In a stunning development just weeks before the November election, one of U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan's longtime friends and another man pleaded guilty Thursday to making illegal campaign contributions.
Tampa developer Tim Mobley and accountant Timothy Hohl admitted breaking federal law by reimbursing employees for $84,300 in contributions to an official described in a Justice Department press release only as "an elected member of the U.S. Congress.''
That official is Buchanan, whose office quickly issued a statement saying the Sarasota Republican was "totally unaware'' of any unlawful contributions and would "disgorge'' them, almost certainly to the U.S. Treasury.
Buchanan's campaigns have long been plagued by allegations of fundraising irregularities, but this is the first time anyone has been criminally prosecuted.
The Justice Department said Mobley, 60, admitted that from March 2006 to October 2008 — a period covering Buchanan's first two congressional campaigns — he illegally disguised contributions by reimbursing donations made by his employees.
He also admitted trying to conceal reimbursements by characterizing them as legitimate bonuses. In all, Mobley admitted, he reimbursed $84,300 to Buchanan's campaign and $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.
Hohl, who was working as an accountant for Mobley, admitted he reimbursed others and also accepted reimbursement for his own contributions and those of his wife.
Federal election law bans making contributions in the name of another. Mobley faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $632,000 fine. Hohl faces a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
In 2009, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Terry Keith Howell, a former partner of Mobley and Hohl in a trucking business, said the two men had illegally reimbursed him for contributing $8,800 to Buchanan's 2008 campaign and $10,000 to Florida's Republican Party.
Howell made the allegations in a deposition in a foreclosure case, pointedly noting he was a registered Democrat who was in bankruptcy proceedings at the time.
"I take it that you didn't make these contributions willingly?'' a lawyer asked him.
"Right. Right,'' 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?''
At the time, Mobley denied Howell's allegations, saying Howell instead took money out of the trucking company accounts as compensation he was entitled to as a partner.
"It was his decision as to what he did with any such distribution,'' Mobley told the Times.
A prominent home builder, Mobley is developing the K-Bar Ranch area of New Tampa. In 2010, Buchanan used a mortgage he held on some of Mobley's land as collateral for a $3.9 million Bank of America loan.
The two men have known each other since Buchanan and his wife moved from Michigan in the early 1990s.
Neither Mobley nor Hohl could be reached for comment Thursday.
Over the years, several former employees of Buchanan's car dealerships have said they were illegally reimbursed for campaign contributions. In April 2010, the Federal Election Commission 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.
Last year, an FEC report showed the federal agency had significant concerns about what Buchanan knew about illegal donations. Evidence suggests "it is more likely than not'' that his campaign committee broke federal election laws, FEC attorneys wrote in the report.
Even so, the FEC did not feel it had a strong enough case to pursue action against the congressman, who is seeking a fourth term and faces former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald in November.
Earlier this month, Buchanan's office said the Justice Department had closed its investigation of all allegations against him regarding campaign finance and other irregularities.
Susan Tayor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]