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Miller Mounts His Defense

As Republican leaders attempt to keep a closer eye on potential scandals within the GOP Conference, Rep. Gary Miller (Calif.) assured his colleagues during a closed-door meeting Tuesday that despite a federal investigation into his real estate dealings he has done nothing illegal and is simply the target of partisan attacks.

“I have absolutely been falsely accused,” Miller said in a brief interview Wednesday.

Miller said he told his colleagues at Tuesday’s Conference meeting that all of the documents related to his business transactions are available in his Congressional office for any Member or staff to review.

He added that he voluntarily provided “three books” of documents to the House ethics committee in October for review, and presented Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) with similar documents this past month and again on Monday to assure him of his behavior.

Miller said he has not been contacted by the ethics panel since then and welcomes any investigation into his activities.

“I have not done anything inappropriate, unethical, or illegal,” he said. “I’ve never heard from the FBI, nor have I heard from the IRS. I have not committed any crime.”

Miller’s remarks to the Conference on Tuesday came after Boehner, as part of his strategic presentation on how to reclaim a House majority, put the rank and file on notice at the meeting that there will be little tolerance for ethical lapses in the 110th Congress, according to multiple Members and aides in attendance.

Boehner reminded Members that now, more than ever, Republicans need to hold themselves to a high ethical standard, particularly as Democratic efforts to align the GOP with a “culture of corruption” were largely effective in the midterm elections cycle.

In recent weeks, GOP leaders have increasingly admitted that ethics and scandals played a larger role than formerly acknowledged in costing Republicans the majority.

The 109th Congress was littered with Republican corruption scandals surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Republican ex-Reps. Bob Ney (Ohio), Duke Cunningham (Calif.), Don Sherwood (Pa.) and Mark Foley (Fla.), among others.

Boehner told his colleagues that as leader he also would be more active in holding Members accountable. For instance, Boehner told Members that before the Steering Committee voted to maintain Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) as the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, he met with Lewis for three hours.

“Boehner said that Lewis gave him every assurance that he had done nothing wrong,” said one source in the room. Lewis did not speak at the Conference meeting.

Lewis is under federal investigation as part of a larger probe into earmarks and the behavior of Cunningham, and he has spent nearly $1 million in legal bills over the past year. The investigation continues to be a cause of concern to many Members in the Conference who have little appetite to deal with another round of indictments and bad publicity.

For instance, during GOP leadership elections late last year, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) pointedly asked every candidate if they would allow the Steering Committee to seat a ranking member who is under investigation — clearly referencing Lewis.

However, Boehner also said Tuesday that Republicans cannot jump to conclusions on Members. “He said ‘We have to be careful here. We can’t abandon people based on media reports,’” another source in the room added.

The Lewis situation, in some ways, is similar to the Democrats’ dealing with Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) who is under investigation but has not been charged with a crime (though much more alleged evidence against Jefferson has been made public than has been the case with Lewis).

Led by now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats forcefully removed Jefferson from his Ways and Means seat despite protests from some colleagues that it was passing unnecessary and unfair judgment on a Member before the investigation concludes.

Miller, meanwhile, has been the subject of a series of recent media reports and now an FBI investigation questioning how he may have used his Congressional office to influence his profitable Southern California real estate business.

Allegations also have surfaced that Miller has skirted taxes on the purchase and sale of a number of land deals in the cities of Monrovia and Fontana, both located in his district.

The public advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in August 2006 alleging that Miller has failed to pay capital gains taxes on a number of real estate transactions.

“You have to finesse this in some sense,” said one House GOP aide. “What is the threshold? When there is no obvious offense, it can be a pretty subjective process.”

There is “no appetite” for any more scandals, observed one senior GOP aide, “A fatigue has set it.”

In the past, particularly for DeLay, Members were more willing to circle the wagons around their colleagues, create response teams to defend them in the media and try to quell the issue in Conference. The senior GOP aide said Boehner openly discussing the ethics issue in front of the whole Conference is in itself a sign of a sea change.

“There’s much more willingness to talk about it and confront it,” the aide said. “Members are much more willing to air this stuff in Conference.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) and other GOP leaders already have begun telling lawmakers that they will not be willing to politically back Members with ethics problems in 2008.

One source used Sherwood — who lost his re-election bid after publicly admitting an affair and reaching a legal settlement with his mistress — as an example, and said there is some regret that leadership did not move in faster to force him out of the race in order to hold on to a reliable GOP seat.

“In hindsight, somebody should have gone to Sherwood and said, ‘You’re not going to be our candidate,’” the source said.

One Member said that leadership “gets it” now on how big of an issue ethics became in recent years. “It is a recognition of the failure to act more aggressively on ethics and against the bad apples in the 109th and how they degraded our image in the public eye,” the lawmaker said.

The single act of having Members in question defend themselves in the Conference is seen as an early improvement. “It says to the Member ‘We’re all watching,’” added another House GOP aide.

At the same time, Members aren’t likely to stand up in the Conference to confess crimes or ethical transgressions. Ney once gave an impassioned speech to the Conference vowing his innocence and asking for support, prompting then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to lead a standing ovation for a lawmaker who successfully portrayed his case to his colleagues as a political attack from the media. He was later indicted and pleaded guilty in the ongoing Abramoff probe.

One source suggested that as a result of their experience with Ney, the Conference could be less sensitive to Members’ pleas of innocence, particularly in the minority.

“The Ney thing just sticks in everyone’s craw,” the source said.

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