On Monday, The Florida Independent reported on a lawsuit filed by the Federal Election Commission, alleging campaign fraud during Rep. Vern Buchanan‘s 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns. Although Buchanan was not named as a defendant in the suit, could the case tarnish the campaign to become the head of the Republican Party of Florida currently being waged by Buchanan’s former campaign manager?
Currently the Sarasota County Republican Party chairman, Gruters acted as Buchanan’s campaign manager in 2008 and in 2010 became his campaign treasurer. (According to political transparency site Legistorm, Buchanan also employs Gruters’ wife as his director of operations.)
In November, Gruters officially announced his candidacy for chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
In June, former party chair Jim Greer was arrested and charged with fraud, theft and money laundering — all part of a scam that involved raising money for the party then using it for personal gain.
After Greer’s resignation, state Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, was chosen as his replacement. In the wake of the Greer scandal, Thrasher publicly spoke out against Greer and even took credit for pushing him out of the party, saying he worked to remove him because of his “mismanagement of the party.”
The dozens of lawsuits alleging mismanagement of Buchanan’s campaign funds, paired with this most recent suit brought by the Federal Election Commission, could come back to haunt Gruters during his bid to run the state party, which has worked hard to distance itself from Greer and scandal.
Thrasher and other GOP leaders, though, have not replied to requests for comment regarding Buchanan’s latest troubles, or Gruters’ bid for party chair.
Sarasota conservative blogger Richard Swier offered an endorsement of Gruters earlier this month, saying that his ties to Buchanan are part of what makes him a great leader: “Joe was part of Vern’s first campaign, one that had so many twists and turns that lesser men would have caved under the pressure. Joe helped keep the campaign on track and Vern won.”
Rick Hasen, the William H. Hannon Distinguished Professor of Law Chair at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, says that the current FEC case is likely not much of a threat to Buchanan himself.
“It is a civil case, not a criminal case,” he says. “It is a cost of doing business. It seems likely that Buchanan’s opponent will make this an issue in the next election, but it is too early to say whether this would be enough to swing a congressional race away from Buchanan.”
But could it swing a race for party chair away from Buchanan’s former campaign manager?
In a Tuesday morning phone call, Gruters said that he was “essentially removed from the conversation” concerning the lawsuit: “I wish I had more for you, but I have to refer you to the campaign. If they said ‘no comment,’ I say ‘no comment.’”