Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal defiantly defended himself Tuesday against allegations that he violated congressional ethics rules, saying he has done nothing wrong.
The Gainesville Republican criticized groups that alleged otherwise, and said the recently released report on his conduct has not shaken his resolve to seek the Republican nomination for governor.
“I have done nothing wrong.” Deal said. “I think this report shows I have done nothing wrong. ... No one is going to coerce me out of this race.”
A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics issued Monday said Deal may have violated six House ethics rules by earning too much outside income and by lobbying state officials to protect his Gainesville-based auto-salvage business, Gainesville Salvage Disposal.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the group that filed the initial complaint against Deal, asked the U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday to launch a criminal investigation into Deal’s conduct in Congress.
In a news conference Tuesday at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, Deal said that the report was incomplete and inconclusive.
“In spite of all the things that have been said, in the very conclusions of their report, they say the report is incomplete and that they can reach no conclusions with regard to whether I did or did not have any ethical violations,” he said. “And that, of course, is very true.”
An e-mail Deal sent to supporters after Tuesday’s news conference said the OCE “did NOT find a violation. ... the OCE reported that it ‘does not take a position’ on either my motives or the (disclosure) reports.”
In fact, the report said the OCE “does not take a position on Representative Deal’s motivations for inserting himself into discussions of potential modifications to a state vehicle inspection program.”
But the report does say the Deal received “a significant financial benefit” from the program as a partner and corporate officer of the business.
“It is undisputed that as a ‘public servant,’ Representative Deal took active steps to preserve a purely state program, one that had generated financial benefit for Representative Deal and his business partner,” the report said. “Further, while taking these steps, Representative Deal used resources of the House of Representatives.”
The report also said that “there is substantial reason to believe” Deal violated six different House ethics rules, and it recommends further review of Deal’s actions by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
On Feb. 5, the OCE board voted to send the report to the committee for review.
The committee had 45 days from the date it received the report to either release a statement or decide whether to look further into Deal’s actions.
The 45-day deadline was March 22. Deal resigned on March 21 after casting his final vote against a bill that promised to overhaul the country’s health care system.
His resignation left the committee without the jurisdiction to pursue the investigation further.
Deal said Tuesday that the investigation was not the reason he resigned.
“It was the issue of health care that kept me in office,” he said. “If I was trying to avoid this issue, I could have resigned a long time ago. I concluded my career after that historic vote.”
He said that the news media distorted the truth with headlines that the report showed he violated House ethics rules, and that a decision by the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics to release the report was “political payback.”
“Sometimes, in the world of politics, there is a price to be paid for doing what’s right,” Deal said. “Over the last couple of days, I have seen those who would exact a price from me for trying to do what’s right.”
The report released Monday was the culmination of a monthslong investigation into whether Deal used his congressional resources to preserve a state vehicle inspection program that benefited him personally. Deal and business partner Ken Cronan own Gainesville Salvage Disposal.
The Athens Highway business is primarily an auction yard for totaled vehicles. But, until last fall, the business served as a site for state employees to inspect rebuilt vehicles twice a month — a deal it had with the state since shortly after the business opened in 1990.
Deal’s involvement in the program came under fire in August after media reports surfaced that he intervened when Department of Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham tried to privatize the state salvage inspection program.
Graham oversees the program, and he said at the time that privatization would make the program more competitive.
Deal raised questions about the program’s safety, if privatized, and scheduled three meetings with Graham. Deal’s congressional chief of staff, Chris Riley, arranged the meetings through Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle using his congressional e-mail account.
CREW filed an ethics complaint against Deal with the Office of Congressional Ethics in August, alleging Deal used his position as a member of Congress to protect his personal business.
On Tuesday, Deal only admitted an error in how his earned income was recorded in congressional disclosure reports, but said that error has been corrected.
At issue is $75,000 Deal earned from his disposal business in 2008. According to the ethics report, Deal was issued a W-2 form for the payments in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Because the income was reported on W-2 forms, it is considered earned income. However, Deal listed it as dividend income on his congressional financial disclosure forms.
But in October, after the ethics investigation was under way, Deal’s accountant recommended in a letter to Deal and his wife that Deal amend his tax returns for 2006, 2007 and 2008 to show the income as “passive” or equity income.
As earned income, $75,000 exceeds congressional limits on outside earned income and “prohibition on receiving any income while serving as a corporate officer,” according to the report.
“The error was this — not that the income was not disclosed, because it was repeatedly disclosed on the forms that are required from members of Congress,” said Deal. “The question was whether or not it was passive income or earned income. Now, as a result of the corrections, I’m told that I’m entitled to a rather substantial tax refund, because I was not required to pay certain withholding taxes on it if had been, in fact, earned income. ... There was never any question whether the income was disclosed, because it was disclosed.”
The OCE, a nonpartisan office charged with investigating whether allegations against members of Congress merit review by the ethics committees, began its investigation of Deal in October. Its board includes four Democrats and four Republicans.
Deal claimed Tuesday that though the board is nonpartisan, the OCE staff is not nonpartisan — that it is controlled by Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and that the OCE board only knows “what the staff told them.”
“It was an atmosphere that was controlled by the staff,” Deal said. “I don’t discredit those individuals who serve on that committee, but I think that it is staff-driven. It has been, and I think always will be until substantial changes are made in that organization.”
Six members of the OCE board voted on March 26 to release its findings, a right it attributed to House Resolution 895 of the 110th Congress, “which provides that the Board may release ‘any communication’ pursuant to its rules or as ‘necessary to conduct official business.’ ”
“For the (OCE) to submit a report and to release it over a week after I had left Congress, I think — first of all — questions whether or not they have in fact violated the rules under which they were established, and that’s an issue I think will be left to another day,” Deal said.
Deal also criticized CREW, the group that filed the complaint that initiated the congressional ethics investigation.
“They are the very same ones who have filed ethics complaints against Sean Hannity and against the organization who has supported Col. Oliver North,” Deal said. “These are not individuals who are interested in the truth. They are interested in playing a political game.”
CREW in September listed Deal as one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress, a list that includes six Republicans and eight Democrats, including Sen. Roland Burris, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by President Barack Obama.
In asking the Justice Department to launch a criminal probe of Deal, Melanie Sloan, the executive director of CREW, said Deal lied on his financial disclosure forms by improperly reporting income.
Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said no one from the department could comment on such a complaint.