For the past several years, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (aka CREW) has worked to hold Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, accountable for numerous alleged campaign violations — and in a recent interview, the group’s director says the fight isn’t over.
In 2008, the group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, in which they requested a formal investigation into those allegations, as well as the imposition of sanctions appropriate to any resulting violations. Though the FEC never returned the call, CREW isn’t giving up.
Buchanan is no stranger to controversy. No fewer than 14 lawsuits have been filed against the Florida representative in recent years, most alleging the same thing — that he pressured employees into donating to his campaign, in exchange for reimbursements from one of his many car dealerships.
In December, the Federal Election Commission filed suit against one of Buchanan’s former business partners, alleging that he reimbursed at least $67,900 in contributions to Vern Buchanan for Congress during Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns, using funds from a Buchanan-owned Hyundai dealership.
CREW named Buchanan one of its “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” in 2010. He was also included in CREW’s 2008 and 2009 reports on congressional corruption for “making conduit contributions to his campaign and for improperly using cars from his dealership in his campaign.”
CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan says that even with its latest suit, the Federal Election Commission is still failing to hold Buchanan accountable for his alleged actions.
“It is incomprehensible to me how the FEC has yet to file a complaint against Buchanan himself,” she says. “[This complaint] is not against him and apparently he instigated the suit by bringing it to the FEC. I don’t really know what to make of that. Our FEC complaint [against Buchanan] has been out there for I think three years now. We have documentary evidence that Buchanan was involved in conduit contribution schemes, we have witnesses, etc.”
CREW’s complaint (.pdf) alleges that “at least seven employees [of Buchanan-owned car dealerships] … were either reimbursed with corporate funds for making $1,000 contributions to Rep. Buchanan’s 2006 congressional campaign or were coerced into making contributions to Rep. Buchanan’s 2006 congressional campaign.”
Calling the FEC a “useless agency,” Sloan says that the Department of Justice doesn’t seem to have much interest in a case against Buchanan, either. “I think CREW will try to file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee to see if they are interested in investigating such a corrupt politician,” Sloan says. “It’s not written yet, but we’re looking at him all over again with this new information. Just because the FEC and Department of Justice passed, doesn’t mean we will. We are still concentrating our efforts on [Buchanan.]”
Joe Gruters, who has acted as Buchanan’s campaign manager and treasurer for several years, recently campaigned to become chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, yet no one we spoke with would denounce him for his ties to Buchanan. Gruters lost the Republican Party chair race to David Bitner in an election held Saturday, in Lake Buena Vista. Buchanan himself likely didn’t even vote for Gruters, as he was previously quoted saying that he wouldn’t attend the election.
The FEC says it cannot comment on ongoing litigation.