By Susan Crabtree - 02/09/07 12:00 AM EST
For over two years, Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) helped members of a southern California city council in their pursuit of federal and state funds for a wilderness preserve project that included the purchase of 165 acres that he owned.
The FBI is looking into whether Miller violated tax laws. He failed to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of his land to the City of Monrovia, claiming that the city imposed eminent domain, which allows a government agency to force a sale if it is deemed to be in the public interest. City of Monrovia officials deny that they invoked eminent domain.
Miller has said he has done nothing wrong. He describes himself as a victim of a media smear campaign and has since threatened to sue local officials for their public statements on the matter. Several calls to his office were not returned.
But relations with members of the Monrovia City Council were much friendlier some five to six years ago, when the city was trying to preserve 700 acres of foothills from development and was looking for money to buy land from Miller and others who owned property in the area.
According to minutes of Monrovia City Council meetings and interviews with several southern California city officials and former Miller staffers, Miller and his office were actively involved in trying to help the city locate federal and state money for the massive open-space project.
Miller had planned to build 60 multi-million-dollar homes on the land, and he repeatedly told the city of Monrovia that he didn’t believe the city could come up with enough money to purchase that acreage — given that his ambitious development plans elevated its worth.
The city then passed an initiative to increase local taxes to raise money for the wilderness preserve project, which was designed to produce $10 million over its 30-year lifespan. The city wanted to drum up another $10 million in grants.
Miller stepped in to help, and early talks floated the possibility of inserting an earmark into an undetermined bill to provide the funds to the city, several sources said. But those talks were quickly abandoned when Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) resisted, according to city council minutes.
“Members of the City Council concurred, that after talking to Congressman Dreier individually recently, there was not money readily available to purchase the properties,” read the minutes of a February 29, 2000, Monrovia City Council meeting.
Then-Monrovia City Council member Lara Larramendi Blakely recalled in an interview last year that Dreier had refused to help secure an earmark to purchase land that included Miller’s because he thought it raised obvious conflict-of-interest issues.
Congressman Dreier said that he really could not support going after federal funds because Gary Miller’s property was involved,” said Larramendi Blakely, a Democratic politician who later became mayor and now works for Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) “He didn’t think it was right to try to get federal money that would benefit a sitting congressman.”
In the same interview, Larramendi Blakely said she was not involved in detailed discussions with Miller other than their face-to-face meetings because other Republican members of the council were closer to him.
When she would visit Washington during lobbying trips, she said, Miller would ask her about the city’s progress in obtaining the funds for the wilderness preserve.
“He would always ask, ‘How’s it going?’” she said.
After abandoning the earmark route, Miller continued trying to help the city locate public funds, the sources said, and in early 2001 he identified California Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) grants for land acquisition as the best source. The WCB is underwritten in part by federal funds. The city of Monrovia applied for the grant and eventually received $8.6 million.
“Early on, the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) was pinpointed as the best location to seek matching grants,” read the minutes of a May 28, 2002 Monrovia City Council meeting. “By June 2001, the City had entered an agreement with the WCB for as much as $9 million in matching grants, pending certification of property appraisals by the state Department of General Services (DGS).”
One of the city’s initial assessments of the value of Miller’s land was $6.6 million, but Miller balked at that amount. City officials then commissioned another appraisal, which came in at $12.2 million. Recognizing the sensitive nature of the deal, they commissioned a review of that appraisal, which backed up the $12.2 million figure, according to the May 28, 2002 council minutes.
Ultimately, however, the DGS certified a lower appraisal of $11.77 million, the final price of the land.
“Recognizing that a great deal of scrutiny would be placed on the purchase, City officials requested that DGS staff come to Monrovia to tour the property for themselves,” the minutes state. “DGS ultimately certified a value of $11.77 million on the Miller property.”
Miller, who had held the land since the 1980s, netted $10 million on the deal, but the purchase consumed a large portion of the funds the city had amassed for the wilderness project from both the tax and the WCB grant, leaving little for the 150 acres the city still wanted to attain.
Again, Miller agreed to help and was more open about doing so because the city had already purchased his land, according to Sept. 24, 2002 council minutes. That month, city officials traveled to Washington to meet with Miller and the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to discuss efforts to secure federal money for the project.
After the trip, Rob Hammond, who was serving as Monrovia’s mayor pro tem at the time, reported that the trip had been worthwhile.
“[Hammond] also met with Senator Boxer’s office and presented acquisition needs for open space in Monrovia,” the minutes state. “Councilmember [Joe] Garcia and [Tom] Adams met with Congressman Gary Miller who does want to assist Monrovia now that he no longer owns property in Monrovia.”
Then-Assistant City Manager Scott Ochoa reported that Boxer and Miller provided the city with an “account number” for the Environmental Protection Agency that would help them apply for grants for the wilderness project.
“Assistant City Manager Scott Ochoa reported that an EPA account number to apply for funds had been received from both Senator Boxer’s and Congressman Miller’s offices in response to the Council members [sic] trip,” the Sept. 24 minutes continue. “Mayor Pro Tem Hammond stated that it was a worthwhile trip [sic] thanked the City’s lobbyists and announced that he would go again in January.”
At the same meeting, councilmember Adams concurred that the trip to Washington was “fruitful,” adding that Hammond and fellow councilman Garcia had met with Miller, “who called yesterday to say that he had identified some federal funding and was hopeful there would be good news next month.”
The city of Monrovia is not located in Miller’s district, and it is rare for a member of Congress to help a local municipality outside his district obtain funding, especially when the lawmaker stands to benefit financially from it.
The House ethics manual warns members to avoid conflicts of interest, referring to the definition under federal law and regulation: “it denotes a situation in which an official’s conduct of his office conflicts with his private economic affairs” with the ultimate concern being “risk of impairment of impartial judgment, a risk which arises whenever there is temptation to serve personal interests.”
As an example of a conflict of interest, the manual refers to a case in which a member sponsored legislation to remove restrictions on the development of property in which he had a personal financial interest. “Thus, the Member was found to have wrongly used his official position for personal benefit,” the manual states.
In an interview last year, Miller denied having anything to do with trying to secure federal money to help purchase his land.
“I had nothing to do with anything [involved in the effort],” he said, refusing to acknowledge that there was an effort to secure federal funds to help purchase his property.
If there was an effort to attain an earmark or any kind of federal money for the project, he said, “it was on the part of the City of Monrovia.”