By Susan Crabtree - 02/08/07 12:00 AM EST
Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) passionately pleaded his innocence before GOP colleagues at a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, nearly a week after several media outlets reported that the FBI is looking into his land deals.
Miller told colleagues that the press and Democrats had launched a smear campaign against him, singling out The Hill and the Los Angeles Times as perpetrators, as well as a former Democratic mayor of the Southern California city of Monrovia, Lara Larramendi Blakely, who now works for Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), according to GOP sources.
The comments came during an open-mic session at the end of a meeting designed as a discussion on House Republicans’ strategic plans to regain the majority in 2008, which were first laid out during a GOP retreat held the weekend of Jan. 24.
Before Miller spoke, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that defining an ethics strategy is critical to winning back the majority and that members need to hold each other accountable, sources said.
House Republicans are still smarting from a campaign season in which corruption charges played a key role in their defeat, and Boehner is grappling with how best to address members’ ethics problems while maintaining a cohesive conference.
Boehner’s spokesman, Brian Kennedy, refused to comment on what happened behind closed doors.
Boehner tried to reassure members at the conference meeting Tuesday with regard to the FBI review of Miller’s land deals, as well as an ongoing FBI probe of Rep. Jerry Lewis’s (R-Calif.) relationship to a lobbying firm and its contracts. A Justice Department investigation into Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and his wife’s ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff was not mentioned, according to sources.
Boehner told the conference that he believed that the legal precept of innocent until proven guilty should prevail, and that he and Lewis had discussed the allegations against him, the sources said. On Miller, Boehner was less specific, generally saying Republicans need to be prepared to answer political attacks of this nature.
“Boehner is being very proactive about ethics issues, which is why he raised the subject with the entire conference,” said a source close to Boehner. “He made it abundantly clear that leadership is watching these cases closely and is going to be proactive on such matters to an extent not seen in the past.”
Boehner, however, has not indicated whether he will keep Miller in the top GOP spot on the Finance Committee’s Oversight and Investigations panel.
“I really don’t think Boehner was suggesting that the books have been closed on any of the cases members are concerned about,” the source close to Boehner continued. “If anything, he was underscoring the leadership’s commitment to staying on top of these matters.”
Earlier this year, Boehner decided against doing anything to topple Lewis from the top GOP spot on the Appropriations panel despite an ongoing Justice Department investigation and a brief period after the election in which at least one member, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), expressed concerns about Lewis’s maintaining the powerful post. Lewis has spent $861,000 on legal fees since May of last year, and Doolittle’s legal bills total $117,000.
Miller met with Boehner late last year to discuss the charges and said he submitted documents to the ethics committee in December in an effort to clear his name.
Since March of last year, The Hill has reported on various land deals involving Miller, including one in which he worked with Lewis to insert an earmark in the 2005 federal highway bill that shut down an airport in the Southern California city of Rialto. Even before the airport was shut down through the earmark, Miller’s business partner and top campaign contributor, Lewis Operating Corp., had an exclusive deal with the city to develop the airport land into a planned community consisting of 2,500 homes, parks and 80 acres of retail space.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year that Miller deferred paying taxes on $10 million in profit from a 2002 sale of 165 acres in Monrovia, Calif., by claiming the city had imposed eminent domain on the land and reinvesting the profit by purchasing property in Fontana, Calif., from Lewis Operating. He later sold that land to the city of Fontana.
In August a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a complaint with the IRS taking issue with Miller’s failure to pay capital gains tax on the Monrovia land.