Rep. Robert Pittenger won’t release a letter from the House Ethics Committee that he said approves of the sale of his longtime real estate company to his wife before taking a seat in Congress.
Pittenger, a Republican from Charlotte, N.C., acknowledged recently that the company, Pittenger Land Investments, is being investigated by the FBI.
Although the committee’s advisory work is usually confidential, no rule prevents members of Congress from releasing such letters. Other lawmakers have done so in the past when questions were raised about their connections.
Pittenger started Pittenger Land Investments in 1985. House of Representatives rules, though, prohibit members of Congress from engaging in fiduciary professions that involve managing others’ assets, including law and real estate, because of likely conflicts of interest.
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Pittenger sold the business to his wife, Suzanne Pittenger, before taking federal office in 2013. He said last week that the FBI inquiry has nothing to do with his duties as a member of Congress or with his congressional office.
Stephen Billy, Pittenger’s chief of staff, said in a statement Tuesday that personal guidance from the Ethics Committee is not typically made public. He said the letter provided guidelines on how the congressman can divest from the company “in order to comply with all ethics rules and regulations – which he did.”
“Since divesting he has fully disclosed the transactions three times and no one from the committee has contacted our office with any concerns,” Billy added.
Tom Rust, staff director for the Ethics Committee, declined to comment about Pittenger’s case.
Committee rules prohibit the disclosure of any request for advice or response, but there is no prohibition on members releasing a letter from the Ethics Committee.
While it is unusual, members have released the letters in the past. Often it’s done to quell controversy. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, released an ethics letter in 2010 approving her travel on a private jet owned by her then-fiancé that had become a source of scrutiny.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., released a Senate Ethics Committee letter that approved the payment for a caregiver with personal funds after reports raised questions about the nature of the payment.
In Pittenger’s case, University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer said the arrangement in which Suzanne Pittenger is the business owner may be too cozy and may not provide enough ethical cover.
“Sounds kind of gimmicky,” said Tiefer, a former acting general counsel of the House of Representatives while it was under Democratic rule. “While he may contend that he doesn’t earn money for the business. It is all too easy for him to still do so despite House ethics rules.”
And Richard W. Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said that just because the FBI is investigating the company doesn’t mean the probe involves Congress. It’s possible the investigation involves a business matter. Selling the company sheds Pittenger of, or at least the appearance of, responsibility for any issues that may arise.
“The question is how much can he really distance himself,” said Painter, who is now a law professor at the University of Minnesota. Pittenger has said he is confident that he and the company he once owned have done nothing wrong.
Tampa, Fla.-based Landeavor, a development company, had been in talks to buy all of Pittenger Land Investments’ holdings for the past few months. The company says it has ended talks with Landeavor after questions raised by investors in the land deals the Pittenger company has arranged. Pittenger Land Investments also appears to be cutting staff.
The staff appears to have shrunk from seven to two over the past several months, according to staff listings on the website. The Pittengers’ son, Bobby, was the president of company, but he now works at Bahakel Communication, which was founded by the late Cy Bahakal, Suzanne’s father. Bahakel Communications owns radio and TV stations, including WCCB.
Robert Pittenger’s annual financial disclosure filed last week shows millions of dollars worth of land and salary from Pittenger Land Investments held by his wife.
Pittenger founded Pittenger Land Investments when he moved to Charlotte in 1985. It raises money from investors to buy undeveloped land. The company then holds the land in individual limited liability companies before attempting to sell land to developers at a profit. Corporate records show almost 60 such LLCs, though it’s possible not all are still active.