Campaign 2010

Jul 24, 2008

Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Buchanan workers tell of donation pressure

Two former executives for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan's auto dealerships said they were pressured to donate to Buchanan's 2006 congressional campaign and were offered cash and gifts as inducements, which would violate federal campaign laws.

An attorney for U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said former employees are lying about being pressured to donate to his campaign.

The former employees, Carlo A. Bell and Joe D. Kezer, are suing Buchanan, alleging his auto dealerships cheated customers. The alleged violations of campaign finance laws are not part of the lawsuit. The former employees went public with the claims this week, after Buchanan's lawyers rejected their $43 million offer to settle the lawsuit.

Lawyers for Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, called the latest allegations an effort "to dishonestly tarnish Vern Buchanan's reputation three months before an election."

Bell, the former finance director at Venice Nissan Dodge, said the day he made a $1,000 donation to the Buchanan campaign, he was given $1,000 in cash from his boss at the auto dealership.

Bell gave the Herald-Tribune bank records, which included copies of a canceled check dated Sept. 17, 2005, to the Buchanan campaign for $1,000 and a cash deposit made to his account the same day for $960. He said he took the rest as spending money.

"I was told I was going to be reimbursed," Bell said. "I either had to do this, or I was told I wouldn't be considered a team player. I took it as a threat. There was no gray area."

Federal election law prohibits "using coercion, such as the threat of a detrimental job action, the threat of any other financial reprisal, or the threat of force, to urge any individual to make a contribution or engage in fundraising activities on behalf of a candidate or political committee."

The law also prohibits a candidate's giving cash or other reimbursements to a donor in exchange for a contribution.

Kezer, the former finance director at another Buchanan dealership, Sarasota Ford, wrote a $2,000 check to the Buchanan campaign after he said he was told it was important to support the candidate. In exchange for the donation, Kezer said, Buchanan personally promised him a week at Buchanan's Vail, Colo., resort home. Buchanan sold the home last month for $6.5 million.

"He put his arm around me and promised I could use his house in Vail if I donated," Kezer said.

Kezer, 50, said he never went to Buchanan's Colorado home because he feared it was a violation.

Kezer and Bell had never contributed to a political campaign before they donated to Buchanan in 2005 and neither has since.

Kezer and Bell made their contributions at a critical point in Buchanan's campaign for Congress. Because Buchanan entered the race in July, his first federal campaign finance reports were due at the end of September. From July 1 to Sept. 22, Buchanan had raised about $296,000 -- which at the time put him behind another GOP candidate, Tramm Hudson, in a heated primary contest to replace former Rep. Katherine Harris.

But from Sept. 23 to 30, another $290,000 poured into Buchanan's campaign, including $110,000 from his businesses' employees and their families. Kezer and Bell were among those donors. Even though Bell had dated his check Sept. 17, his donation was reported on Sept. 28. Kezer's donation came on Sept. 23.

The donations were part of a surge of support for Buchanan, who won the primary and went on to narrowly defeat Democrat Christine Jennings. Buchanan spent $8 million in the campaign, among the most ever by a congressional candidate.

Buchanan's attorney Mark Ornstein said none of Buchanan's employees -- including Bell and Kezer -- were pressured to donate or promised reimbursements.

"Both of these guys are lying," Ornstein said. "Nobody was repaid for their donations. There was never an attempt to pressure a single employee."

Ornstein said both are disgruntled former employees who are trying to sue Buchanan's companies over "false" and "frivolous" claims.

Ornstein said the two are going to the media now as a retribution because Buchanan rejected the $43 million settlement offer.

Buchanan refused to comment directly for this story and directed all questions to Ornstein.

"I can categorically tell you that Vern Buchanan never offered to allow Kezer to use his condo," Ornstein said.

In May, Kezer filed a lawsuit against Sarasota Ford and Buchanan, alleging he was fired for reporting fraudulent business practices at the dealership.

Kezer worked at the dealership from October 2003 to November 2007. Kezer was fired for "poor performance" in November, Ornstein said.

Bell, 46, worked for Venice Nissan Dodge from 2001 to 2007. Bell quit working for Venice Nissan in March 2007, but Ornstein said it was a forced resignation after he was reprimanded for being rough with customers.

Bell said Don Caldwell, now a partner with Venice Nissan, asked him to donate to Buchanan's campaign with a promise that he would be reimbursed.

Caldwell denies seeking Bell's donation and said no one in the dealership was reimbursed for their donations.

Caldwell said there were people around the office talking about how it would good to be have a "car guy" in Congress, but it was never in a way where others would have felt pressured to give.

"We talked up Buchanan, but no one was pressured," said Caldwell, who donated $4,200 to Buchanan on Sept. 28, 2005.