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Ex-aides allege abuse of power

Rep. Gary Miller of Diamond Bar exercised political muscle for personal gain, they say.

December 12, 2006|William Heisel | 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.

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.

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.

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.


'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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