Congressional candidate's lawsuit sealed by judge

 

pdanner@MiamiHerald.com

The Republican candidate to fill the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris was involved in a civil lawsuit that was later erased from public court records in Sarasota County, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has reported.

After millionaire auto dealer Vern Buchanan obtained a $1.35 million settlement from the developers of the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2001, the judge granted both sides' request to seal the entire case.

NOT A TRACE

Judge Nancy Donnellan then took the unusual step of removing any reference to the lawsuit from public records, according to the Herald-Tribune.

The suit is one of at least a dozen that have disappeared from public records in Sarasota County. The existence of hidden court cases there emerged after The Miami Herald reported that cases vanished in Broward Circuit Court and other courts around the state.

No state law or rule permits judges to put lawsuits on a secret docket, where the case number, party names and log of the court proceedings can't be accessed by the public. The practice also conflicts with the basic tenets of America's justice system.

Buchanan's hidden court case in Sarasota puts a spotlight on one of the most contested congressional seats in the country. Harris is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Bill Nelson.

OUT OF PUBLIC VIEW

The Herald-Tribune filed a court motion last month challenging Donnellan's order sealing the court file. The newspaper's lawyers argued the judge was hiding the case from public view. At an emergency court hearing this month, though, Donnellan concluded The Herald-Tribune had not proved the sealing was improper and opted not to unseal the suit.

NOTHING TO HIDE

Buchanan has told the Herald-Tribune he has nothing to hide in the court file, but he has opposed the newspaper's efforts to make parts of the case public.

Buchanan alleged in his 2000 suit that the Ritz-Carlton's developers had cut him out of a financing deal for the hotel. The developers countered that Buchanan defrauded them and lied about his finances, according to the Herald-Tribune, which cites a court document obtained before the case was sealed.

To settle the suit, Buchanan paid one of the developers $5 million for a condo, which he sold a year later for $6.35 million to a company affiliated with the developer. Buchanan kept the difference, in the process saving $260,000 in taxes by paying capital gains taxes rather than income taxes, the Herald-Tribune reported.

Buchanan is running against Democrat Christine Jennings, a banker.

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