By Susan Crabtree - 02/06/07 12:00 AM EST
Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) last week blamed an FBI review of his land deals on a media smear campaign. But this is not the first time government agencies have scrutinized his real estate transactions.
In 1992, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), a state government entity that regulates political activity and investigates conflict-of-interest allegations, levied a $1,750 fine against Covina City Councilman Christopher Lancaster for accepting $8,000 from Miller before voting in favor of a resolution Miller sponsored.
The payment occurred when Lancaster was mayor of Covina and Miller was a member of the Diamond Bar City Council and running for state Senate.
According to an FPPC summary of the case, Miller’s campaign committee paid Lancaster the money for “his work as a political campaign consultant.” On Sept. 17, 1990, Lancaster voted in favor of Miller’s resolution, which created a formula for the exchange and division of property tax revenue between Los Angeles County and the City of Covina.
“The resolution was initiated by Gary Miller to enable him to annex 52 acres of undeveloped land into the City of Covina,” the case summary states. “Miller held an option to buy this acreage.”
City councils regularly negotiate exchanges of the property tax for annexed land based on the expenses the city and the county have incurred regarding the land, usually in the form of government services. In many cases, these agreements must take place, and the city must pass a resolution laying out the exchange rate before the land can be transferred to the city.
An FPPC stipulation, decision and order signed by Lancaster and Wayne Ordos, executive director of the commission, in late 1992 pinpoints a critical matter in the case.
“Although the resolution had no impact on the amount of taxes on this property, passage of such a resolution was one of the steps necessary for the annexation process to move forward,” it states. “Annexation into the City of Covina would have had a financial effect on the fifty-two acres on which Miller held an option agreement.”
Annexing land from counties to cities immediately increases the value of the property because the city provides services such as sewer maintenance, according to an initial review of the case summary by the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Shaun Martin, a law and ethics professor at the University of San Diego, said annexation of the land benefited Miller.
“The lingering question is whether the $8,000 he gave to the mayor had anything to do with the mayor’s vote in favor” of the annexation tax deal, Martin said. “To a neutral observer, the whole reason you’re not allowed to vote on things when someone has paid you $8,000 is because it looks like a payoff.”
Martin also said the case suggests a “pattern and a practice” in Miller’s land dealings.
The 1992 FPPC case provides “a keen insight into how [Miller] was doing business,” Martin said.
“For all I know, maybe [Lancaster] walked around and spent six straight months putting up yard signs [for Miller’s campaign], but I highly doubt it.”
Miller and Lancaster did not return calls for comment.
The San Gabriel Valley Tribune last week reported that the FBI had contacted officials and former officials from several cities in Southern California about Miller’s land deals. A spokesman for the city of Monrovia also confirmed that the FBI had contacted several officials.
Miller has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and last week he lashed out at the press for conducting what he called a “smear” campaign against him.
Among various questionable land deals, The Hill first reported late last year that Monrovia city officials had tried to secure a federal earmark to help purchase a large swath of land to create a wilderness preserve in the nearby foothills, 165 acres of which Miller owned. The city’s efforts were unsuccessful and it instead passed a tax increase and secured California state grant money to pay for the land. Miller ended up making nearly $10 million on the deal.
In August, CREW filed a complaint with the IRS following a Los Angeles Times report alleging that Miller failed to pay capital gains tax on the sale of the land to Monrovia, claiming that the city had exercised eminent domain, which lightened his tax load. The city denied doing so.