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Car importer coerced donations, dealers say

Published Oct. 13, 2005

When Florida politicians need money for their campaign coffers or a private jet for a quick trip to Paris, they often look to James M. "Jim" Moran Sr., head of Southeast Toyota Distributors Inc. Moran, now 72 and in failing health, occupies a favored place in the hearts of Florida politicians despite his 1984 conviction for filing false tax returns. He was arrested after authorities discovered a hidden bank account in the Cayman Islands.

While building a car-importing empire that is reputedly the world's largest independent distributor, Moran also built a reputation as a man who could raise a lot of money for politicians.

Now a number of Toyota dealers across the Southeast have accused Moran of coercing many of those contributions from them so he could influence politicians who needed his money.

In seven lawsuits filed in four states, Toyota dealers say Southeast Toyota Distributors forced them to contribute to certain candidates and steer business to related companies Moran and his family controlled _ or risk losing their businesses and the allocations of cars needed to supply customers.

Political analysts and economists see the campaign contributions as part of a national strategy by the Japanese to gain political advantages in the United States. Indeed, Toyota has employed as lobbyists leaders from the Republican and Democratic parties in Washington and has been a frequent donor to congressional campaigns in every state.

Recipients of Moran contributions in Florida have included U.S. Sens. Connie Mack and Bob Graham, Gov. Lawton Chiles, State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, former Gov. Bob Martinez, Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro and dozens of legislators and other state officials.

Moran's companies contributed to Mack when he defeated then-U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay in a tight race. The election was marked by a last-minute advertising blitz on Mack's behalf by a foreign auto dealers' political action committee (PAC).

The foreign auto PAC spent $326,000 on Mack _ on top of more than $7,000 Moran's corporations donated. Moran hedged his bets, making a last-minute $1,000 contribution to MacKay.

After Mack beat him, MacKay said he had been defeated "not by Connie Mack, I was beaten by Tokyo."

A bag full of cash?

The Toyota dealers say their campaign contributions were made between 1982 and 1989, after import restrictions on Japanese cars made it hard for dealers to keep up with demand for popular car and truck models.

Their suits name as defendants Southeast and its holding company, JM Family Enterprises, Toyota Motor Sales, Moran and several other company officials. One South Carolina dealer has accused Moran and the corporations of making illegal payoffs to politicians and illegal campaign contributions.

A former Chicago car dealer, Moran lives in Hillsboro Beach, an exclusive community near Fort Lauderdale. He was once featured on the cover of Time magazine as the world's largest car dealer.

His corporate jets have figured in recent investigations that target legislators who failed to disclose trips and gifts provided by lobbyists.

Some legislators charged Friday with failing to report trips took the Southeast corporate jet on a hunting trip to Mexico. Others under investigation by the state Ethics Commission took a pleasure trip to Europe with lobbyist Paul Sanford of Jacksonville. Sanford lobbies for several JM Family subsidiaries.

Dozens of records in the lawsuits are being kept secret at the request of JM Family Enterprises. Attorneys for the Moran companies insist that secrecy is needed to protect trade and business secrets from competitors.

But the Toyota dealers say that Moran is trying to cover up wrongdoing by clamping a lid on records that the dealers might use to pursue their claims.

Some details of Southeast's political dealings surfaced in late April, when Dennis Puskaric, a former sales development manager, gave testimony in preparation for several of the lawsuits.

Puskaric said dealers and Southeast employees were encouraged to contribute to certain campaigns with promises that the money would be refunded as "discretionary bonuses."

Puskaric said he was told that the company paid bribes in Tallahassee. After he left the company, Puskaric said that Bill Stout, an accountant who previously handled governmental relations for Moran, told him that cash bribes had been paid to get things done.

"He openly admitted that he was a bagman," Puskaric said as he described his conversations with Stout.

"He admitted that he was fearful of going to jail for what he was doing and would look me right in the eye and become very concerned about perhaps his own life. He was very paranoid about doing what he was asked to do."

Puskaric said Stout had been drinking when he first talked about the bribes, but also talked about them when he had not been drinking.

Asked if Stout named any individuals who received the bribes, Puskaric said Stout "talked about" Sen. Ken Jenne, D-Hollywood, State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Gallagher and former Secretary of State George Firestone. He said Stout also talked about IRS agents or ex-IRS agents taking cash kickbacks.

