Dogged by allegations of illegal campaign contributions, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is playing it close to the vest as he seeks election to a third term.
The Sarasota Republican, whose district includes part of the Tampa Bay area, has put all of his campaign records in the custody of his sister-in-law. In the key post of campaign treasurer, he replaced an accountant highly regarded in national Republican circles with a business associate.
And Buchanan recently opened a campaign account at a small bank whose executives, directors and their spouses have contributed a total of nearly $50,000 — almost half of it shortly after he spoke at the bank's grand opening. One director also hosted a $500-a-plate fundraiser for the millionaire auto dealer.
"Because he (Buchanan) has come under scrutiny in the past, these actions do raise warning flags," said Ben Wilcox, board chairman of Common Cause Florida, a government watchdog group.
In his 2008 rematch against Democrat Christine Jennings, several former employees of Buchanan's dealerships sued him, saying they were pressured into making contributions and reimbursed in violation of federal law.
One of the suits has been dismissed under confidential terms, but the others remain open. The election commission also is investigating the allegations.
Last year, Terry Keith Howell of Pasco County said his partners in a trucking company illegally reimbursed him for $8,800 in contributions to Buchanan and $10,000 to the state Republican Party. One of the partners was Tampa developer Timothy Mobley, whose relatives and employees were the single largest group of donors to Buchanan in 2008.
Buchanan, who faces Democrat James Golden this year, has pulled in $1 million for his re-election campaign. Among the donors are several connected to Sarasota-based Gateway Bank of Southwest Florida.
On May 19, 2008, Buchanan attended Gateway's grand opening and "commented on the important role of the independent bank in the local economy," a Gateway news release said.
Within a month of his appearance, Buchanan received $4,600 in contributions from bank president Shaun Merriman, $250 from chief financial officer Richard Hicks, $8,800 from director David Grain and $8,800 from Grain's wife, Lisa — a total of $22,450. All of the contributions came on May 31 or June 13, Federal Election Commission records show.
Individuals are limited to $2,400 in donations per election but can contribute retroactively to past races if they did not contribute at the time.
Also on June 13, the Grains co-hosted a fundraiser for Buchanan "featuring hors d'oeuvres and libations, per the invitation, bringing in $500 a head," the Web site RealClearPolitics reported.
Asked if there was any connection between the contributions, fundraiser and Buchanan's bank appearance, his spokeswoman, Sally Tibbetts, e-mailed this response: "The congressman welcomes the opportunity to attend community events, including new business openings that create jobs and generate economic growth."
Merriman, a veteran banker who said he has done business with Buchanan "for years," said he and his wife have donated to all of the lawmaker's campaigns because they "believe in (his) platform and ability." There was no quid pro quo between the May 19 appearance and the subsequent contributions, Merriman said.
Grain, one of the bank's directors, is a major Democratic donor who has never contributed to a Republican federal candidate except Buchanan, records show. He denied his 2008 donations were linked to Buchanan's bank appearance.
"I've given and raised millions of dollars and I don't even remember this," said Grain, who didn't attend the opening and said he didn't know Buchanan was there. "It was someone who happens to be a congressman in my district, and how could you could look at that and think there's any correlation? It didn't create any business for us."
In fact, Buchanan later opened a campaign account at Gateway, one of three such accounts he has at three different banks.
Larry Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, said it is unusual for a candidate to have three campaign accounts. "Nothing prohibits that," he said, "but people may ask questions as to why they need all those accounts."
In March, Buchanan named Joseph Gruters, one of his partners in a real estate firm and chairman of Sarasota's Republican Party, as campaign treasurer. Gruters replaced Nancy Watkins, a Tampa certified public accountant who has served as treasurer for Republicans nationwide.
Watkins "is a very experienced Republican campaign finance consultant, and well regarded," Noble said.
Treasurers are responsible for ensuring that contributions comply with federal law. In a recent profile in Florida Trend (a sister publication of the St. Petersburg Times), Watkins said she is selective about whom she works with and draws the line "at ethics and integrity." She would not comment for this story on why she and Buchanan parted ways.
"Nancy is a friend, and we very much appreciate the work she has done for us, but personnel changes are very common in campaigns," Tibbetts, Buchanan's spokeswoman, said in her e-mail.
Tibbetts said the campaign reports are now being prepared by a Washington firm, Morgan-Meredith, although Gruters is treasurer and the campaign finance records are in the custody of Buchanan's sister-in-law, Yvonne Buchanan.
Said Tibbetts: "Yvonne Buchanan has been an integral part of our campaign since Vern's first run for public office."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.