Rep. Shuler says House ethics committee clears him in land swap

The House ethics committee has cleared Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) of any wrongdoing for his role in a land swap involving the Tennessee Valley Authority, according to a statement released by Shuler’s office.

The House ethics committee had not publicly announced Shuler’s exoneration as of press time. His release said late Wednesday that the committee gave him a letter informing him of its decision to clear him of any alleged violation of House rules. Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala), its ranking member, signed the letter.

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After a thorough review, the ethics committee found that Shuler’s actions “were not improper in any way and did not violate House Rules,” and has closed the matter without further action, Shuler said.

“Throughout my personal and professional life I have always held myself to the highest possible ethical standard,” Shuler said in a written statement. “I maintained that standard through all my interactions with the TVA relating to Blackberry Cove. I have never and will never attempt to use my office for personal gain and look forward to continuing to work on behalf of the people of Western North Carolina.”

On Friday The Washington Post reported that an accidentally leaked summary of the panel’s activities revealed investigations into more than two dozen members of Congress. Among them, the document exposed a review of an allegation of “preferential treatment” against Shuler. The ethics panel tries to keep most matters secret during an initial review and will not confirm or deny it is investigating a member unless it launches an investigative subcommittee, a sign the panel has determined there is enough evidence to warrant a serious probe.

The Post’s story was the first indication that the ethics committee had scrutinized Shuler’s activities.

The panel reviewed a deal involving The Cover at Blackberry Ridge LLC, a development in which Shuler held an ownership. TVA gave the development water-access rights along Watts Bar Reservoir in Roane County to build a boat dock. In return, the development agreed to relinquish some water-access rights in Rhea County and provide $15,000 for a shoreline bank stabilization project at a different location on Watts Bar Reservoir, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Shuler is a former member of the House Transportation’s Committee’s subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, which has formal oversight over TVA.

In June TVA Inspector General Richard Moore issued a report saying the deal created an inherent conflict of interest, but there was no evidence that Shuler used his position to pressure TVA into providing water access for his property.

Because it had no jurisdiction over a member of Congress, the TVA inspector general forwarded its report to the ethics committee for their review.

The Ethics Committee noted in its letter to Shuler that because of his status as a member of Congress, the TVA held his firm, The Cover at Blackberry Ridge, “to a higher standard for approval” than others in order to avoid the appearance of partiality. The letter also disclosed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reviewed the facts surrounding the Blackberry application and concluded that no criminal statutes were violated. 

In the ethics committee letter, Lofgren and Bonner said, the TVA inspector general found “no evidence that you or your staff used your congressional office to exert any influence over the adjudication of Blackberry Cover’” water access.

Shuler purchased an interest in Blackberry Cove before he became a member of Congress.