On Aug. 1, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office responded to a home burglary. Among the stolen items: original records that purportedly showed illegal reimbursements for contributions to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota.
The originals are still missing. But the homeowner, Terry Keith Howell, had copies.
Now Howell has given a set to the St. Petersburg Times, saying they support his claim that his former partners in a trucking company paid him a total of $18,800 to donate to Buchanan and Florida's Republican Party.
Howell, a registered Democrat heavily in debt, says the men are "bullies'' who pressured him to say he willingly made the contributions.
"They said, 'We don't want this stuff played out in the media — this will ruin both of us,' '' Howell recalls. "I said, 'What do you mean us? How much further can I go? My whole life story played out in the media.' ''
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said that the burglary investigation remains "active'' and that DNA evidence, which he wouldn't identify, has been sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for analysis.
Among those faced with questioning is Timothy Mobley of Mobley Homes, a Tampa company of which Buchanan was once a director. Mobley's relatives and employees were the largest group of contributors to the Republican lawmaker's 2008 campaign.
In a letter e-mailed to the Times on Tuesday, Mobley acknowledged asking Howell to contribute to Buchanan, but insisted he did so willingly.
"The idea that I or anyone on my behalf would have anything to do with an alleged break-in at Mr. Howell's house is ludicrous,'' Mobley wrote. "Mr. Howell is, I believe, a desperate man, and is, in keeping with past practices, trying to shift blame for his actions.''
The other partner, Timothy Hohl, did not return calls. In response to written questions from the Times, Buchanan's office issued this statement:
"We comply with all federal election laws. … This has nothing to do with Vern Buchanan. This is a dispute between Tim Mobley and Terry Keith Howell.''
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The burglary is a bizarre twist in a controversy that continues to dog Buchanan, a millionaire auto dealer, as he seeks a third term in Congress.
Buchanan's 2008 race drew national attention because of claims by former dealership employees that they were pressured into writing $1,000 checks to his campaign and reimbursed in cash. At least one employee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
Howell, 51, never worked for Buchanan but was partner in a short-lived Pasco trucking company with Mobley and Hohl.
As the Times reported June 20, Howell testified in a deposition earlier this year that the men reimbursed him for contributions to Buchanan and the state Republican Party.
"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,'' Howell said in a deposition for an unrelated foreclosure case.
Federal election law bans reimbursement for contributions, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment. As word of the allegedly illegal contributions leaked out, Howell said he refused to sign a statement that he had "lawfully and willfully'' contributed to Buchanan.
After the Times' story ran, Mobley gave the paper a notarized statement signed by Howell before he was deposed. Howell now says he was confused about what he signed in the flurry of paperwork surrounding the breakup of the trucking company.
But Howell says the men continued to pressure him. Mobley even offered to sell him a townhouse at a "discounted price'' and let him delay payments for three or four months, Howell says.
At a final meeting about a month ago, "I said, 'Mobley, I don't want to be involved with any of this stuff,' '' Howell recalls.
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On Aug. 1, Howell came home to find the rear sliding glass door open and a 300-pound floor safe missing from his closet. It contained jewelry, birth certificates and bank records.
Howell told deputies he first suspected his ex-wife's estranged husband. But the man was in the Pinellas County Jail that night.
"Terry (Howell) then advised that he is currently dealing in an investigation with alleged voter fraud,'' wrote Deputy Robert Scoles III. "This case deals with Timothy Mobley paying back money Terry donated to Congressman Vern Buchanan's election campaign. Since the allegations became public, Timothy has been trying to get Terry to return the original documents showing the alleged fraud.''
The report said Mobley knew Howell had a safe in his house "because it was the safe he had in his office" when the two men were still in business together.
The missing records, copies of which Howell gave the Times, include:
• A receipt, dated March 28, 2008, for a check for $8,800 that was written on the trucking company account and paid to Howell for "political contribution."
• An $8,800 deposit the same day to Howell's personal account. Three days later, Howell made four contributions totaling $8,800 to Buchanan, Federal Election Commission records show.
• An Aug. 29, 2008, request made by M-Tampa — a separate company in which Mobley and Hohl are corporate members — for $10,000 to donate to Florida's Republican party. Next to the words "requested by'' are the initials VB.
The same day, Howell — in bankruptcy at the time— wrote a $10,000 personal check to the party but warned Mobley he didn't have enough money to cover it. On Sept. 3, the trucking company wired $10,000 into Howell's account.
In his e-mailed letter to the Times, Mobley challenged Howell's credibility, noting he has been in bankruptcy several times and alleging he "has a history of criminal charges.'' (State records show only a 1998 misdemeanor worthless check charge with no conviction.)
Mobley said Howell was 50 percent owner of the trucking company and could have transferred money into his own account in order to make the campaign contributions.
"He was able to take distributions as an owner and it was his decision as to what he did with any such distributions,'' Mobley wrote. "I am a constituent of, and do support, Congressman Vern Buchanan, and certainly asked Mr. Howell to consider donating to his campaign.''
Mobley said the initials "VB'' were written by someone in M-Tampa's accounting department, not by Buchanan. But Mobley did not explain why the initials were on the request for the $10,000 for the Republican Party.
Howell denies taking any distribution. And he says it's ridiculous to think someone would willingly make nearly $20,000 in political contributions while about to lose his house.
"With all my issues,'' he says, "how's a guy in bankruptcy going to be doing this?''
Susan Taylor Martin may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org