Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan is no stranger to controversy, but Sam Kazran, a former business partner now currently enmeshed in a campaign finance controversy with the lawmaker, is. A recent interview with Kazran, along with a 2009 sworn deposition he made to the Federal Election Commission that he gave to The Florida Independent offer much greater detail about allegations of financial violations during Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns.
Kazran was recently fined nearly $68,000 by the FEC, as a result of contributions made to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns. According to FEC court filings, Hyundai of North Jacksonville — then co-owned by Kazran and Buchanan — reimbursed employees who donated to Buchanan’s election bids, a violation of campaign finance laws.
Though Kazran is now bearing the brunt of public scrutiny and a hefty fine, at the time of the alleged violations, the dealership’s majority owner was actually Buchanan, who, according to Kazran’s deposition, orchestrated the scheme himself.
According to the deposition, Kazran and Buchanan became partners in 2004, as co-owners of Hyundai of North Jacksonville. Kazran said that Buchanan had a majority share ownership (51 percent) while Kazran was the minority owner (at 49 percent). According to him, they eventually grew their partnership, until they co-owned four automobile dealerships.
In his deposition, Kazran said that in 2005, when Buchanan — a Longboat Key Republican — decided to run for Congress, he sought help from his employees, and Kazran, to raise money. According to Kazran, there was an “immense amount of pressure” on employees to donate to Buchanan’s campaigns.
In his deposition (which can be viewed in its entirety below), Kazran said that Buchanan initially asked him for a check for $4,600, and continued to request contributions as time went on: “[T]he level of intensity, if you will, of campaign contributions intensified as time went on. We got to a point where the partners were just joking around, we would walk in a meeting and partners would talk about, Well, how much did he hit you for?”
According to the deposition, Buchanan eventually began getting desperate:
The first round, I wrote the check to him because he had asked me. I did not reimburse myself for that money. He asked me to do it and I did. But later he asked me to raise money, and when I told him that I can’t do that anymore, that’s when he told me — in fact, I remember we were at a corporate office, my partner and I. This is right about the time that we were discussing the partnership for Dodge.
I had asked him — he wanted — I’d asked him to consider taking less for our partnership’s buyout. And he said, Okay, I’m going to do this, but I need you to raise — I can’t remember if it was 25 or 50,000. And he says, By Friday I want you to raise that.
And when I indicated to him that I don’t have that money, he said, Well, don’t you have somebody at the dealership you can trust? Just run it through the corporation.
Kazran told the FEC that, following that conversation, he did just that — returning to the dealership and instructing employees to reimburse themselves for donations to Buchanan’s campaign.
In October 2008, Kazran and Buchanan had a business dispute, which Kazran says he thought would be easily resolved once Buchanan had signed a contract agreeing to pay him $2.9 million. (That contract, in its entirety, is below.) Immediately after signing the document, Kazran says Buchanan invited him to “celebrate” the recently resolved dispute.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ because I didn’t want to have a bad relationship,” Kazran tells the Independent. “While I was on my way, he simultaneously had his attorney draft an affidavit stating, basically, that he had nothing to do with any of it.”
According to Kazran, Buchanan, along with his attorney, instructed Kazran to sign the affidavit (also dated October 2008 — right around the time of the election), which can be viewed here. It states, in part: “At no time was there any statement or any form of encouragement to make a campaign contribution based upon a threat of job discrimination, financial reprisal, or another detriment for failure to make a contribution discussed, disseminated or suggested by Buchanan, a Buchanan representative or anyone under his or their direction.”
“He clearly wanted me to be the scapegoat,” Kazran says. “He was scared I, or one of the people at my company, would join a lawsuit against him.” (Buchanan has been named in a number of lawsuits alleging that former employees were pressured to donate to his campaigns.)
After consulting with his lawyer, Kazran decided not to sign the document, fearing it would later be used against him: “I told him that I wanted to keep our business dispute separate from the campaign donations and that he had my word that I wouldn’t speak about it.”
