FEC seeks hefty fine from former Vern Buchanan business partner over alleged campaign finance violation

06/01/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Florida’s is almost as well known for shady politics as it is for sunny beaches. One currently-brewing case involves a Sarasota-area member of Congress and a Jacksonville car dealership. The Federal Elections Commission wants to fine a former business partner of Republican US Representative over what they’re saying is a violation of campaign finance laws.

Last week, the Federal Elections Commission announced it’s seeking a fine of nearly $68,000 from former Hyundai of North Jacksonville owner Sam Kazran. The FEC initially filed suit late last year, and on May 27th they filed a motion for default judgment. At issue are allegations that the dealership reimbursed family and dealership employees after they contributed to the congressional campaigns of US Representative Vern Buchanan (R - Sarasota). T. Wayne Bailey, a professor of political science at Stetson University College of Law, said if the allegations a true, it represents a serious violation of elections law.

"If I fail to report the source of my contribution and there is a conspiracy to disguise that, I am guilty. It's interesting that there's not an effort to make this a criminal action but a civil action."

He said the fact that the defendant didn’t show up in court makes it quite likely the FEC will win the case. The contributions took place ahead of Buchanan’s 2006 and 2008 elections, when the defendant allegedly solicited donations from employees of a dealership he and Buchanan co-owned, and then paid them back. Kazran couldn’t be reached for comment, but he recently told the Bradenton Herald that he did so at the direction of Buchanan, and had no idea it was illegal. Bailey said it’s more common to see a business or industry attempt to skirt campaign finance laws than it is to see candidates blatantly violate the law in pursuit of donations.

"The special interests are very pushy in most instances. They have money and the poor politician is usually not very wealthy. So he or she is beholden and probably gets pushed this way or that and it may be that their campaign oftentimes is not the candidate himself or herself but somebody who's running the campaign. The campaign professionals who try to play loose and on the edge of the game."

The Buchanan campaign has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the reimbursements. They declined a request for a taped interview, but issued a statement Accusing Kazran of lashing out because of the Hillsborough County Circuit Court’s decision to fine him $624,000 for defaulting on a loan from Buchanan. The statement continued, "this is an issue between the FEC and Hyundai of North Jacksonville, which Buchanan has no interest or stake in." Kazran said the Buchanan campaign was trying to raise a million dollars in order to look good. Buchanan reportedly co-owned the dealership between 2004 and 2008 – which is when the donations occurred - but the member of Congress is not listed as a defendant. Bailey said this is because he was technically a recipient.

"It's probably the very simple reason is that the actual violation was not made by Buchanan. There was no trial so you are not able to elucidate factually the chain of decision making involved."

This isn’t the first time Buchanan has been accused of underhandedly trying to raise campaign contributions. No lawsuit over such allegations has ever made it to court. Bailey said election scandals involving funds have rocked both sides of the aisle, and cited the case of Jim Greer and the Republican Party of Florida as one of the most egregious examples in recent memory. He said the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 – a law that sets limited on contribution amounts – seeks to level the playing field for candidates.

"The Federal Election Campaign Act was designed to achieve two particular goals at it's early enactment. One was to prohibit the use of corporate campaign contributions and secondly to establish a limit on individual campaign contributions which over the years has been indexed to an increased amount. And thirdly, you might say related to that, is to achieve full disclosure and transparency."

Bailey said campaign finance is the Achilles’ Heel of Democracy in the United States, given that candidates may feel they have to act at the behest of corporate contributors instead of that of their less-moneyed constituents once elected.

"If you've got government for the contributors rather than for the people you begin to invite all kinds of evils into the process. That violates the public interest.

The Federal Elections Commission declined an interview request. A spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on an ongoing case.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the FEC

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