Deal Likely Received Independent Ethics Report

Posted March 23, 2010 at 6:32pm

Ex-Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) resigned Sunday without a public conclusion to the probes into his family’s auto-salvage business, even as the House’s independent ethics office has apparently completed its review and issued a private report that Deal has likely seen.

The Georgia lawmaker, who resigned to dedicate himself full time to his gubernatorial campaign, has previously acknowledged the existence of a Congressional ethics investigation into a state-funded program that benefits his family auto-salvage business. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in December that documents obtained via the state’s Open Records Act showed that both the House ethics committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics contacted state offices about Deal.

It is unclear whether the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the ethics panel, has officially closed its probe of Deal. The panel’s jurisdiction includes only current Members, employees or officers of the House.

The OCE is similarly limited to reviewing incumbent Members, but quarterly reports indicate that the office finished its review of Deal in late December.

Although the OCE — which reviews suspected rules violations and recommends investigations to the House ethics committee — does not comment on specific complaints, it does release statistical reports on its work.

According to its most recent report, OCE 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 its second and final phase in late December.

Under its rules, whenever the OCE completes a second-phase review, it must issue a report to the ethics committee recommending the panel either conduct its own investigation or dismiss the allegations. The OCE must also provide a copy of the report — a one-page document detailing the focus of its investigation and its recommendation to the ethics committee — to the subject of the review.

Additionally, among the 20 cases that the OCE referred to the ethics committee in 2009 — including 12 for further review and eight for immediate dismissal — a majority of Members who were the subjects of recommendations for investigation confirmed privately or publicly that they had received copies of the OCE reports and related documents from the ethics panel before it completed its review of the referral.

In those cases where the OCE recommended dismissal, most Members or their offices confirmed receiving only the one-page report summarizing the OCE’s review.

Harris Blackwood, a spokesman for Deal’s gubernatorial campaign, declined to comment Monday about the status of the investigation or whether he would make public a copy of any OCE report, referring questions to the ethics committee. He referred subsequent inquiries to Deal’s attorney late Tuesday afternoon, who could not immediately be reached for comment.

The ethics committee does not comment on its investigations and has never publicly confirmed whether it is examining Deal.

It is not known whether the OCE recommended a further investigation of Deal to the House committee or whether it suggested the query be dismissed.

In either scenario, after the OCE issues a referral to the ethics committee, that panel has up to 90 days to review the matter — an initial 45-day period and an optional 45-day extension — and determine its next step.

In the event that the OCE recommends further investigation, however, the ethics committee must issue a public statement on the referral before the end of the first 45-day period.

But if the OCE advises an inquiry be dismissed, the ethics committee is not required to make any public statements.

Nonetheless, in late February the ethics committee did release five reports in which the OCE recommended dismissal as part of its investigation of the defunct lobbying shop PMA Group and its ties to lawmakers.

Among those five reports was one inquiry focused on the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who died Feb. 8 and was no longer under the panel’s jurisdiction at the time that it released the report.

But Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, one of the government reform advocates who advised the House task force that created the OCE, said scenarios like Deal’s — in which an OCE report was apparently issued but not released prior to a Member’s resignation — had not been considered.

But Holman added: “Even if that had never been contemplated, what was contemplated was the OCE reports become public under any condition.”

Under the OCE’s rules, its eight-member board, led by Chairman and ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Co-Chairman and ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), could in fact vote to release the report if the OCE has in fact recommended further investigation.

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.

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.