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House Ethics Committee clears powerful GOP congressman

By Deirdre Walsh and Scott Bronstein, CNN
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Tue July 10, 2012
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, is seen in 2008.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, is seen in 2008.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rep. Vern Buchanan is cleared of purposely filing erroneous disclosure forms
  • He is still under investigation on other allegations, including trying to tamper with a witness
  • His office issues a news release declaring "Buchanan Cleared"
  • He is set to be the lead fund-raiser for the GOP campaign arm this election cycle

Washington (CNN) -- The House Ethics Committee announced Tuesday that it has cleared Florida Republican Vern Buchanan in an investigation, finding no evidence that he purposely omitted information from the annual financial disclosure forms he is required to file.

But while the committee closed the case on this matter, it did not comment on other allegations involving Buchanan's business practices, his campaign finances, and accusations that he tried to try to stop a witness from talking. Buchanan remains the target of at least four congressional and federal investigations into those allegations.

In a joint statement from the panel's chairman, Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Alabama, and ranking Democrat, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, the committee said that Buchanan failed to report his positions and income regarding certain business entities on the disclosure forms he filed in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

But, the statement added, "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."

The statement noted that between 30% and 50% of the disclosure forms filed by House members include errors.

Buchanan's financial dealings and the multiple investigations surrounding them have posed a potentially embarrassing situation for top House GOP leaders because they have tapped Buchanan to be the lead fund-raiser for the party's campaign arm this election cycle.

June: Investigation into Rep. Buchanan

The Ethics Committee began investigating Buchanan's failure to provide complete reporting on his business interests after the Office of Congressional Ethics, an outside independent panel, turned over a report to the committee.

Separately, the office also completed a separate review of reports that the Florida Republican, who owned several car dealerships, had employees at those businesses to write checks to his campaign, for which they were later reimbursed by the auto dealers.

Buchanan's office immediately blasted out a news release Tuesday declaring "Buchanan Cleared." The written statement said "Buchanan said he was pleased with the committee's action but not surprised, noting that many congressmen and senators routinely amend their reports due to inadvertent omissions."

But the new development does not clear Buchanan in the numerous other investigations and allegations he is facing. CNN has confirmed that several other federal and congressional investigations are looking into Buchanan's business activities, campaign finance accounts, and the allegations of attempting to intimidate a witness.

The FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the IRS are all investigating Buchanan, and a grand jury has been hearing testimony in Tampa, Florida.

In a report released earlier this year, the Office of Congressional Ethics found "there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Buchanan attempted to influence the testimony of a witness in a proceeding before the FEC (Federal Election Commission) in violation" of federal law and the House ethics code.

The witness Buchanan allegedly attempted to influence is his former business partner, Sam Kazran. Many of the investigations of Buchanan are examining events dating from the time the two were partners. The men jointly owned numerous auto dealerships in Florida, but then had a falling out over their finances and have been suing each other for years.

Buchanan says Kazran is a disgruntled partner, and has lied about what happened.

At the center of Kazran's allegations is a cash swap scheme he says Buchanan used to finance some of his campaigns. Employees were forced to write checks, he says, and then were reimbursed with cash drawn from Buchanan's car dealerships.

Kazran says he was instructed by Buchanan to "run it through the corporation."

People who never gave money to campaigns were suddenly writing big checks to Buchanan for Congress and, according to Kazran, getting reimbursed from the dealership. It added up to almost $70,000 at Kazran's dealership alone.

Kazran took his detailed allegations to the FEC, which was already looking into Buchanan's campaign finances. Investigators there wanted to know not only about how the cash-swap scheme was set up, but if the congressman knew about it.

Kazran says there is no question that the congressman knew all about it.

The FEC's initial report found "reason to believe" that Buchanan "knowingly and willfully violated" federal election laws.

But then, in a later report, the commission pulled back, saying it found "credibility" problems with both Kazran and Buchanan and not enough corroborating evidence to back up Kazran's testimony. The FEC then dropped the investigation into Buchanan, stating, "While there is some other evidence in the record that is consistent with Kazran's general allegations, other evidence supports Buchanan's denials or is ambiguous."

The commission eventually fined Kazran $5,000 in a settlement, because he admitted reimbursing employees for campaign contributions. Kazran has never disputed his involvement, but says he did it because Buchanan told him to.

While the congressman has said the later FEC report proves he's innocent, the findings at the FEC were more convoluted, stating it came "close to supporting a finding that it is more likely than not" that Buchanan violated the law.

During the FEC probe, Buchanan pushed to settle a lawsuit Kazran had brought against him. And at the last minute, with a $2.9 million settlement offer from Buchanan dangling in front of him, Kazran says, he was given a new document to sign, an affidavit.

According to Kazran, the congressman and his attorneys were asking him to sign a statement that was a lie: saying that Buchanan knew nothing about the campaign cash swap.

Kazran says Buchanan and his team were offering the $2.9 million settlement in return for the lie about Buchanan's role in the campaign cash scheme. It was money Kazran says he desperately needed, as his finances were in trouble and his wife was suffering from cancer with expensive medical treatments.

"Basically, (the affidavit) made me the scapegoat," Kazran said in an exclusive interview with CNN last month. "A lot of the language of it was really to distance himself and to use the content of that in his favor in the other (FEC) investigation. In short, it said that Mr. Buchanan had nothing to do with it."

Kazran refused to sign and took the affidavit to federal investigators. That led to Buchanan being investigated for attempting to tamper with a witness in a federal investigation.

After repeated requests for interviews were ignored, CNN decided to confront Buchanan as he emerged from a hearing recently.

Buchanan would not respond fully to any questions and quickly walked away from CNN's camera. Asked if he tried to get Kazran to sign the affidavit, Buchanan responded "No, no, no, no. No, I didn't," adding that he needed to get to another meeting, and that CNN should contact his office.

Asked if he used the affidavit to hold up the multimillion-dollar settlement with Kazran, Buchanan replied: "No."

Now the House Ethics Committee is looking into the question of the alleged attempt to influence the testimony of a witness. CNN has also learned the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice also are investigating events from this period, and a grand jury has been hearing testimony.

What's more, outstanding allegations and questions of financial fraud are being examined. A former chief financial officer for Buchanan's business interests for five years, Salvatore Rosa, stated in a recent deposition that he submitted a federal whistle-blower complaint to the IRS with allegations that Buchanan is guilty of tax evasion, fraud and conspiracty to commit tax evasion.

In the deposition, Buchanan's attorneys asked Rosa if he stood to gain a "financial windfall" by filing the complaint, and Rosa said, "Potentially." The deposition did not provide details of the alleged violations of tax law. Rosa declined an interview with CNN.

Buchanan's office has called the charges of the alleged campaign-cash swap scheme "politically motivated," stated that the congressman did nothing wrong, and added, "We are confident that the Justice Department and House Ethics Committee will reach the same conclusion."

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