A nonpartisan watchdog group on Thursday called on U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger to release a letter from the House Ethics Committee that he says approved the sale of his real estate business to his wife.
House of Representatives rules prohibit members of Congress from engaging in fiduciary professions that involve managing others’ assets, including law and real estate, because of potential conflicts of interest. Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, sold the business to Suzanne Pittenger before taking federal office in 2013, but he has declined to make public the letter he received from the ethics committee.
“It would be good for everyone in his district and his investors to see what the House Ethics Committee suggested would be an appropriate way to not be a fiduciary and comply with the rules,” said Matthew Whitaker, the executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. “The resistance to disclosing it raises some real red flags.”
Pittenger said at a town hall meeting this week that such letters are traditionally kept confidential and that they contain “personal matters.” Some members of Congress, however, have released these letters when questions have been raised. After a town hall meeting with constituents Thursday night, Pittenger declined to comment on the ethics letter. He said he is in “full compliance” with ethics rules.
Pittenger acknowledged earlier this month that the company he founded in 1985 was being investigated by the FBI, but he has said he was confident that neither he nor the company have done anything wrong. The Observer has also reported that some of Pittenger Land Investments’ investors are unhappy with the company’s performance in recent years.
While Pittenger has not released the ethics committee letter, his staff has said that the sale has been disclosed three times in financial disclosure forms that have been reviewed by the ethics committee and also made public.
Tom Rust, staff director for the Ethics Committee, said he could not comment on Pittenger’s case.
According to the Ethics in Government Act, the committee is required to review all financial disclosure statements to determine whether they are accurate and complete, and comply with applicable laws and rules. If a problem is found, the committee will notify the member of a possible violation or if more information is needed.
Pittenger’s staff said the ethics committee has not contacted them with any concerns.
While the executive branch has strict prohibitions on what a spouse can do, House rules are looser. House ethics permit a member of Congress’ spouse from having most any job. One exception is that a spouse who works as a lobbyist cannot lobby the member’s office or staff.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust is a nonprofit that promotes accountability, ethics and transparency in government. The group, launched last year, has taken a stance on a couple dozen issues so far, including asking a House committee last month to investigate Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, over the use of his name in a hedge funds he manages.
If Pittenger is concerned about releasing personal information, Whitaker, a former U.S. Attorney in Iowa, said it would be easy to redact the “dollars and cents” from Pittenger’s letter.
“The structure that was proposed could be released and compared to what ultimately happened,” he said.