"He (Stout) just referred to a bag full of cash, meeting at Tallahassee, but really just broad-brushed it," Puskaric said.

Jenne, Gallagher and Firestone vehemently deny accepting cash from anyone. All three have collected campaign contributions from Moran and his businesses.

Stout also denies making any cash payment to any of the officials. In an interview Saturday, Stout admitted he had had a drinking problem while working at Southeast, but said he had handled legal campaign contributions that were paid by check and never had told anyone he was a bagman.

"To the best of my knowledge no cash was ever paid to a politician while I was at Southeast Toyota, at least by me," Stout said. "I can't say what others did."

Officials at the JM-Southeast headquarters in Deerfield Beach did not return telephone calls. Their Tallahassee lobbyist, former Sen. Ken Plante, said he does not think anyone from the corporation has paid bribes to anyone.

"They have become very well-known as generous people when it comes to campaigns," Plante said.

"I think they do more than their share. I don't know of any bags of cash. To my knowledge, it has all been by check and very legitimate."

Milk, yacht money

Jenne said he has thrown Stout out of his office and knows he has a substance-abuse problem.

"The last time I got money in a paper bag was when my mother put my milk money in with my lunch," Jenne said.

Firestone called it "an unmitigated lie" and said he never has accepted money in any form except as campaign contributions.

Gallagher said Moran gathered checks totaling more than $120,000 when Gallagher ran for governor in 1986, and Moran's companies contributed $12,000 when he ran for his current post in 1990.

Gallagher said he was trying to raise money when he asked to meet Moran in the early days of his campaign for governor. After an initial meeting, Gallagher said he was invited back for lunch with Moran and several executives at Southeast.

"He said they had all gotten together and got clients and wanted to help in my race and presented me with a folder with some checks in it," Gallagher recalled.

"I was surprised by the amount. I was obviously thrilled. We were in a campaign where others had big people like Moran raising money for them."

Among the contributions Gallagher collected that day were checks totaling $6,000 from Toyota dealers in Georgia and North Carolina and $3,000 from a St. Augustine Toyota dealer who now says he was forced to make the contribution.

Gallagher said he did not know how Moran collected the money and only recently became aware of the lawsuits the dealers have filed.

He also used Moran's yacht, the Gallant Lady, for a 1986 fund-raiser that netted about $20,000 for his campaign. He has returned for dinner on the yacht to discuss an insurance issue with JM Family executives.

"We paid for dinner," Gallagher said. After dinner, Moran joined the group and told them he had just been to a banquet honoring troubled teens who are given an opportunity to learn how to be mechanics at a Moran-sponsored school.

Gallagher said he was not aware that Moran started the school to comply with the provisions of a federal probationary sentence he received after pleading guilty to tax fraud.

Said Gallagher: "He's pretty proud of the program, but he never told me the court made him do this."

$30,000, in $100 slices?

The campaign contributions mentioned in the Toyota dealers' lawsuits were solicited by district managers who pressured dealers to donate, said Puskaric, the former sales development manager for Southeast.

He said his first brush with campaign fund-raising came in 1982, shortly after he joined the company. Chiles was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate and had limited campaign contributions to $100. Officials at Southeast went to work to help.

Puskaric said a corporate executive told him they needed $100 from him and his wife to help Moran collect $30,000 that could be presented to Chiles at a Saturday morning breakfast.

"It just went against my own grain to contribute to Democrats," Puskaric testified.

"And quite frankly, there were other people in senior management that didn't like contributing because of their political affiliations. They wanted freedom of choice and the impression I got as a new employee on board, I didn't have a choice."

Puskaric said his superiors told him that he would be repaid with a "discretionary bonus."

And, Puskaric was asked, what if he refused to contribute?

"I suspected at bonus time that there'd be a discretionary minus put next to my name," he responded.

Florida law prohibits third-party campaign contributions.

MacKay, who was so bitter at how Mack had received the last-minute $326,000 contribution from the foreign auto PAC, said Friday that he's glad the Toyota dealers are pursuing the issue in court.

"I'm worried about these people consciously and strategically breaking the law to manipulate American policy," MacKay said.

"If this was happening in Japan, they would be putting people in jail."

_ Researcher Kati Kairies contributed to this report.