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Ex-aides allege abuse of power

Times Staff Writer

With community activists packed into the Monrovia Community Center one winter night in 2000, U.S. Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) implored City Council members to purchase 165 acres he owned in the foothills and turn the land into a wilderness preserve.

Earlier that day, according to interviews with former Miller staff members and official correspondence reviewed by The Times, Miller asked one staffer to find a way to place one of the councilmen -- a pawnshop owner with no parks experience -- on the prestigious National Park System Advisory Board.

The aide said he was told to “make it a priority.”

Miller then continued to push for the councilman’s appointment even after staff members warned him that trying to secure the park board seat for the councilman could appear to be a bribe, internal memos show.

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The move was one of many that Miller has made over the years in which he brought his congressional muscle to bear on personal business matters, according to the former staff members and the correspondence from Miller’s congressional office -- handwritten notes, letters on Miller’s congressional letterhead and e-mails.

All four former staff members requested anonymity to protect their current jobs in politics.

“There was never a clear line in the office between what was congressional business and what was just business,” one former aide said. “The expectation was that you would do both.”

A real estate developer and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Miller, 58, routinely asked his staff to handle personal errands, such as helping his children with schoolwork, searching for rock concert tickets and sending flowers to family members and friends, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

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Federal law prohibits members of Congress from using their staff for anything other than official work.

“We taxpayers trust that our members of Congress will not turn their staff into butlers. That’s not what they’re paid for,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a nonpartisan group. “It’s a misuse of funds and an abuse of power.”

Miller has also collected nearly $25,000 a year in rent from his campaign committee in each of the last three elections by using the offices of his real estate development firm in Diamond Bar as his campaign office.

Under federal election law such rents are considered self-enrichment unless a member can demonstrate that the private offices were used for legitimate campaign purposes.

Miller said through spokesman Scott Toussaint that the rent payments complied with federal law. He declined further comment.

Robert Hammond, the Monrovia councilman for whom Miller had sought the park board appointment, said in an interview that he raised the idea with Miller. Now Monrovia’s mayor, Hammond said he saw no conflict, especially because the appointment never materialized.

Hammond ultimately voted in favor of purchasing Miller’s land for about $12 million. The deal was approved unanimously.

Miller represents the 42nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties. He was reelected this fall without opposition to his fifth term in a district that is about 50% Republican and 28% Democratic, one of the most Republican-leaning districts in the state.

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He has come under scrutiny in his district and in Washington for a series of recent votes and other maneuvers that public watchdogs said were ethically and legally questionable.

In August 2005, Miller helped allocate federal funds for street improvements near a development he co-owned in Diamond Bar. In the same bill, he helped insert a provision to close an airport in Rialto used by emergency medical personnel and private pilots, opening up the land to development by one of his largest campaign contributors, Lewis Operating Corp.

In August of this year, The Times reported that Miller had worked with Lewis Operating Corp. to shelter an estimated $10 million in real estate profits from capital gains taxes. In response, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group that earlier helped launch a federal probe of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service asking for an investigation of Miller.

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‘Make Monrovia a priority’

Miller has said in previous interviews that his use of tax code provisions to avoid capital gains taxes -- including those owed on the 165 acres he sold in Monrovia -- was appropriate. The Monrovia sale was closely monitored and managed by Miller’s congressional staff, according to e-mails, letters and interviews with former staff members.

“Everyone in the office knew that even though Monrovia was not in his district, you had to make Monrovia a priority,” a former aide said.

Staff members said they were asked to write letters and prepare documentation for Miller’s meetings with city staffers.

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In one letter to Hammond, the Monrovia city councilman, the congressman took pains to point out that he was acting as a private citizen. The letter was written by an aide, one former staffer said, and signed by Miller.

That letter was dated Feb. 29, 2000. That same day, Miller made his impassioned plea before the council for the city to buy his land. After a decade of meetings and public hearings, he had all but given up on the idea of developing the property. At the same time, former staff members said, Miller ordered an aide to find a way to get Hammond on the National Park System board. Miller persisted even after members of his staff cited Hammond’s lack of qualifications, the former staff members said.

The 12-member National Park System Advisory Board makes policy recommendations to the director of the National Park Service and the secretary of the Interior. Hammond said he broached the idea of a seat on the board with Miller about the time of the Feb. 29 hearing.

“He wanted to tell me how long this had been going on,” Hammond said, referring to Miller’s efforts to either develop his land or sell it to the city.

