Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan claimed the Federal Election Commission had "completely exonerated'' him of accusations that employees of his car dealerships were illegally reimbursed for campaign contributions.
In a just-released report, however, FEC attorneys said evidence suggests "it is more likely than not'' that the millionaire Sarasota Republican and his campaign committee broke federal election laws.
The report also said that there were "legitimate questions'' about Buchanan's credibility and that an affidavit in which he and former business partner Sam Kazran said they knew nothing about reimbursements could indicate Buchanan was trying to hide his involvement.
But the FEC's Office of General Counsel had "significant concerns'' about Kazran's credibility, too. Faced with conflicting testimony and a shaky witness in Kazran, the commission closed its case against Buchanan last winter.
Asked for comment about the report, which was prepared in January but not released until Tuesday, Buchanan's Washington lawyers called it a "marvel of one-sided advocacy.''
"No amount of overstatement, distortion or speculation by (general counsel) can transform what occurred in this case into a violation of federal laws,'' the lawyers said. "It's time to … rightly conclude from the facts that no laws have been broken.''
Since Buchanan first ran for office in 2006, several employees have said they were pressured into contributing and were later reimbursed.
In April 2010, the FEC notified Buchanan it had found reason to believe he knowingly took $67,900 in illegal donations for his 2006 and 2008 campaigns from employees of the Jacksonville Hyundai dealership he then owned with Kazran.
Later that year, the FEC sued Kazran over the reimbursements. Kazran said he made them on Buchanan's instructions, a charge Buchanan denies.
In its report, the FEC's general counsel said Kazran's conduct in court cases involving other dealerships raised questions about his "honesty and respect for the law.'' It also said Kazran was "ill-advised'' when he reportedly threatened to publicize the FEC's investigation of Buchanan shortly before the 2010 congressional election.
Kazran did not go through with the threat despite bad blood between the two because of a legal dispute over the Jacksonville car store. Kazran said Buchanan told him there would be no settlement of the dispute unless Kazran signed an affidavit disavowing knowledge of illegal campaign reimbursements.
"This affidavit is potentially significant because it could demonstrate that Buchanan was attempting to conceal his involvement in the reimbursement scheme,'' the FEC report said.
The FEC did not find sufficient evidence to corroborate Kazran's claims of illegal refunds. But the report outlines what it says are several inconsistencies in testimony by Buchanan and some of his top aides:
• Buchanan's campaign told the FEC that the affidavit was "entirely true,'' including a statement that Kazran had no information before September 2008 that the Jacksonville dealership reimbursed employees for donations. "This provision contradicts one of (Buchanan's) key claims in this case — that Kazran alone directed the reimbursements during the '06 and '08 cycles,'' the report said.
• Buchanan testified that his campaign committee sent his business partners a letter saying they could not reimburse contributions. However, former campaign treasurer Nancy Watkins said she was unaware of any documents prepared for the partners regarding campaign finance law, the report said.
• Buchanan testified he could not remember "one way or the other" whether he asked Kazran to raise money for the 2006 campaign. "There is evidence Buchanan did ask, and it raises legitimate questions as to Buchanan's credibility that he could not admit this innocuous fact,'' the report said.'' (It is illegal to reimburse donors for contributions, but it is legal and even common to ask business associates for help raising money.)
• Although Buchanan said he did not remember whether he asked Kazran to fund raise, he was "certain that he had told Kazran not to reimburse contributions,'' the report said. "These two statements are largely inconsistent with each other, and are inconsistent with other evidence.''
"We think that Buchanan's inability to remember basic facts as to these uncontroversial, routine issues detracts from his credibility,'' the FEC general counsel said.
However, the report concluded, "while there is some evidence in the record that is consistent with Kazran's general allegations,'' other evidence supported Buchanan's denials or was ambiguous.
Although the FEC has closed its case, Buchanan in October confirmed that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating his campaign. He reportedly also is under investigation by the House Office of Congressional Ethics.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.