Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: THE LATEST ON BUCKMAN

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2008


A colorful and controversial political consultant from Mississippi who caused some embarrassment for New Mexico Democratic Party leaders a few years ago is back in the news, this time for pleading guilty in federal court to not filing income tax returns.

Richard Buckman, 39, pleaded guilty in February to two misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file his federal income tax returns for 2002 and 2003, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office from the Southern District of Mississippi. He faces a year in prison and a fine of $25,000 for each count.

Buckman is almost an archetypal behind-the-scenes Southern political operative. Chicago political writer Stump Connolly wrote about a hotel bar encounter with Buckman, then working for John Edwards’ presidential campaign, while covering the 2004 Wisconsin primary. His description of Buckman — “a dark, brooding man in a dark suit and camel’s hair coat leaning into my shoulder” — seemed to indicate someone who enjoyed creating an air of mystery about himself. Besides his political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., he also is a partner in an entertainment business in Los Angeles.

Buckman made national news in 2004 for allegedly offering U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., an unusual deal. Pickering said Buckman told him Democrats were willing to end their opposition to the nomination of the congressman’s father, Charles Pickering Sr., to a federal appeals judgeship. All Rep. Pickering had to do was agree to a redistricting plan that would effectively eliminate his congressional seat. (Buckman denied the story.)

In his current tax case, according to a May 29 story in the Sun Herald, a southern Mississippi paper, Buckman’s guilty plea was part of a plea bargain in which the government agreed to drop two other counts of failure to file tax returns. Those were from the years 2000 and 2001.

“The plea agreement also calls for Buckman to pay $181,714.81 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service for the years covered in the indictment,” the paper said.

During that four-year period, Buckman received gross income of almost $1 million, the U.S. attorney said.

Buckman’s sentencing, originally scheduled for last month, has been postponed until next month, the Sun Herald said.

“I have made some mistakes in my life and I am trying to make amends, do the right things, and get my life straight now,” Buckman told me in an e-mail Wednesday.

Buckman, The New Mexico years: Buckman first came to public attention in this state when several Democrats began to publicly question the $40,000 contract he had with the state party in 2004 and 2005. The contract was for “party building and fundraising.” But some party activists questioned the value of Buckman’s work and called the contract a “sweetheart deal” — literally — noting Buckman at the time was dating the party’s then executive director.

Then-state Democratic Party chairman John Wertheim defended Buckman in a 2005 interview, saying Buckman “did valuable work for the party in terms of fundraising” and had helped strengthen the state party’s relationship with the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Wertheim insisted Buckman’s relationship with the executive director had nothing to do with getting his contract. But the director resigned about a week after stories about Buckman and his contract appeared in The New Mexican. State Democrats said her departure had nothing to do with the stories.

But Wertheim on Wednesday no longer would defend Buckman. “As I learned more about Mr. Buckman, it has caused me to question whether it was wise to employ him as a consultant,” Wertheim said. “Hindsight is 20-20.”

There was another notorious New Mexico incident involving Buckman.

He was arrested in Albuquerque on a drunken-driving charge in October 2004. The two Albuquerque cops who pulled him over said Buckman showed the classic signs of intoxication — bloodshot, watery eyes, slurred speech and the strong odor of alcohol — and he failed a field sobriety test.

However, a judge later ruled the sobriety test wasn’t valid because Buckman was too heavy. Police guidelines state that DWI suspects who are more than 50 pounds overweight shouldn’t be given certain physical tests involving balance. So Buckman’s DWI charge was dropped.

Bad blood in Texas: Buckman became involved with another state Democratic Party executive director, though not in a romantic way.

Mike Lavigne, a former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said Wednesday that he and a group of investors were “scammed” out of $35,000 by Buckman in a business deal involving the purchase of storage containers from the government. Lavigne created a Web site about Buckman, whom he calls a “con artist.”

Lavigne, who now has his own government and public relations firm in Austin, Texas, said Buckman promised to repay everyone involved when the deal fell through — but all the checks bounced.

When one of the investors confronted Buckman via e-mail, he replied, “The funds have been held up by the Feds is what happened. I am in meetings today with them as they want to have me roll on some people, mostly politicians and attorneys, in return for freeing my money, and making my charges go away. ...”

Asked about this Wednesday, Buckman replied: “There is no truth to what (Lavigne) says about me ‘scamming’ anyone. It was a business deal that didn’t work out. It’s his word against mine, no charges or lawsuits filed by him against me, so that just simply isn’t true. ... If Mike has an issue with his business with me he can file a civil lawsuit and a judge can decide, until then, that is what it is, nothing more.

“There was a conversation between he and I that was suppose to be confidential that there were people who wanted to discuss things with me. ... I am told that his repeating that and anyone who printed something of that nature could very well be committing Obstruction of Justice.”

Buckman’s sentencing is scheduled for July 25 in Gulfport, Miss.

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