Ethics panel examining Rep. Buchanan over financial disclosures

The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) violated federal law and House rules by failing, in his financial disclosures, to report his positions in 17 entities.

The new round of allegations could be politically troublesome for Buchanan, the finance vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has been dogged in the past by unrelated allegations of campaign finance violations.

The committee had announced in December that it was reviewing a report referred to it by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent panel, but did not disclose the nature of the allegations. On Monday, the committee extended its investigation again — and released the report detailing the allegations against Buchanan. But the committee declined to move forward at full speed by forming a special investigative subcommittee.

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At issue are positions Buchanan held between 2007 and 2010 with 17 companies and entities that should have been reported on his financial disclosures, but were not. The report also identifies discrepancies in unearned income between Buchanan’s federal tax returns and his financial disclosure forms.

Buchanan later amended his disclosure forms to include the missing information. His attorney told The Hill that amendments are commonplace and that Buchanan followed all applicable rules.

The committee itself has yet to weigh in on whether any violations occurred. But the OCE report, which the six members of its board unanimously approved in October, said Buchanan conceded he didn’t disclose his positions and had a variety of explanations for why various positions had been left out.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics board recommends that the Committee on Ethics further review the above allegation, because there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Buchanan violated House rules, standards of conduct and federal law,” the board wrote.

In one instance, Buchanan failed to disclose his interest in Boca Creek Development Co., an entity formed by four investors to purchase land in Florida. Buchanan was listed as a managing member on its annual report and received less than $5,000 in interest income each year. Buchanan told OCE its absence from his disclosures was an oversight.

In another case, his family’s foundation — a nonprofit — was left off his forms, despite his position as the foundation’s president from 2007 through 2010. Asked why it wasn’t listed on his forms as required, Buchanan told investigators, “Our people missed it.”

Other missing entries involved a defunct car dealership, a homeowners association for his Longboat Key, Fla., home and a rental property company. In the case of the rental company, his 2007 disclosure included income that was not listed on Buchanan’s federal tax return. Buchanan told investigators he was unsure why there was a discrepancy.

“Today’s action by the House Committee on Ethics does not constitute any judgment on the merits,” said William McGinley, an attorney for Buchanan. “Congressman Buchanan followed the rules, and we are confident that, at the end of its deliberations, the committee will find no violation.”

It is not uncommon for members of Congress to amend their financial disclosure forms, and the dollar amounts associated with each are relatively small. But it is rare for so many amendments to be necessary.

Buchanan has already faced investigations by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Justice Department over allegations that employees at a car dealership he owned were illegally reimbursed for donations they made to his campaign. 

FEC attorneys said they came close to supporting a finding that it was more likely than not that he violated campaign finance law. But the FEC’s case was plagued by a lack of evidence and doubts about the credibility of the key witness, and the FEC dropped its case against Buchanan.

And in January, the FEC hit Buchanan with a $1,500 fine over paperwork errors. Buchanan’s attorney said it was a bookkeeping error and that his campaign would send a staff member to training within one year.

Buchanan, a three-term congressman from the conservative area of Sarasota, Fla., was one of the only House members from Florida whose district was left almost entirely intact by the ongoing redistricting process. The redrawing of Buchanan’s shored up his reelection prospects by adding more Republicans to the district.

National Democrats have recruited Keith Fitzgerald, a political science professor and former state lawmaker, to run against Buchanan in November.

— This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. and 8:32 p.m.