Feds open campaign finance investigation of Rep. Vern Buchanan

Congressman says he was victim of extortion

mmasferrer@bradenton.comOctober 18, 2011 

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating complaints that U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan broke campaign finance laws — the same allegations for which the Federal Elections Commission has already cleared the congressman after a two-year investigation.

Buchanan’s attorneys said Tuesday they expected that the Justice Department would open its own probe of allegations that Buchanan directed a former business partner, Sam Kazran, to improperly reimburse his employees for contributions they made to Buchanan’s congressional campaigns from 2005 to 2007.

The attorneys accuse Kazran and Tallahassee lawyer Doug Lyons, who has filed about a dozen lawsuits against Buchanan, of trying to extort money from the congressman to buy their silence. Mark Ornstein, an Orlando attorney who represents Buchanan’s auto dealership businesses, said Lyons told him it would take $43 million to keep his clients’ complaints confidential.

Buchanan’s lawyers said they have asked the Justice Department to investigate the attempted blackmail.

The Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny an investigation on Tuesday.

Bill McGinley, a Washington lawyer representing Buchanan, told the Bradenton Herald that not only does he expect the Justice Department to clear Buchanan, he expects the investigation will find that “Congressman Buchanan is a victim.”

“It has always been our expectation that the Justice Department would review the Federal Election Commission’s findings,” Buchanan’s campaign said in a statement. “The FEC carefully reviewed these politically motivated charges and concluded, based upon the factual record, that Vern did nothing wrong. We are confident that the Justice Department will reach the same conclusion and look forward to cooperating fully.”

Lyons did not return a phone call to his Tallahassee law office from the Bradenton Herald on Tuesday, and Kazran did not respond to an e-mail sent to the address included in court records in the case.

McGinley, Ornstein and Ben Wood, another Washington lawyer representing Buchanan, spoke to the Bradenton Herald during a conference call arranged by Buchanan’s office.

Buchanan, who was first elected in 2006 to represent most of Bradenton-Sarasota and the surrounding areas, has never been implicated in official investigations of the campaign finance complaints. But that has not stopped the congressman’s political opponents from using the controversy to target Buchanan.

For example, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed numerous complaints against Buchanan, has used the charges to label Buchanan one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress.

Leading up to the 2008 election, Lyons began filing lawsuits against Buchanan, alleging consumer fraud by his car dealerships and that he had directed an illegal scheme in which Kazran reimbursed his employees for contributions they had made to Buchanan’s congressional campaign. Federal law prohibits such “conduit contributions.”

Ornstein said that when he met with Lyons in Tallahassee, Lyons demanded that Buchanan pay his clients $43 million to keep the complaints confidential. If he didn’t, Ornstein said Tuesday, Buchanan’s legal and political problems would only mount.

“In that meeting, he advised me that my client was one of the wealthiest men in Congress, and he needed to decide what his freedom was worth,” Ornstein said. “He stated to me that he thought it was worth $43 million.”

Ornstein said he investigated the complaints and when he replied to Lyons that the charges were meritless, “He told me that Congressman Buchanan would die a death of a thousand cuts, and that he hoped the congressman had enjoyed his life.”

Ornstein said most of the lawsuits that Lyons filed have been dismissed, and that two remaining cases are “dormant.”

“We have asked the Justice Department, as a central part of its review, to scrutinize the conduct of those who have tried to exploit the threat of spreading malicious falsehoods about Vern for personal financial gain,” Buchanan’s campaign said in its statement “Their conduct crossed the line. We have asked the Justice Department to consider whether their efforts to extort Vern also violated federal law.”

Buchanan’s lawyers say Kazran did not start accusing the congressman of orchestrating the illegal contributions until after he quit paying off a $2.5 million business loan he had received from Buchanan.

When it learned of the possible campaign finance violations by Kazran, Buchanan’s campaign reported them to the FEC.

The agency investigated possible wrongdoing by Buchanan and his campaign for more than two years, interviewing numerous witnesses and gathering thousands of pages of documents.

In one court filing in the case, FEC lawyers attached a document in which Kazran responded to several questions and requests for documents about the contributions made by his dealership and employees to Buchanan’s campaign. Never does Kazran indicate in the document that Buchanan was part of the scheme.

Earlier this year, the FEC said it found no proof of wrongdoing by Buchanan and closed its probe.

But it did fine Kazran’s dealership, Hyundai of North Jacksonville, $67,900 — an amount equal to the illegal contributions. A federal judge upheld the fine last week. Kazran also faces a $67,900 fine.

The FEC said Hyundai of North Jacksonville, which Buchanan partially owned from 2004 to 2008, engaged in an “extensive and ongoing scheme” to improperly reimburse employees for contributions to Buchanan’s campaign, according to a complaint filed this spring in U.S. District Court in Florida. Buchanan has never been fined.

Kazran said in court filings in July that he had been “caught in some political war to which he has no desire to be involved in.”

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