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The Influence Industry: Buchanan dogged by allegations in FEC contributions case

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Rep. Vern Buchanan (Fla.), a rising third-term House member who helps lead fundraising efforts for congressional Republicans, is facing new public scrutiny over his past ownership of a car dealership accused of making illegal donations to his campaign.

The Federal Election Commission has filed court documents in Orlando seeking a $67,900 penalty from the now-defunct dealership, Hyundai of North Jacksonville, which Buchanan partly owned until 2008.

In the May 27 filing, the FEC said dealership employees and their family members made more than 30 contributions to Buchanan’s campaign from 2005 to 2007, which the business then illegally reimbursed. Federal law prohibits secretly funneling donations through someone else, which allows the donor to evade contribution limits.

The FEC called the effort “an extensive and ongoing scheme that spanned two election cycles, three calendar years and dozens of secret illegal contributions.”

Buchanan denies wrongdoing and has blamed the episode on Sam Kazran, his former business partner. But Kazran, who is the target of the FEC complaint, has said in media interviews that Buchanan directed him to raise the money for the campaign.

“It was, ‘This is what I need to do, and this is what you need to do to take care of it,’ ” Kazran told the Bradenton Herald last week.

Kazran, who is representing himself in the FEC case, could not be reached to comment.

Buchanan’s campaign said the allegations are “absolutely false” and stem from Kazran’s unhappiness about losing other legal battles. Buchanan recently won a $624,000 judgment from Kazran for not repaying a loan, campaign officials said.

“This is an issue between the FEC and Hyundai of North Jacksonville, which Vern Buchanan has no interest or stake in,” the Buchanan campaign said in a statement.

Kazran acquired a 49 percent interest in the dealership from Buchanan in 2004 and became full owner of the business in 2008, according to court documents filed by the FEC.

Buchanan was first elected to Congress in 2006, and recent news reports in Florida suggest he is considering a run to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D). In January, he was named vice chairman of finance at the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises money to help GOP House candidates.

The NRCC declined to comment on the Florida contributions case. But Florida Democrats have seized on the FEC complaint.

“It’s past time for Vern Buchanan to come clean about his role and for Republicans to live up to their promised zero-tolerance policy for Republican members caught in ethics scandals,” Florida Democratic spokesman Eric Jotkoff said.

The FEC said that dealership employees and their relatives gave Buchanan 24 donations totaling $49,500 in 2005 and 2006, and eight contributions totaling $18,400 in 2007. By reimbursing the contributions, the FEC said, the dealership — which can legally make political donations as a partnership — evaded standard contribution limits of $4,200 in 2006 and $4,800 in 2008.

The business “illegally spent $67,900 in an attempt to influence an election for Congress, presumably believing this to be a worthwhile investment,” the FEC said.

Ex-senators cash in

There’s at least one group of Americans not struggling with unemployment: former U.S. senators.

Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has just signed on with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to advocate for regulatory reform, according to a deal first reported by the Center for Public Integrity. He will join George W. Bush White House aide Andy Card in a Chamber-sponsored “road show” that will travel the country later this year.

Bayh, who works as a partner at McGuireWoods LLP and as a Fox News analyst, is part of a bipartisan wave of former senators who have quickly cashed in as Capitol Hill retirees.

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a former Senate banking chairman, is now head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who also served on the banking panel, is joining Goldman Sachs Group as an international adviser.

The Washington law and lobbying firm Arent Fox LLP has landed two former senators: Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who retired, and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who was knocked out of office by Mike Lee (R). Bennett also runs an eponymous consulting group.

Funny how none of these folks seems to be returning to the states they represented in Congress all those years.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this column.

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