According to a source, the House Office of Congressional Ethics is continuing to investigate Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. The Florida Independent first broke the story of the review in October, when a source provided us with documentation confirming the preliminary investigation.
The preliminary review of Buchanan began in late September, and was yet another response to allegations that the Longboat Key Republican pressured employees into donating to his congressional campaigns then reimbursed them with funds from a car dealership he co-owned.
The Office of Congressional Ethics has contacted at least three of Buchanan’s former employees since launching its investigation, each of whom worked for the now-defunct Hyundai of North Jacksonville. Our source, who asked to remain anonymous, was contacted by the Office as recently as last week, and told us that the Federal Election Commission will likely come out with a report on the investigation within the next 30 days. It is unclear whether or not the office will refer the case to the House Committee on Ethics (made up of members of Congress) for further review.
Per the Office of Congressional Ethics review process, “preliminary reviews” last 30 days and are initiated only after two board members (one appointed by the House speaker, one by the minority leader) have submitted written requests. If the investigation is terminated within those 30 days, no public disclosure is required.
Following the preliminary review, if there is “probable cause to believe [the] allegations,” three members can vote to initiate a second phase of review. Should the office find “substantial cause to believe allegations,” the case is referred to the ethics committee for further review or dismissal and only made public under certain circumstances.
If the committee receives a referral from the Office of Congressional Ethics, it has a 45-day period to review the case, and determine whether to take further action (it can also request a 45-day extension). At the end of that time, the committee will typically make public its investigation.
According to its website, the House Committee on Ethics has the jurisdiction to “recommend administrative actions to establish or enforce standards of official conduct” and must “report to appropriate federal or state authorities substantial evidence of a violation of any law applicable to the performance of official duties that may have been disclosed in a Committee investigation.”
Last December, the FEC filed suit over a pattern of questionable contributions made to Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns. Though the congressman wasn’t named in the suit, his former business partner and a car dealership the two once co-owned were accused of offering reimbursements for money donated to his campaign and of violating excessive contribution laws.
Though the FEC eventually called the activity an “extensive and ongoing scheme” and fined his former dealership almost $68,000, Buchanan himself was never found to be at fault.
Just last month, however, a federal judge denied an FEC motion to fine Buchanan’s former business partner, Sam Kazran. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton wrote 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.”
Kazran will now have a chance to demonstrate that Buchanan coerced him into making the contributions, which he has maintained all along, although it remains unclear if Buchanan himself will have to testify. 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.
Buchanan is also currently under investigation by the Department of Justice over the same allegations. Our source tells us that the department is currently “gathering information to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to proceed with a grand jury trial.”