Ethics panel clears Buchanan on charge of misleading Congress

The House Ethics Committee on Tuesday cleared Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) on charges that he violated House rules by intentionally misleading Congress about his finances.

The secretive panel stated that the errors found within his financial disclosure forms did not warrant punitive action. Buchanan has since amended his disclosure information to more accurately reflect his financial holdings, the committee stated.

“The Committee found no evidence that the errors were knowing or willful and unanimously determined that the errors were not substantively different from the hundreds or thousands of errors corrected by amendment at the requirement of the Committee every year,” said Reps. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the Ethics Committee, in a joint statement.

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Bonner and Sanchez said that as many as 50 percent of the financial disclosure statements that members submit to the committee contain errors and omissions such as the ones within Buchanan’s records.

“Such errors and omissions are not uncommon and are typically corrected through amendments to financial disclosure statements, and do not involve any further committee action,” they said.

“Rep. Buchanan has now corrected the errors and omissions in his financial disclosure statements by his subsequent amendments. Therefore, no further action by the committee is warranted.”

Buchanan’s office issued a press release shortly after the Ethics Committee’s announcement, saying that the lawmaker was “pleased” but “not surprised” by the verdict.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) referred the matter to the Ethics Committee last November after a number of allegations arose surrounding Buchanan’s finances and possibly illegal campaign contributions.

Specifically, Buchanan had been accused of his campaign reimbursing employees at a car dealership he owned for contributions they made to his campaign, and later coercing his former business partner, Sam Kazran, into making a false statement about the activity.

The Ethics Committee, in its announcement on Tuesday, made no mention of the allegations of witness tampering.

The committee is still probing a separate series of charges that Buchanan attempted to procure a false affidavit from a witness testifying about allegations of a straw-donor scheme.

That matter was referred to the committee in February by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which unanimously determined that "there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Buchanan attempted to influence the testimony of a witness" in a proceeding before the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The Justice Department is reportedly also investigating Buchanan separately on at least four counts.

The charges have plagued Buchanan, who as the finance vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has been prime fodder for attacks from Democrats who point to the irony of his having so many financial-related concerns.

He's a leading Democratic target this year, facing a strong challenge from Keith Fitzgerald, who has the backing of the Democratic leadership.

Democrats see this as one of their few pickup opportunities in Florida and have hammered Buchanan hard on the investigations.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pointed to the ongoing investigations by the DOJ and the IRS, saying that Buchanan was not out of the woods yet.

“A legal and ethical cloud still hangs over vulnerable Congressman Vern Buchanan who is facing serious investigations by the FBI, IRS, House Ethics and a federal Grand Jury for tax evasion, witness tampering and a campaign fundraising scheme,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Formas.

Buchanan narrowly won his seat in 2006 after months of waiting for ballot recounts finally pronounced him the winner by just 369 votes over Democrat Christine Jennings. Buchanan beat Jennings again in 2008 by nearly 70,000 votes.  In 2010, he easily won reelection with 69 percent.

The redistricting process placed him in the 16th district, which is less-friendly GOP turf than his old 13th district.

The Hill rates the race leaning Republican.

This story was updated at 4:13 p.m.