Two former employees of a car dealership once owned by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, allege that he pressured co-workers into donating to his campaign and then offered reimbursements with dealership funds.
Allegations of campaign fraud by Buchanan have persisted for years, but in recent months, his dealings with former business partner Sam Kazran have taken center stage.
In a sworn deposition made to the Federal Election Commission in 2009, Kazran alleged that Buchanan pressured employees at a car dealership the two owned together to donate to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns and then orchestrated a scheme to reimburse those employees with funds from the dealership. Buchanan has fired back — arguing that Kazran is not to be trusted, and is only out for publicity.
Josh Farid, who worked alongside Kazran and Buchanan from 2005 to 2008, overseeing the construction of a new car dealership, says he witnessed several of Buchanan’s wrongdoings firsthand, and isn’t surprised that Buchanan is now attacking Kazran.
“Vern Buchanan is using his power as a person in office to try and destroy Sam,” says Farid. “What Sam is alleging and what he is saying is very damaging to Vern Buchanan … but I can tell you as a person who has been witness to these events, that — of those I witnessed — these things, these conversations, happened. A lot of times, when Sam was on the phone with him, it was on speaker or he would grab me so I could listen to the conversation. I was privy to those conversations.”
Farid says many of those conversations revolved around campaign contributions.
“Every time that there was a transaction or business dealing, it ended up being a quid pro quo type of deal,” says Farid. “Vern would call Sam (I heard him on the phone a couple of times) and say, ‘I need for you to send me this much or that much.’”
Kazran told The Florida Independent that Buchanan attempted to force him to sign an affidavit saying, essentially, that Buchanan was not involved in the reimbursements in any way. According to Kazran, when he refused to sign the affidavit, Buchanan resorted to veiled threats and eventually pinned what the FEC would later call the “extensive and ongoing scheme” on him.
Farid says the affidavit was one of the many ways Buchanan tried to wield his power. “I did hear several voicemail messages from Buchanan to Sam and the tone is threatening. Basically, he says to either conform to the way things should be, or else. Always that kind of a threatening tone, utilizing his leverage over Sam,” says Farid.
Kazran told the Independent that Buchanan, normally a confident man, became increasingly desperate for campaign donations as time went on. Farid concurs.
“One of the times, as I recall, right after the partners’ meeting, Vern came over to us and had very kind words for Sam, because everyone was very happy with his job performance,” he says. “And then, as we were walking toward his office, he had his hand on Sam’s shoulder and began talking to him about raising money and the campaign contributions. ‘You can get that money reimbursed through the dealership,’ he said.”
FEC records show Farid donated $4,200 to Buchanan’s 2006 campaign.
Another former employee of Hyundai of North Jacksonville, who asked to remain anonymous, says that she, like Kazran, was pressured into donating to Buchanan’s campaigns. In fact, she says she donated more than $8,000, which was paid back in full.
Asked whether Buchanan knew about the campaign reimbursements, her answer is a confident “yes.”
“He would usually run it through Sam, because he wasn’t always at the dealership. I would hear him call Mr. Kazran and tell him to collect donations,” she says. “When I mentioned that I didn’t really have the money, the answer was always the same: ‘Just run it through the dealership.’”
Last year, the FEC called after finding her name on several checks sent to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns. The FEC requested that she send them an affidavit; she obliged. She could not provide a copy of the affidavit to the Independent because she says she lost her copy in recent months.
The FEC eventually fined Kazran nearly $68,000 for violating campaign laws. Buchanan maintains he knew nothing of the reimbursements. Kazran and the dealership employees say they did know about the reimbursements — they just didn’t know they were illegal.
“I was never a political person. I’ve never been involved in politics,” says the former employee. “But Mr. Buchanan should have known the law.”
Eventually, she says, she grew tired of the requests to donate to the campaign. “Basically in 2005, when he ran, I felt we were pressured into giving to his campaign,” she says. “And then second time around — same thing. And that time I got a little hot and I don’t remember what I said … but it made me mad that he would pressure the dealerships.”
When asked whether it was just the higher-ups and partners being asked to donate to the campaign, she responds: “I don’t think it mattered who you were.”
“All of these ludicrous allegations were looked into by federal investigators and dismissed,” says Sally Tibbetts, a spokesperson for Buchanan, when asked about the new allegations. “In fact, the FEC found that Kazran, not Vern, 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.”
As for Buchanan’s attempts to discredit Kazran, Farid says they are false. When questioned about the allegations, Buchanan’s team says that Kazran is a man with a “checkered history,” citing an arrest at Walmart and litigation with Bank of America.
According to Kazran, the Walmart “arrest” was the result of a scuffle between him and an employee, who attempted a citizen’s arrest. Kazran was released and charges were dismissed.
In 2009, Bank of America pulled its financing of several of Kazran’s dealerships for his failure to repay loans. A judge also ordered that four of his dealerships be closed. Kazran maintains the loans are connected with an unresolved legal dispute between him and Buchanan. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Buchanan has sued Kazran in three different counties. One case, in Jacksonville, was dismissed.
“Everything Vern Buchanan is saying in regards to Sam is a total fabrication and frankly he should be ashamed of himself,” says Farid. “I once attended a meeting where he stood up in front of all of the partners, pronounced Sam as his ‘golden child’ and told everybody how great Sam was.”
According to Farid, before Kazran became involved in the Jacksonville Hyundai dealership, the company was losing $1-$2 million a year. He says Kazran turned it around.
Though Buchanan’s team has been hard at work painting a picture of a man with a “checkered history” who is only seeking publicity, many of Kazran’s former employees disagree. A Facebook page entitled “Wanna know Sam Kazran???,” which hasn’t been updated in over a year, suggests he has fans among former employees.
According to Farid, Buchanan’s attempt to coerce employees, including those on meager salaries, into donating to a campaign with the promise of reimbursement, and failing to inform them of the illegality, is simply wrong.
“That is not a way that business should be conducted,” says Farid. “Using his power to manipulate people who are just honestly trying to make a living for themselves. He makes all these grandiose statements about how he helps businessmen achieve their dreams. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”