Calif. officials tried to secure earmark to buy Miller's land

Members of a California city council tried to secure federal funds to purchase a large swath of Rep. Gary Miller’s (R-Calif.) land as part of a wilderness preserve project.

The Monrovia City Council immediately faced resistance from its congressman, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who told them there was no federal money for the project.

“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 Feb. 29, 2000 Monrovia City Council meeting.

The minutes also quoted Monrovia Mayor Bob Bartlett as saying that Dreier’s resistance “did not mean that there would not be help or that it should not be pursued, however, it would not be an easy task. [Dreier] did indicate that he would help in any way that he could.”

Then-Monrovia City Council member Lara Larramendi Blakely, who went on to become mayor, in an interview recalled 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,” Larramendi Blakely said. 

In an interview earlier this 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.”

But Larramendi Blakely said Miller was well aware of the push to attain federal money for the project. In fact, she said, whenever she traveled to Washington to lobby on the city’s behalf, he would ask about the city’s efforts to win the funds.

“I would go into his office discussing [transportation needs] and city funding priorities for that year, but I would always be prepared to answer questions about [the wilderness preserve] because I knew he would ask,” she said. “… He would always ask, ‘How’s it going?’ ”

Miller’s land was part of a sprawling 700-acre area in the Monrovia foothills, the site of a planned 32-unit upscale housing tract. Monrovia City Council members were determined to protect their community’s hillsides from development and passed an initiative to increase local taxes to raise money for the nature conservancy project. The tax was expected to raise an estimated $10 million, with the city to drum up another $10 million in grants.

Miller’s land would consume a large portion of those funds. The city initially assessed the value of Miller’s land at $6.6 million, but Miller balked at that amount, and the city eventually agreed to pay $11.8 million for it, handing Miller a $10 million profit on the land, which he has held since 1988.

In 2002, the city scored a $9 million grant from California’s Wilderness Conservation Board. However, after purchasing Miller’s 165-acre property as well as two other parcels totaling 26 acres, the city’s foothill preservation funds were exhausted, with little money available to purchase the 150 remaining acres they wanted.

City council members then traveled to Washington to seek more grants to cover the costs and complete the wilderness preserve.

In 2000, the city of Monrovia had hired the lobbying firm of Turch and Associates to help secure federal grants for a variety of projects, according to lobbying disclosure records. In August, when Miller and the Monrovia land deal began to come under increased scrutiny, the city of Monrovia ended its lobbying contract with Turch and Associates and signed up another firm, Edington, Peel and Associates, to lobby on its behalf on budget/appropriations and urban development/municipalities issues, according to the lobbying disclosure reports.

The Los Angeles Times yesterday reported that Miller had asked one of his staffers to find a place for then-Monrovia City Councilman Rob Hammond on the National Park System Advisory Board — this even though Hammond had virtually no parks experience — and continued to push for the councilman even after his aides warned him that trying to secure a park board seat in this way could appear to be a bribe.

Miller was unsuccessful in his efforts and Hammond has gone on to become mayor of Monrovia.

The Times report also quoted several unnamed ex-Miller aides who accused him of abuse of power and of using his congressional office to influence personal business matters.

Earlier this year, The Hill reported that Miller pushed for a provision in the 2005 transportation bill to close an airport in Rialto, Calif., paving the way for one of his top campaign contributors to develop the land. He also took out nearly $7.5 million in promissory notes in 2004 from the same campaign contributor and business partner, which he used to purchase real estate from the company.