Swamped by debt from divorce and a struggling business, Terry Keith Howell of Pasco County had just emerged from one bankruptcy case in March 2008 and was about to file another.
Yet Howell, a registered Democrat who has never voted in Florida, made the maximum $8,800 in contributions that month to a Republican — U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota.
And last September, while in bankruptcy, Howell made the maximum $10,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Florida.
How could a man in financial straits afford such big contributions?
According to his deposition in a lawsuit, Howell was reimbursed by his partners in a short-lived trucking company. One of the partners was Timothy Mobley, a Tampa developer whose relatives and employees were the single largest group of contributors to Buchanan, a member of the House transportation committee.
"Tim Mobley told me that Vern Buchanan is somebody good to have on your side, because he was going to be in charge of overseeing the DOT transportation stuff, so the amount of favors he could do for us was enormous,'' Howell said in the February deposition.
Federal election law bans reimbursement for contributions, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment. As word of the allegedly illegal contributions leaked out this year, Howell said his Republican business partners asked him to sign a statement saying he had "lawfully and willingly'' contributed to Buchanan's campaign.'' He refused.
"I take that you didn't make these contributions willingly, is that right?'' asked opposing attorney Charles Lane, who was deposing Howell in connection with an unrelated foreclosure suit.
"Right. Right. I mean, you can look at my past records,'' Howell replied. "If I never contributed anything to anybody as far as a campaign, why would all of a sudden I want to give somebody, you know, $19,000, especially being involved in a bankruptcy?''
Howell's allegations have a familiar ring, but apparently are the first by an individual who never worked for Buchanan, a millionaire auto dealer. His heated rematch against Democrat Christine Jennings last year drew national attention because of claims by former employees that they were pressured into writing checks to his campaign for $1,000, then were reimbursed in cash.
Buchanan, who recently announced he would seek a third term, "fully complies with all campaign finance law,'' said his spokeswoman, Sally Tibbetts. "It sounds to me like this is an internal company dispute that has nothing to do with the Buchanan campaign.''
Mobley and Timothy Hohl, a certified public accountant who also partnered with Howell and has contributed to Buchanan, did not return calls seeking comment.
In his deposition, Howell said Mobley had told him in February that Buchanan was going to invest $4 million in K-Bar Ranch, an upscale community developed by Mobley Homes in New Tampa.
Howell, 51, declined to talk to the St. Petersburg Times. Founder of Florida Express Freight, a Pasco-based trucking company, he has been in and out of bankruptcy several times since 1988. Two years ago, he said in the deposition, Mobley loaned him $25,000, then partnered with him and Hohl in a new company, Express Freight of Florida, that used some of Howell's existing rigs.
When Lane, the lawyer, started asking Howell about the loan, the deposition quickly turned to a discussion of the campaign contributions.
Federal Election Commission records show four contributions totaling $8,800 on March 31, 2008, to Buchanan, and a $10,000 contribution on Sept. 26 to the Republican Party of Florida. By law, donors can contribute retroactively to past campaigns if they did not contribute at the time.
Asked if Mobley, Hohl or any company they were affiliated with had put $10,000 in his bank account, Howell said: "Yeah, you know it.''
Q. What did they tell you?
A. It was reimbursement.
Q. For what?
Howell said he was also reimbursed in another account for the $8,800 in contributions to Buchanan.
Howell said he didn't understand the purpose of the $10,000 check, but thought it "was like the Republican Party for Vern Buchanan.'' He said the check was sent by Federal Express from Mobley's office in Tampa to Sarasota, where Buchanan has his corporate and campaign headquarters.
After Howell expressed concern that he didn't have sufficient funds to cover the check, money was transferred into his account and paperwork confirming the transaction was left on his desk, apparently inadvertently.
Howell said the partnership began to break up late last year in a dispute over control of the trucking company, and word began to leak out about the allegedly illegal contributions. As part of a settlement with Mobley and Hohl, he said, he was asked to sign an agreement that would have barred him from talking to reporters or other third parties about the contributions to Buchanan unless he consulted with an attorney hired by the two men. He refused to sign
The lawyer, Leonard Johnson of Dade City, also has contributed to Buchanan and once borrowed money from him.
As rumors about the contributions spread, Howell said he was contacted by a "lady from Washington'' — he later identified her as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat — as well as a Tallahassee lawyer who is representing several former employees of Buchanan's dealerships.
Earlier this year, Howell said in his deposition, "people from D.C.'' flew to Tampa and told him they would pay for attorney Barry Cohen, a major Democratic Party fundraiser, to represent him. One of the visitors was so eager to get the paperwork showing the money transfers "that I literally had to take it out of the guy's hand.''
A spokesman for Pelosi said no one from her office or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee "has spoken to this guy,'' referring to Howell. It is unclear from the deposition if he ever met with Cohen, who did not return a call seeking comment.
It is also unclear if Howell has ever shown or given the paperwork to anyone.
As his partnership with Mobley and Hohl ended in a flurry of lawsuits, Howell said his trucks were vandalized, a brick was hurled through his front window and anonymous callers warned him that "people that have their kind of money don't let people like you have a very comfortable life.''
But as word spread about the campaign contributions, Howell said, Mobley and Hohl paid him $20,000 in consulting fees, offered to help him deal with the IRS — he owes thousands of dollars in delinquent taxes — and even paid for his hospitalization for heart problems.
Throughout it all, Howell said, he felt "like a puppet'' who had been used by opponents of Buchanan as well as by Mobley and Hohl.
"I know that I did not do anything wrong,'' he said in the deposition, "and that from what people are telling me up there (in Washington) you can't do stuff like that. This is the first time that Vern Buchanan has reached out past his employees to do something like this. He's actually gone out to somebody he's partners with to get them to start putting money into his campaign.''
Times staffers Carolyn Edds, Will Gorham and Bill Adair contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]