A dealer — and his reputation — on the ballot

Suits against auto group heat up Florida campaign

A spot opposing Rep. Vern Buchanan focuses on allegations in lawsuits against him and his auto group.
The economy and the war are important, of course. But in Florida's 13th Congressional District, a raft of lawsuits against Rep. Vern Buchanan and his big auto dealership group is a defining campaign issue.

Buchanan, a first-term Republican from Sarasota, is one of two auto dealers in Congress and among its wealthiest members. But political opponents and newspaper reports suggest that his rags-to-riches resume is tarnished.

Buchanan's Democratic challenger in this week's election says charges at the heart of lawsuits against Buchanan Auto Group dealerships reflect badly on the lawmaker's character. The suits allege abusive finance and insurance practices, campaign donations coerced from dealership employees and retaliation against would-be whistle-blowers.

"I absolutely have made character an issue, as it should be," says Christine Jennings, who lost to Buchanan by 369 votes two years ago amid charges of voting irregularities that ultimately were dismissed.

Buchanan's supporters say the accusations in the lawsuits are part of a politically motivated smear campaign. For his part, Buchanan says he is removed from daily operations at his 16 dealerships.

Buchanan, 57, declined to be interviewed by Automotive News last week. A spokeswoman said Buchanan was too busy campaigning. Recent polls suggest that Buchanan has a comfortable lead over Jennings, a former bank president, but that a large bloc of undecided voters could swing the election.

Day in court

Jennings, 62, says she is not taking part in the lawsuits against Buchanan. Still, her campaign charges that Buchanan and his past and current businesses have been sued 184 times.

This year, former employees and others filed a wave of suits against Buchanan's dealerships. They claim that dealership executives encouraged F&I practices that victimized customers, demanded that subordinates make illegal donations to Buchanan's campaign and punished employees who resisted.

Some plaintiffs are working with Duane Overholt, a legal consultant and self-styled whistle-blower against dealerships across the country.

Buchanan is personally named as a defendant in some of the suits, which are pending. News reports say he rejected settlement offers by plaintiffs, calling them shakedowns.

Several of Buchanan's dealerships and Darrin Chrisman, a Buchanan business partner and general manager of Sarasota Ford, have filed countersuits, alleging defamation and other offenses.

Powerful allies

Buchanan is the sixth-wealthiest member of Congress, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call calculates. It estimates that he is worth at least $65 million and says that figure probably is low.

Buchanan's private group of domestic and import brand dealerships ranks No. 43 on this year's Automotive News list of the top 125 U.S. dealership groups based on 2007 new-vehicle retail sales. Last year the company sold nearly 16,000 new vehicles at retail.

Buchanan spent heavily on his campaign in 2006 but has relied on outside donors this year. Two political action committees representing the interests of dealers nationwide have given the maximum possible to Buchanan's campaign — $10,000 each.

Those groups are the Dealers Election Action Committee, affiliated with the National Automobile Dealers Association, and the Automotive Free International Trade PAC, which collects and distributes contributions mainly from import brand dealers.

Political trends appear to make this a big year for Democrats. But Mary Hanagan, AFIT-PAC's executive director and a longtime political observer, says the evidence she has seen suggests Buchanan will win re-election.

During his freshman term, Buchanan has not kept a high profile on auto industry issues. He has focused on small business and the concerns of military veterans.

The largest newspaper in Buchanan's district, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, favored Jennings in 2006 and endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president this year. But it also supports Buchanan's re-election.

The newspaper's endorsement concluded that Buchanan "is due the presumption of innocence. ... He deserves to be judged by voters based on his representation of the district."

Self-made man

Another paper in the region, the St. Petersburg Times, published an investigation of Buchanan's biography in September. The report focused on American Speedy Printing, a chain of franchised print shops based in Michigan.

The company collapsed in 1992, soon after Buchanan stepped down as its principal owner. The newspaper said Buchanan left behind many disgruntled franchise owners, some of whom lost their investments.

Today, Buchanan has a wide range of business holdings and investments other than his dealerships. They include real estate, an aircraft leasing business and a yacht management company.

His latest congressional financial disclosure form runs 49 pages. It includes at least six assets that are each in the $5 million-to-$25 million range.

After Buchanan and Jennings battled to a near draw in 2006, Democrats sought to keep Buchanan from taking his House seat. They said thousands of ballots cast in the most Democratic part of the west Florida district did not register votes in the House election.

State and federal officials said they did not find evidence of vote tampering. Ultimately, Democrats relented and resolved to defeat Buchanan this year.

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