U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is one of the richest men in Congress thanks in part to his car dealerships.
But those businesses have also made the Sarasota Republican the target of lawsuits in his own county. Ex-employees allege that his dealerships fabricated tax returns, falsified incomes to get loan applications approved and "powerbooked" — faked options to pump up the sales price.
Now those same allegations have been made against Buchanan's dealership in Pasco County: Suncoast Ford Mitsubishi on U.S. 19 in Port Richey.
The congressman's dealership bilked customers, employees and even Ford Motor Co. in a relentless drive to sell cars, according to the suit filed Aug. 13 in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
The lawsuit was filed by Tallahassee attorney Douglas Lyons. He's the attorney in the other six lawsuits against Buchanan dealerships and said he is planning to file five more similar suits, including one more in Pasco County.
"There were just a lot of things that took place that were not legal and ethical," said Scott Russ, 43, a former employee and the plaintiff in the Pasco suit. He's seeking unspecified lost wages and damages.
Russ said he was the Port Richey dealership's finance director for two years until August 2006. That's when Russ said he was fired because he never took part in the alleged scheme.
Buchanan's business partner denied anything illicit took place at any of the dealerships.
"They're absolutely false statements," Darrin Chrisman, the operating partner of Buchanan's Sarasota Ford dealership, said of the lawsuit's allegations.
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According to the Pasco lawsuit, "the business plan at the dealership is set up in order to deceive consumers (and) defeat the law. Not only were the consumers ripped off but the employees were also ripped off."
The dealership padded the bottom line of the owners, the suit said, but left customers without the extras they paid for, left lenders with falsified documents and left employees without the commissions that they had earned.
In the suit Russ said he was "cheated" out of $5,000 to $6,000 in commissions each month — totaling more than $100,000.
"When complaints came in the standard practice was to deny any culpability on the part of the dealership," the suit said. "When faced with a lawsuit the dealership would destroy incriminating documents in the shredder."
Russ said in August 2005 a salesman cursed and threatened him for stopping a questionable sale. A Pasco sheriff's report showed the dealership reported the incident to deputies.
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Chrisman, the congressman's business partner, said Buchanan is a major shareholder in the dealerships but is not an active partner in the businesses.
Buchanan is in his first term as the U.S. representative from District 13, serving Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. Democrat Christine Jennings disputed his 2006 win for months. She's running against him again, and again controversy has found Buchanan.
The lawsuits filed in Sarasota County make allegations not included in the Pasco suit: that employees were told to contribute to Buchanan's congressional campaign. The employees said the dealership then reimbursed them for their contributions.
That would be illegal, and on Tuesday the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against the congressman for "serious violations of campaign finance law."
Russ said he and other employees at the Port Richey dealership were leaned on by management to donate to the campaign. "I was pressured many times," Russ said, but he never donated.
He recalled that management once called a meeting of employees to exhort them to contribute.
"We were in some kind of contest," Russ said. … "We needed to beat the other stores in contributions."
Buchanan has denied these allegations in the past. So did his campaign when contacted this week by the St. Petersburg Times.
"It's the campaign's policy that all contributions fully comply with FEC regulations," said campaign spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts. "No one on the campaign has advised anyone to make improper donations, and those allegations are an issue between the businesses and their employees."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.