Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota (Pic via Facebook)

A federal judge has denied the Federal Election Commission’s motion to fine a former business partner of Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, over contributions made to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns.

As extensively reported by The Florida Independent, the FEC has been investigating a series of donations made to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns, during which time a dealership he co-owned allegedly reimbursed employees who donated to his campaign committee.

Buchanan himself has not been punished by the FEC, even though, at the time of the alleged reimbursements, he was majority owner of the dealership. Instead, the FEC fined his former business partner, Sam Kazran, and the dealership the two co-owned together, Hyundai of North Jacksonville.

U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton yesterday denied the FEC’s “Motion for Partial Summary Judgment,” which would have fined Kazran nearly $68,000 for the reimbursements. In his ruling, Dalton writes that the FEC “does not provide any guidance in its Motion” and “rests its case primarily on certain statements made by Kazran, which the FEC contends conclusively establish that Kazran solicited others to make campaign contributions in their own names and either advanced the money or promised to reimburse them.”

Though Kazran has admitted to knowing about the reimbursement scheme, he has long maintained that Buchanan was the one orchestrating it. The Independent has spoken with two former Buchanan employees who backed Kazran’s story.

According to Dalton, Kazran’s statements “are not judicially binding admissions,” as he proceeded without legal counsel and may not have known that he was admitting to liability. In his own words, Kazran says that he is a “political outsider” who had no knowledge of campaign finance laws and was only following his boss’ orders.

Stating that “the Court is not persuaded by the FEC’s position,” Dalton adds that he is “reluctant to grant partial summary judgment on the issue of liability where the FEC’s theory of liability is unclear, especially where one theory may suggest that individuals who are not defendants in this enforcement action may have violated the statute as well.”

Though Buchanan himself wasn’t named as a defendant in the FEC suit, his implication in the case isn’t cut-and-dry. He is currently under investigation by both the House Office of Congressional Ethics and the U.S. Department of Justice over the same allegations in the FEC suit.

Historically, the FEC has been somewhat reluctant to file suit against sitting members of Congress, but as the federal agency charged by Congress to enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, it has absolute discretion to decide whether to prosecute violations.

Kazran might now have the chance to demonstrate that Buchanan coerced him into making the contributions, which he has maintained all along. The Independent obtained a lengthy sworn deposition Kazran gave to the FEC, as well as two voicemails in which Buchanan himself references the reimbursement scheme.

As Dalton’s ruling reads, “a trial court is permitted, in its discretion, to deny even a well-supported motion for summary judgment, if it believes the case would benefit from a full hearing.”

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