WASHINGTON -- The watchdog group responsible for the ethics complaint against U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan on Tuesday urged Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to ask the Florida congressman to step down.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed complaints about Buchanan with both the Federal Election Commission and the House Office of Congressional Ethics. The FEC investigation has closed, but the OCE last week made public the findings of its probe into Buchanan's conduct.
The OCE found there's "substantial reason to believe" Buchanan attempted to influence the testimony of a former business partner who was a witness during the Federal Election Commission investigation into the congressman's fundraising. 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 is time for Rep. Buchanan to go," said CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan. "House Republican leaders – who swore a zero tolerance policy for ethical wrongdoing – should be condemning his conduct and demanding his departure, not playing golf with him in Sarasota."
Sloan is referring to Buchanan's role as the top fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises money for House candidates across the country. The Florida congressman is one of the richest members of the House of Representatives and wealthy enough to finance his own campaigns. The NRCC's job is to hold onto a Republican majority in the House of Representatives -- and keep House Speaker John Boehner in office. In March, Boehner traveled to Sarasota to attend a fundraiser with Buchanan that raised money for the Ohio congressman's own political action committee. The two played golf together in the resort town.
The report by the Office of Congressional Ethics alleges 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. Kazran was asked to say he had no knowledge prior to September 2008 that employees of a car dealership they jointly owned were reimbursed for contributions they made to Buchanan's campaign. Kazran refused.
In February, Kazran settled with the FEC over "non-knowing and non-willful" campaign finance violations. They included reimbursing employees of his dealership a total of $67,900 for contributions they made to Buchanan’s congressional campaigns in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
The Ethics Committee, a separate entity from the OCE, said it would continue to keep the investigation open, and consider the findings. But it made no indication of when -- or even whether -- it would take further action against Buchanan.
Buchanan has long complained that CREW, a liberal leaning group, has no credibility. Buchanan's spokesman Max Goodman on Tuesday called CREW "a left-wing front group" whose complaints "cannot be taken seriously." Buchanan's position as one of the top fundraisers with the NRCC also appears to be secure.
"The same liberal special interests that are funding CREW also happen to be bankrolling Nancy Pelosi’s campaign to return to the Speaker’s chair, so it makes sense that they would manufacture a political stunt like this," said Paul Lindsay, the NRCC's communications director.
CREW also complained Tuesday that Buchanan's lawyers deliberately mischaracterized their analysis of the affidavit at the center of the inquiry. Lawyers for Buchanan filed a 14-page letter with the Ethics Committee accusing OCE of misinterpreting Kazran's affidavit -- and said that even CREW agreed with them. Sloan said the letter was an effort to undermine the OCE’s findings of wrongdoing, and called it an "overall legal strategy of attacking everyone else’s credibility."