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FEC records detail decision to close Buchanan case

The Federal Elections Commission has released records documenting its recently concluded investigation of charges that U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan broke campaign finance laws and its decision to close the matter.

Once again, the Buchanan campaign is claiming vindication.

“The documents released today show that the Federal Election Commission voted unanimously to clear Congressman Buchanan and his campaign of any wrongdoing after an exhaustive, multi-year investigation,” Buchanan’s attorney William McGinley said in a statement issued Tuesday by the campaign.

“Based on its careful examination of the entire record, the commission voted 5-0 on a bipartisan basis -- with three Democratic and two Republican commissioners – to dismiss the claims against Congressman Buchanan and his campaign and close the matter. We are grateful that the public now can see for itself that the FEC’s three Democratic and two Republican commissioners completely rejected these false and partisan allegations.”

The documents’ release is legally significant, in that it means the FEC has officially closed its investigation; a Justice Department investigation of the matter is still pending.

Politically, however, it remains to be seen how questions about Buchanan’s campaign finances, and his ethics, will affect the upcoming campaign.

Former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Buchanan in the fall, responded to the release of the documents.

“I look at what Vern Buchanan has done with sadness and deep disappointment,” Fitzgerald said in a statement released by his campaign. “Because whatever the final judgment of the FEC, Vern Buchanan has time and time again failed to live up to the high standards we should demand of our elected officials.

“Vern Buchanan has been dogged by legal and ethical questions that bring dishonor to his office, distract him from his duties, and sew distrust between Vern Buchanan and the people of Southwest Florida,” Fitzgerald said.

Various types of documents were posted on the FEC website, but the most important ones may be several reports from the FEC general counsel’s office that update progress in the investigation.

Since 2008, the FEC had been investigating allegations that Buchanan had improperly instructed a former business partner, Sam Kazran, to reimburse $67,900 to employees of a Jacksonville auto dealership they co-owned for contributions they made to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns.

At first, FEC lawyers believed there was probable cause to pursue a case against Buchanan.

But 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.

“Given the concerns about Kazran’s credibility and other gaps in the evidentiary record, the lack of direct support is significant,” the general counsel’s office wrote in a Jan. 25, 2011, report. “Further, the circumstantial evidence does not sufficiently corroborate Kazran’s testimony to overcome our recent concerns with his credibility because in many cases, the evidence supports Buchanan’s claims or is ambiguous.”

A week later, on Feb. 1, the FEC’s commissioners voted 5-0 to close the investigation.

Previously, FEC commissioners in June 2010 voted 4-1 to reject a separate complaint, filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleging that employees at Buchanan-owned auto dealerships in Venice and Sarasota had been improperly reimbursed for a total of $5,000 in contributions made to Buchanan’s 2006 congressional campaign.

The FEC document release includes a report from commission Vice Chair Caroline Hunter detailing how questions about the credibility of those making the allegations led to her voting to close the matter.

“While the circumstances of the contributions may seem suspicious, the documentary evidence failed to point conclusively in either direction,” Hunter wrote.

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