The latest in a series of lawsuits against Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) alleging consumer fraud at car dealerships he owns was filed last week, turning up the heat on the freshman lawmaker and setting the stage for a long, hot summer in central Florida.
Individuals close to the lawsuits are also signaling that allegations of campaign finance violations by Buchanan could become a key plank in the growing caseload against the lawmaker lawsuits that could number seven by July 1.
Those charges are expected to include the illegal funneling of dealership money last cycle into Buchanans campaign account.
Joseph Kezer, a former finance director at Buchanans Sarasota Ford dealership, claimed in court papers filed Thursday that he was fired last year for exposing fraudulent practices being employed in the sale and financing of new and used cars.
There was so much fraud in and out of the place, Kezer said Friday in an interview with Roll Call. They were putting so much pressure on me to both look the other way and participate ... I kept telling them, no, to the point that it cost me my job.
According to Kezers complaint, employees at Buchanans dealership lied and forged signatures on automotive loan applications as well as misled customers, all while bilking Ford Motor Co. for bonuses by fraudulently meeting sales quotas.
Buchanan, business partner Darrin Chrisman and a dealership sales manager are named in the lawsuit.
Kezer also alleged in an interview with Roll Call that he observed campaign finance violations ahead of Buchanans narrow 2006 victory against bank executive Christine Jennings (D). In the most expensive House race last cycle, Buchanan spent more than $5 million of his own money, according to CQ MoneyLine, to win by 369 votes.
Buchanan is expected to face a rematch with Jennings in November.
Some of the Buchanan campaigns record $8 million outlay in the 2006 campaign, according to Kezer, likely was laundered corporate cash funneled through higher-ups at Buchanans numerous dealerships.
The former finance director told Roll Call that he personally fielded phone calls from other dealership executives wanting to know whether company reimbursement checks they had cashed put them in legal peril.
After it happened, a couple of [managers] contacted me because they were concerned, Kezer said. I didnt know at the time ... whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.
Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts declined to answer Kezers charges, saying only that its the campaigns policy that all campaign contributions are within FEC regulations.
The lawmakers business partner, Chrisman, however, dismissed charges of consumer fraud at the dealership outright, calling Kezer a disgruntled former employee.
He was terminated seven months ago for poor performance, Chrisman said. All of the charges are false. Its just a matter of sour grapes.
Chrisman also dismissed lawsuits filed May 21 by Willie Lee, another former dealership employee. In court papers, Lee alleged that he is owed back pay and was wrongly charged service fees at the dealership.
According to Chrisman, Lee was fired from the dealership for poor customer satisfaction. He also questioned the motives behind Lees lawsuit, which is seeking back pay for unused vacation and for a service fee he incurred when personally buying a vehicle from the dealership.
If youre terminated, youre not entitled to your vacation pay, according to documents that he signed when he was hired, Chrisman said. And he never came to us ... all of the sudden he just wants a couple of weeks vacation [pay]?
Regarding allegations that Buchanan misused corporate money to finance his 2006 run, Chrisman declined to comment. He also questioned the motives behind naming Buchanan in the suit, calling him basically a silent investor. Still, he confirmed the Congressmans corporate offices were once located at the Sarasota Ford dealership.
I came on the scene in November 2006, so I am not really privy to what happened before, Chrisman said.
Lee and Kezer are just two of the ex-Buchanan employees as well as two consumers represented by Douglas Lyons, a consumer rights attorney who is working with an automotive fraud activist, Duane Overholt, in building the case against Buchanan and his dealerships.
In an interview Friday, Lyons declined to elaborate on any future lawsuits against Buchanan, but confirmed that he represents multiple people who have filed court papers against the lawmaker or his businesses.
All I can say at this point: Where theres smoke, theres fire. Were familiar with at least four dealerships where the same activities are occurring, [and] the only common thread is [Buchanans] ownership, Lyons said. Based upon what we see, there are a number of illegal activities going on at a number of different dealerships.
Buchanans office confirmed the lawmaker is a passive investor in five dealerships.
Overholt, who has shepherded numerous class-action lawsuits and is working with seven Buchanan whistle-blowers, speculated that it may be difficult for the lawmaker to distance himself from the allegations.
With the documents we have, the knowledge of how car dealers operate ... his dealers agreements, as well as the statements from our clients, theres no way Buchanan could not have known, Overholt said.