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Georgia Democrats Press Ethics Committee to Complete Investigation of Rep. Deal

Georgia Democrats this week called for the House ethics committee to wrap up its investigation of Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) before he leaves Congress at the end of March.

In a Monday letter to the ethics panel, Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Jane Kidd implored the committee to complete its inquiry before Deal’s scheduled March 31 resignation. He is leaving to dedicate himself full time to his gubernatorial campaign.

“We believe that this affords the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct an opportunity to resolve the Deal investigation,” Kidd wrote, citing Deal’s decision to postpone his original Monday departure date. Deal announced Thursday he would remain in Congress to vote on the health care bill at the urging of House GOP leaders.

In mid-December, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained records via the state’s Open Records Act indicating that both the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Office of Congressional Ethics had contacted state offices about Deal.

The Congressman subsequently acknowledged a Congressional ethics investigation into a state-funded program that benefits his family auto-salvage business, but he denied any wrongdoing.

It is unclear whether the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the ethics panel, closed its probe of Deal following his announcement last week. The committee, which rarely comments on its work prior to the end of an investigation, has never publicly acknowledged the inquiry.

A spokeswoman in Deal’s office would not comment Wednesday on whether Deal had received notification about the investigation’s status since scheduling his resignation.

Although the House committee will lose jurisdiction over Deal when he steps down, the panel could continue investigating him until he does so.

If the panel is unable to complete its inquiry before that point, it could either close the investigation outright or release a report on its efforts, as it has done before, although there is not requirement for it to do so.

In addition, it remains to be seen what impact Deal’s departure would have on the OCE investigation.

The OCE does not comment on specific complaints, but according to quarterly reports published by the office — which provide only statistical information and do not identify subjects — investigators opened only one new inquiry in the last half of 2009. That investigation began in October — the Journal-Constitution reported in December that state records showed OCE investigators contacted a state office in October — and appears to have ended in late December.

Under the OCE’s rules, investigations are conducted in two stages. If an investigation is approved for the second phase, the OCE must recommend to the ethics committee that the matter be dismissed or that the panel pursue its own investigation.

After receiving such a referral, the ethics committee has 45 days to review the matter and issue a decision unless it opts for a one-time 45-day extension.

If the OCE recommends further investigation, the House ethics committee is required to publicly acknowledge its review of the probe after the first 45 days.

Quarterly reports indicating whether the OCE referred matters for dismissal or review are not yet available for 2010.

The House ethics committee has not announced any referrals related to Deal to date. If the OCE recommended dismissal, the committee is not required to make any public statements.

It is not clear, however, what the ethics committee would be required to do if its review of an OCE referral had not expired before a Member left office.

In a recent investigation of the defunct lobbying shop PMA Group and its ties to lawmakers, the ethics committee released a report on the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) along with six other lawmakers.

Because the OCE had recommended dismissal in its investigation of Murtha, however, the ethics committee was not even required to acknowledge the report, much less release it.

Murtha died Feb. 8, prior to the ethics panel’s vote on the referrals and before the maximum 90-day review period had ended.

According to campaign finance records available via the Georgia State Ethics Commission, Deal’s gubernatorial campaign has paid more than $21,000 in legal fees to the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge since July, including a nearly $14,500 payment in November.

The Journal-Constitution reported in early 2008 that Deal objected to proposals by a Georgia state official to expand the number of inspection stations in the state and award contracts to those stations through a competitive bidding process.

Together with his business partner Ken Cronan, Deal owns Recovery Services Inc., also known as Gainesville Salvage & Disposal, one of the eight existing inspection stations.

Business records obtained by the Journal-Constitution show Deal’s Gainesville Salvage & Disposal earned $1.5 million from 2004 to 2008 from the salvage inspection program.

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