When a Democrat who is broke and has never made a campaign contribution gives the maximum to the re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, something appears fishy. The two-term congressman from Sarasota disavows any breach of campaign finance laws. But there is a swirl of allegations that contributions made to Buchanan's campaign have been illegally reimbursed. A federal investigation should be launched if one is not already under way.
With 14 civil lawsuits filed against him, all accusing Buchanan and his car dealerships of shady practices, Buchanan is not new to controversy. The millionaire congressman seems to have a penchant for leaving behind angry investors and employees who feel that he has cheated them in some way. In fact, it appears no other U.S. House member has provoked as many lawsuits, according to the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But the story of Terry Keith Howell of Pasco County goes beyond Buchanan as businessman to his role as congressman and whether he cheated voters by violating campaign finance laws. As reported by the St. Petersburg Times' Susan Taylor Martin, Howell had just emerged from bankruptcy in March 2008 when he donated the maximum $8,800 contribution to Buchanan's campaign. Six months later, Howell made the maximum $10,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Florida.
Howell discusses these contributions in a deposition in an unrelated foreclosure case. He says the money was reimbursed by his partners in a trucking company, including Tampa developer Timothy Mobley. Mobley, his relatives and employees make up Buchanan's biggest group of campaign contributors. Howell says Mobley told him that the donations were to curry favor with Buchanan, who sits on the House transportation committee.
In another indication of how irregular Howell's donations were, his partners pressed him to sign a document vowing not to talk about the donations without talking first to his partners' attorney. They also wanted him to sign a statement saying his contribution to Buchanan was done "willingly."
Howell's story is strikingly similar to those told by people who worked for Buchanan. Carlo Bell, a former finance director of Venice Nissan Dodge in Sarasota County, said he and two other employees were pressured to write $1,000 checks to Buchanan's campaign and were then paid $1,000 in cash. Bell's allegation is supported by documentation, and a pending complaint was filed last year with the Federal Election Commission.
As Buchanan embarks on a run for a third term, his campaign practices should be formally investigated. Buchanan says through a spokesman that his campaign "fully complies" with the law. But voters deserve to have that independently verified.