Hammond said he asked Miller how he could secure a position on the federal board because he thought that Monrovia would benefit by having a local member in that post.

Later, a Miller aide found that the board was composed mostly of academics, preservation experts and attorneys.

“I know that Gary only wants to help Mr. Hammond, but we have the potential to look foolish if we push to nominate a guy who may be totally unqualified,” one staff member wrote in an e-mail reviewed by The Times.

Staff members also raised ethical concerns.

“I told GM that given his significant personal property interests pending before the Monrovia City Council, the nomination could obviously have a questionable appearance,” an aide wrote to Miller’s chief of staff.

Hammond, however, said he did not see a problem. “Hearing you say it, it doesn’t sound so good,” Hammond said. “It didn’t cross my mind that it was a conflict.” Ultimately, the effort to nominate Hammond stalled because there were no openings at the time and because Hammond, after learning about the qualifications of its members, lost interest.

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Campaign fundraising

In 2000, Miller’s reelection campaign raised and spent half a million dollars to defeat a Democrat with little party support and only $74,000 in campaign contributions. Miller won with 59% of the vote. A similar pattern emerged in each of his next three elections: He raised large sums of money to fend off token opposition and won by landslides.

Over the years Miller has been the biggest recipient of the campaign money that he raised from people in his district and big donors such as the National Assn. of Homebuilders, according to campaign finance records.

Miller’s corporate office, located in an office park in Diamond Bar, doubles as his campaign office. But this November, the presence of campaign activity was impossible to discern from the front office. There were no posters, pictures or bumper stickers for constituents. There were no yard signs out front, no campaign volunteers calling people to get out the vote. On election day, Miller was out of the office, a secretary said.

Yet Miller has used campaign money to pay himself for the use of the building and its equipment -- nearly $25,000 a year in each of the last three elections.

Federal law allows members to rent office space to themselves for campaigning under three conditions: that the rent is paid with campaign donations; that the amount is typical for the area; and that the office is indeed used for a campaign.

This fall, of the eight members of Congress from California who ran with little or no opposition, only two had campaign offices. The other, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), paid about $8,000 to rent space in L.A.

Unlike other members of Congress who have used the relative safety of their seats to raise large sums for colleagues and moved quickly into House leadership positions, Miller gave just $28,000 to other campaigns, including $12,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Gary wants to leave early to get back home on the weekends, and he doesn’t want to come back early on Mondays for votes, because he’s focused on his business, and he’d rather be at home,” one former aide said.

According to the Washington Post’s database of congressional votes, Miller missed 65 votes during this session, putting him in the top quarter for the most votes missed in the House.

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Blending home, work lives

His home life often blends into his official work, according to e-mails and receipts. Once, staffers were told to overnight him a copy of “House Mouse, Senate Mouse,” a children’s book about the legislative process, because he had given his copy to his grandson.

They were asked, on occasion, to help his son register for college classes. They were asked to check his stock prices and put together a morning report for him. And they twice bought flowers for his wife for Valentine’s Day. Miller had flowers sent to so many of his friends, relatives and constituents that his chief of staff sent out this message in August of 2001, saying, “We should be careful with the flower orders! Therefore, no one should mention any death of any resident in the district to Gary -- let Gary bring it to our attention.”

Some of the most urgent e-mails reviewed by The Times focus on tickets to concerts and sporting events. Miller has, on several occasions, interrupted his staff’s congressional work to send them hunting for concert tickets.

A die-hard Rolling Stones fan, Miller learned in May 2002 that the band was coming to Edison Field in Anaheim that October.

“Per his instructions, we are checking with city officials, Edison contacts, etc., to see what we can come up with,” an e-mail written by an aide to Miller’s chief of staff states.

A few days later, the staff was told by Miller’s chief of staff to look for tickets to a Staples Center concert as well, according to e-mails. By May 29, a Miller staffer had prepared a memo outlining four options for getting tickets. The most promising was for the Edison Field show.

“I spoke to Greg Smith, who handles tickets,” the aide wrote to Miller. “He said for you not to worry, they would try and take care of you.”

Miller even did a little legwork himself. Using congressional letterhead, he sent a fax to the head of Ticketmaster’s public affairs office. The message was short: “I am requesting four (4) very good seats for the Rolling Stones concert on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2002 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Please contact me as soon as possible.”

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william.heisel@latimes.com


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