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Good and Bad News for Rep. Buchanan

Correction Appended

Even though that new Office of Government Ethics now has a board to run it, it won't be able to investigate any House members this year. That might be good news for Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), who is alleged to have committed potentially serious campaign finance violations.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a story
Thursday in which two former employees of auto dealerships owned by Buchanan allege that they were pressured to donate cash to Buchanan's 2006 House campaign and that they were reimbursed for the donations they made, a practice that violates federal campaign finance law.

The two employees are currently the plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit against Buchanan for, they say, cheating customers of his dealerships. The H-T reports that Buchanan recently rejected an offer to settle the suit for $43 million, which raises the question of just why these employees are raising these separate campaign finance allegations now.

Buchanan's attorney told the paper: ""Both of these guys are lying. Nobody was repaid for their donations. There was never an attempt to pressure a single employee." He also suggested they were leveling the allegations now as retribution for Buchanan's refusal to settle.

Whatever their motives, the two former employees do tell a very specific tale. One of them said that he was given $1,000 in cash by his boss at the dealership the same day he made a contribution of the same amount to Buchanan's campaign, and he showed the paper a canceled check and bank records to bolster his story.

The allegation could potentially be the subject of investigations by the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission, though the House ethics committee also has broad leeway to probe alleged wrongdoing by House members. But the panel rarely initiates probes on its own, and the new ethics office is prohibited from referring charges for investigation to the ethics panel within 60 days of Election Day, meaning that it can't do anything after the beginning of September. And Congress only has a week left in session before departing for the August break.

So Buchanan looks unlikely to face an internal House probe on the subject. The Florida lawmaker can only hope the Justice Department isn't interested in pursuing it either.

CORRECTION:
This post mischaracterized two details from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune story on the allegations against Buchanan. Only one of the two former employees mentioned in the story has alleged that he was reimbursed financially for contributing to Buchanan's campaign. The other employee claims Buchanan personally offered him the use of Buchanan's vacation home in Vail, Colo. (Buchanan's office denies this claim and also points out his house is in Beaver Creek, not Vail.) Also, only one of the two employees has filed suit against Sarasota Ford, a dealership in which Buchanan is a passive investor, according to his office.

By Ben Pershing  |  July 25, 2008; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules  
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