By Josh Lederman - 12/22/11 06:25 PM EST
The House Ethics Committee announced Thursday that it was extending an inquiry into a complaint again Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) by 45 days, the committee's first public acknowledgement that it was pursuing a probe involving Buchanan.
The top Republican and Democrat on the panel announced a joint decision to look further into claims against Buchanan brought to them by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) on Nov. 8. The Ethics Committee was up against a deadline to either extend the matter by another 45 days or publicly disclose the complaint that OCE had transmitted to them.
But the announcement came the day after a Federal Election Commission report was leaked to the media detailing an investigation into allegations that employees at a car dealership owned by Buchanan were illegally reimbursed for donations they made to his campaign.
FEC attorneys investigated the complaint against Buchanan and his campaign and decided in January not to proceed. That led Buchanan to assert that he had been absolved of all wrongdoing — even when the Justice Department revealed it was conducting its own investigation.
The FEC hasn't publicly released its findings in its investigation, but the report leaked to the media on Wednesday revealed that Buchanan was far from exonerated.
"The evidence in this case comes close to supporting a finding that it is more likely than not that respondents violated" campaign finance law, the FEC's general counsel wrote in its report.
Although the FEC dropped its case due to a lack of evidence and doubts about the credibility of the key witness, investigators argued that Buchanan's claims to have forgotten numerous details about what had happened brought his integrity in the investigation into question.
In one instance, Buchanan said he couldn't remember whether he had asked Sam Kazran, the former business partner who is accusing Buchanan of inappropriate conduct, to raise money for his 2006 election campaign, which sits at the center of the ethics scandal that has been dogging Buchanan for years.
"There is evidence that Buchanan did ask, and it raises legitimate questions as to Buchanan's credibility that he could not admit this innocuous fact," the FEC's attorneys wrote in the report leaked Wednesday.
A spokesman for Buchanan declined to address the news that the Ethics Committee was was extending its inquiry into Buchanan, pointing instead to a statement Buchanan's attorney released the day before.
“The report released today shows that after a two-year, exhaustive investigation the FEC rightly concluded that Congressman Buchanan and the campaign engaged in no wrongdoing,” wrote attorney William McGinley under the banner "FEC clears Buchanan."
Allegations of violating campaign finance law are particularly stinging for Buchanan because of his role as top finance official for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Although hailing from a conservative Sarasota-area district, the three-term congressman is also a top target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. National Democrats have recruited Keith Fitzgerald, a political science professor and former state lawmaker, to run against Buchanan in 2012.
- This post was updated at 3:09 p.m.