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House ethics panel won’t launch full probe into Vern Buchanan

The House Ethics Committee said Wednesday that it will continue to review allegations that Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) reimbursed employees for campaign donations, but it does not plan to launch a full-scale investigation, despite a report that found “substantial reason to believe” Buchanan tried to influence a witness.

The committee released a 184-page report by the Office of Congressional Ethics that cites ­e-mails, voice mails and documents alleging that Buchanan offered a former business partner $2.9 million if he signed a false affidavit claiming he knew nothing about plans to reimburse employees of Buchanan’s car dealership. The committee did not say why it does not plan to launch a full-scale investigation.

“There is substantial reason to believe that Representative Buchanan attempted to influence the testimony of a witness,” the report said. It stated that the business partner, Sam Kazran, refused to sign the affidavit because he knew that Buchanan had reimbursed employees.

The revelations could further complicate the political fortunes of Buchanan, who serves as the top fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee and faces a reelection challenge this year in a Sarasota area district that slightly favors Democrats.

In addition to the ethics panel, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Justice Department continue to probe the allegations. But the Federal Elections Commission, after a separate inquiry that concluded in January, raised doubts about the reliability of witnesses against Buchanan, including Kazran.

In this file photo, then-candidate Vern Buchanan addresses supporters during a fundraiser luncheon in Oct. 2006. The House Ethics Committee said Wednesday that it will continue to review allegations that Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) reimbursed employees for campaign donations, but it does not plan to launch a full-scale investigation. (Steve Nesius/Associated Press)

According to the OCE report, Buchanan’s attorney sent Kazran a seven-page proposal in October 2008 to settle various legal disputes concerning their automobile dealerships. The agreement would have required Kazran to state that, prior to September 2008, he had no knowledge of any reimbursements given to Buchanan’s employees. The affidavit would have been submitted to the FEC.

Buchanan’s spokesman, Max Goodman, said the OCE report contains “old, recycled accusations” previously dismissed by the FEC.

“We have full confidence that the Ethics Committee will reach the same conclusion as the FEC and dismiss these,” he said.

One of Buchanan’s attorneys, William McGinley, said the OCE report “is the unfortunate product of shoddy investigation, distorted and undisclosed evidence, and an utterly dysfunctional process that favors secrecy over truth.”

In an interview, McGinley said the report “rests on a grotesque interpretation of the affidavit” that Buchanan allegedly asked ­Kazran to sign. He said the OCE appeared to ignore the opinion the FEC released in January.

In a statement, the OCE called McGinley’s charges “absolutely false.”

“The OCE conducted this review, as it does all its investigations, in a manner that was thorough and professional, taking great care to abide by the letter and the spirit of our rules and procedures,” the statement said.

Buchanan faces former state representative Keith Fitzgerald (D) in November. A poll released by Buchanan’s campaign last month said he led Fitzgerald by more than 20 points.

House Democrats established the OCE in 2008 to investigate allegations made against House members. The nonpartisan office then refers what it considers to be credible allegations to the House Ethics Committee for further review. A rigorous disclosure process requires the committee to reveal the names of lawmakers it is reviewing and the allegations they face. In recent years, dozens of lawmakers have attempted to curtail the office’s powers, but Republican and Democratic leaders have resisted those efforts.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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