover up the settlement, including violating the (law) again by not properly reporting the refunds," said Brett Kappel, a lawyer with the Washington law firm Arent Fox and a former member of the American Bar Association's election law committee.
However, Kappel says, it is very rare for the FEC to fine a candidate or campaign committee for reporting violations "unless you don't file a report at all."
Buchanan's office did not return calls for comment.
It was not the only time in recent months that Buchanan faced problems with the elections commission.
In December, the FEC sued Sam Kazran, owner of a now-closed Jacksonville Hyundai dealership, alleging that several of his employees and their relatives were illegally reimbursed for contributing to Buchanan's 2006 and 2008 campaigns while Buchanan was a partner in the dealership.
Buchanan was not named as a defendant in the suit. But shortly after it was filed, his campaign committee paid $50,000 to the Washington law firm Patton Boggs, which often represents clients in dealings with the FEC.
On May 30, a federal judge ordered Kazran to pay a $67,900 fine to the agency. In an interview with the Bradenton Herald, Kazran acknowledged the reimbursements but said Buchanan had announced he needed to raise $1 million "to look good."
"It was, 'This is what I need to do and this is what you need to do to take care of it,' '' Kazran recalled.
In a statement to the Herald, Buchanan's campaign committee said it had reported the alleged violations to the FEC two years ago and called Kazran's allegations "absolutely false."
Two years ago, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Terry Keith Howell, a once-bankrupt Pasco County man, said he had been paid $18,800 by his former partners in a trucking firm to contribute to Buchanan's campaign and the Republican Party of Florida. One of the partners, Tim Mobley, was also head of Mobley Homes, a Tampa company of which Buchanan used to be a director.
Mobley's relatives and employees were the largest group of contributors to Buchanan's 2008 campaign.
Mobley acknowledged asking Howell to contribute, but said he did so willingly. Howell denied that, saying, "how's a guy in bankruptcy going to be doing this?''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com.