Ethics committee extends review of Rep. Vern Buchanan's conduct

ebolstad@mcclatchydc.comMay 9, 2012 

— The Office of Congressional Ethics said Wednesday there’s “substantial reason to believe” Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., attempted to influence the testimony of a former business partner who was a witness during an investigation into the congressman’s fundraising.

The House Ethics Committee, a separate entity, said it would further review the findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which zeroed in on Buchanan’s conduct during an investigation by the Federal Election Commission.

One of the richest members of Congress, who built up his fortune with a string of car dealerships, Buchanan is also one of the top fundraisers for the Republican party. He’s the lead fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has as its aim holding onto the GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Buchanan this spring hosted House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for a fundraiser in Sarasota.

The Office of Congressional Ethics report focused on the allegation that Buchanan made the settlement of a $2.9 million lawsuit over a soured business relationship contingent on his former business partner, Sam Kazran, signing a false affidavit with the FEC. The affidavit was connected to Kazran's admission during the FEC investigation that he reimbursed employees of the car dealership who had contributed to Buchanan's campaigns.

The report asks the Ethics Committee to consider whether Buchanan violated federal bribery, obstruction and witness tampering laws -- all of which have criminal penalties. It also says there's "substantial reason to believe" Buchanan violated House rules of conduct requiring members behave at all times "in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

The congressman's office disputes the findings of the report, saying it has "full confidence" that the Ethics Committee will "reach the same conclusion" as the FEC and "dismiss these old, recycled accusations."

"There is absolutely nothing new in this report -- every allegation was painstakingly reviewed and unequivocally rejected by the FEC," said Buchanan spokesman Max Goodman, calling the report "a disgrace" that "relies exclusively on the contradictory testimony of one unreliable and thoroughly discredited witness."

Buchanan's lawyers also excoriated the Office of Congressional Ethics in a 14-page letter to the Ethics Committee made public Wednesday. Buchanan's lawyers Robert Luskin, William McGinley and Benjamin Wood call the report "fundamentally flawed," and also accuse the office of concealing exculpatory evidence that might have benefited Buchanan.

It also said investigators with the office misinterpreted Kazran's affidavit. He was at the heart of an FEC investigation into whether Buchanan reimbursed $67,900 to employees of their Jacksonville auto dealership for contributions they made to Buchanan's 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns.

The Federal Election Commission has closed its file on Buchanan. Initially, FEC investigators believed there was probable cause to pursue a case against Buchanan, in part because of questions they had about his credibility on certain "background issues." Those concerns were eventually outweighed by a continuing investigation that revealed numerous questions -- some of which Buchanan's lawyers raised in the congressman's defense -- about Kazran's credibility.

Late Wednesday, the Office of Congressional Ethics disputed the allegations by Buchanan's lawyer. The office turned over all exculpatory evidence available, said spokeswoman Kelly Brewington. She called their review "factual, fair and in keeping with the mission the House tasked us with -- to assist the House in upholding the highest of ethical standards for members and staff."

"The notion that the OCE conducted this investigation with regard to anything other than the facts is absolutely false," she said. "The OCE conducted this review, as it does all its investigations, in a manner that was thorough and professional, taking great care to abide by the letter and the spirit of our rules and procedures. Any indication to the contrary is false."

The Office of Congressional Ethics report also notes that they were "unable to discuss with Representative Buchanan his involvement, if any, with directing reimbursements of campaign contributions because he refused to cooperate with the OCE Review."

The Ethics Committee said Wednesday in a press release that the mandatory release of the report by the Office of Congressional Ethics signals no wrongdoing on Buchanan's part -- and neither does its decision to extend its inquiry. The Office of Congressional Ethics and the more secretive Ethics Committee are separate entities with different rules. Unlike the Office of Congressional Ethics, which has strict timetables for disclosure, the committee does not have to disclose the status of its investigation.

The congressman is the subject of a second ethics probe that stems from a February report forwarded by the Office of Congressional Ethics to the full Ethics Committee. In that inquiry, the committee is looking at whether Buchanan willfully failed to include positions on personal financial disclosure forms that he's required to file each year as a congressman. The status of the committee's investigation is unclear.

In February, the office issued a report saying it found 17 undisclosed positions with companies and organizations, and that he neglected to report more than $14,000 in income over four years. Buchanan, who has denied wrongdoing, later amended the reports, saying the omissions were the result of "oversights."

Buchanan's lawyers have said that the Justice Department also is looking at some of the allegations of wrongdoing connected to the congressman's fundraising practices. A federal grand jury in Tampa also is investigating, as is the IRS.

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