Ethics committee opens second look into Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan

The House Ethics Committee is pursuing a second inquiry into Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), according to documents released Friday.

The committee has not revealed the nature of the latest complaint and won't have to until May 9, the deadline for the panel to decide how to proceed.

The three-term lawmaker is also undergoing a separate ethics inquiry that deals with incomplete financial disclosures.

A Buchanan aide said the lawmaker is confident the committee will clear him.

The panel first announced in December it was examining a complaint against the lawmaker, but didn't reveal the nature of that complaint until Feb. 6, when the panel extended its investigation. That complaint involved whether Buchanan had violated federal law and House rules by failing to report his positions in 17 entities when filing his financial disclosures. It was referred to the panel by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent panel.

On Friday, the top Republican and Democrat on the panel issued a joint statement saying they were extending a matter related to Buchanan, but in customary fashion did not detail what it was about. But OCE referred this complaint to the committee on Feb. 9 — three days after the committee released the first complaint, and a full three months after that complaint was referred to the committee by the OCE.

Buchanan is also under scrutiny for an alleged straw-voter scheme involving an auto dealership he owned.

The Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department probed allegations that employees at Buchanan's dealership 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.

Meanwhile, the FBI and IRS have contacted Buchanan's former employees, while a federal grand jury is weighing evidence in Tampa, Fla., according to a New York Times report in February.

"We are working with the Committee and are confident that, at the end of its review, the Committee will conclude that Congressman Buchanan engaged in no wrongdoing," said Buchanan spokesman Max Goodman.

At issue in the first ethics complaint 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 complaint also identified 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 FEC also hit Buchanan with a $1,500 fine in January 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.

For Buchanan, the various ethics inquiries hanging over his head have raised questions about whether he should remain in his position as finance vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Asked by The Hill whether he still had confidence in Buchanan, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said last week that it was "only political fodder that continues this debate."

Buchanan, who represents a Sarasota-based district on Florida's west coast, won his 2010 reelection by 38 points. He faces a tough challenge this cycle from Democrat Keith Fitzgerald, a professor and former state lawmaker.

- This post was updated at 5:22 p.m.