SARASOTA — Two Bentleys, an Aston Martin and a Maserati sat parked under the palms at Villa Solstice, a private home on Sarasota Bay where friends and supporters of Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, were hosting a fundraiser earlier this month for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
It was a stunning display of wealth, even by the standards of this affluent waterfront community, where Buchanan spent $5 million of his own money in 2006 in a successful bid for Congress. It also may help to explain why Boehner had played golf with Buchanan and other top donors earlier in the day, and why Buchanan — despite ongoing FBI, IRS and congressional ethics probes — was tapped last year to raise money for the committee that's charged with keeping the House of Representatives in Republican hands.
That organization, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been one of the largest beneficiaries of Buchanan's connections and fundraising prowess. Under his fundraising leadership, the committee just had its best January since 2007, said Paul Lindsay, its communications director. The committee is $13.5 million ahead of where it was at the same time in 2010.
Buchanan has been "a valuable part of our success," Lindsay said, calling the Florida congressman's fundraising an effort to "combat the hundreds of millions of dollars" that Democrats are raising to "return Nancy Pelosi to the speaker's chair."
Neither Buchanan's campaign nor Boehner's would say how much money the Florida event raised; the money went to Boehner's fundraising committee. But Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party and the treasurer for Buchanan's re-election campaign, described it as "enough to make it worthwhile for Boehner to visit."
Although Democrats have been quick to point out Boehner's connections to Buchanan, Pelosi also has backed colleagues with ethical clouds.
The same weekend Boehner was in Sarasota, Pelosi attended a fundraiser in Chicago for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. The House Ethics Committee has an ongoing probe into Jackson's ties to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell a Senate seat when he was tasked with making an appointment to it.
The role of large donors in elections has had increasing importance in presidential and congressional elections since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision that paved the way for unlimited donations to super PACs.
And while there's no more powerful endorsement than a fundraiser with the speaker of the House, other office-seekers have signaled that they, too, don't mind Buchanan's help raising money.
Buchanan was among six Florida congressmen to host a fundraiser last Thursday in Washington for Rep. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican who's running for the U.S. Senate. (Mack's wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., also hosted.)
Some ethics watchdogs wonder why Boehner and the Republican Party continue to stand by Buchanan. Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called it "a little bit contradictory" that Boehner would freeze out two other Republican congressmen for sex scandals but wouldn't address the investigations into Buchanan.
While the Federal Election Commission file on Buchanan's role in the matter was closed, three of his dealerships paid fines for illegally reimbursing employees for campaign contributions.
Buchanan also faces an open ethics investigation. The Office of Congressional Ethics found that he'd filed financial disclosure statements that failed to include positions he held with some companies and organizations, and neglected to report some income.
"We're talking about real corruption," Sloan said. "Here there are really serious accusations against Buchanan. Buying your seat is okay? But having an affair isn't?"
Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said the campaign was looking forward to "matching up Vern's positive agenda for jobs and economic growth" against "cynical and partisan attacks."
"The Democrats have used this smear campaign too many times for voters to take them seriously," she said.
Buchanan, whom the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call listed as the 10th-richest member of Congress last year, got his start in Michigan selling motivational and training materials to small companies. Franchising proved a successful model for his subsequent business enterprises, he told Florida Trend magazine in 2005, saying, "You're in business for yourself — but not by yourself."
By the early 1990s, he and his wife, Sandy, had moved to Florida, and had branched out from selling printing shop franchises to a network of car dealerships.
He landed spots on the boards of some of the most important and influential organizations in Sarasota, including the Ringling Museum of Art foundation and the Mote Marine Laboratory. Those ties, and a stint at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, led him to pivotal political roles, including fundraising positions for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.
That work paid off when Buchanan decided to run for Congress. He put $5 million of his own money into the campaign, an $8 million contest that proved to be the most expensive House race in 2006. He also had help from then-President George W. Bush, who spoke at a Buchanan fundraiser.
This year, Democrats see Buchanan's seat as winnable, even with his fundraising advantage.
It's one of five to seven House seats that they think they can take from Republicans in Florida, said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Buchanan's Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, has "quickly demonstrated that he has what it takes to win this district that has a history of backing independent, solutions-focused candidates," Israel said.
Many of those who are supporting Fitzgerald say they're uncomfortable with a congressman whose ethical challenges have persisted for nearly four years.
"I just never could handle the Buchanan thing. He was never anybody who I was proud to have represent me in this district," said Ann Roth, 72, of Longboat Key, who's donated $225 to Fitzgerald's campaign.
Another such donor, 77-year-old Del Macaulay of Sarasota, helped knock on doors during Fitzgerald's failed 2010 bid to hold on to his state House seat — in the steamy month of August, no less, Macaulay noted. He said the investigations had taken a toll on Buchanan's credibility.
"I don't think he's particularly honest," Macaulay said. "I think he's one of those people who takes advantage of every situation."
Multiple investigations continue.
A federal judge late last month ordered a former business partner of Buchanan's, Sam Kazran, to pay a fine for reimbursing employees $67,900 for contributions they'd made to Buchanan's 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns. Buchanan co-owned a dealership with Kazran but didn't face a fine, and the FEC has closed its file on the congressman.
However, the final order in the case says that Kazran had no knowledge of election laws and that his violations were "non-knowing" and "non-willful." Without Buchanan's involvement, Kazran wouldn't have had any motive for reimbursing the contributions, Kazran's attorney Robert Stok said.
Buchanan's lawyers have said that the Justice Department is looking at some of the allegations of wrongdoing connected to the congressman's fundraising practices. A federal grand jury in Tampa also is investigating.
The Office of Congressional Ethics has referred the findings of its probe into Buchanan's financial disclosure statements to the Ethics Committee.