According to Kazran, Buchanan then told him he had “five minutes” to sign the document, or their business deal was off. That’s when the relationship went sour and, Kazran says, Buchanan began to “very directly” threaten him. According to Kazran, in one voicemail, Buchanan said there would be “serious consequences” should he choose to disclose the information.
Page 80 of Kazran’s deposition shows that Kazran played a voicemail for FEC lawyers, a message he says was left by an abnormally nervous Buchanan, around the time of their 2008 business dispute:
“Sam, Vern. Sorry I didn’t get your message, but, Sam, Mike Lindell told me the other day that you’re going to sue us or threatening to sue us. … I want to resolve it, work it out.
“[T]he bottom line, I understand people have problems, have challenges but, you know, this should be something we should be able to work out. We’re willing to save what we got and work with you. But I think the threatening of the political stuff and all that, you got more liability than you know if you start telling people that you reimbursed people, because technically you have that liability.
“All I told you, and I’ve always made it clear is that you can’t reimburse people. They’ve got to give it under their free will. You know that. At 12, 18 points, we’re going to win the election anyway.
“I feel bad, I really do, in terms of us having to protect our interests, but again, we can stay that. Nonissue. I think it’s important that we sit down and work together and work this out. Give me a buzz. Thanks.”
Later in his deposition, Kazran said that, prior to Buchanan’s attempts to force him to sign the affidavit, he had no idea he had done anything wrong. “You know, Mr. Vern Buchanan was my senior partner, and I just did what he told me,” Kazran said. “But had he told me, Hey, this is illegal and you’re going to get in trouble, of course, I would not get involved in this.”
Buchanan’s political career continued to farewell. He won reelection handily in 2008, and Kazran never came forward with his allegations. Eventually, the FEC came calling. “They sent out letters to basically everyone involved,” says Kazran. “My office manager was incredibly nervous that she would get in trouble.”
Kazran says that the office manager, along with several other employees, made donations to Buchanan’s campaigns, under pressure from Buchanan himself. On several occasions, Kazran says, employees would attempt to donate to his campaign and receive canceled checks in return because Buchanan preferred the donations be split up, so as not to violate excessive contribution laws.
On one occasion, Kazran says, Buchanan mentioned that he could open a checking account under someone else’s name, just to make donations to “Vern Buchanan for Congress.”
In his defense, Kazran says that if his goal was to bring down Buchanan, he would have come forward a long time ago.
“If I truly had something against him, I would have burned him during one of the elections,” says Kazran. “I used to get calls from his attorneys saying, ‘If you talk with us and give us whatever documents you have … we’ll get you immunity for everybody at the dealership.’ Because what I had would crush Buchanan.”
So why come forward now? Partly because Buchanan has seemingly launched an attack against Kazran in the media, one he argues is unfounded.
“The only reason I’m doing this now is that I have to either pay $67,900 or just tell the truth,” he says. “I’ve done nothing wrong and I just want my day in court.”
Buchanan has maintained that he knew nothing of the reimbursements and has said that he himself notified the FEC of the wrongdoing once it was discovered. When asked about Kazran’s allegations, Sally Tibbetts, Buchanan’s district director, wrote to the Independent:
All of Kazran’s ludicrous accusations were looked into by federal investigators and dismissed. In fact, the FEC concluded that Kazran, not Buchanan violated campaign finance laws and fined him $67,900. The FEC reached this decision after an investigation triggered when the Buchanan campaign brought Kazran’s misconduct to its attention nearly three years ago.
“In short, according to Mr. Buchanan, I, on my own accord, took $100,000 out of his company without his knowledge or consent … then knowingly moved to expose my employees to commit a felony all in the absence of Mr. Buchanan’s knowledge and/or direction,” says Kazran. “It defies logic.”
The Kazran deposition:
The Kazran/Buchanan contract: