In 2004, Rep. George Miller, D-CA, and his lobbyist son George Miller IV raced to stop a pending county effort to close down the small Buchanan airport in Concord, California.
Local officials in the once-rural area were concerned for the safety of more than 100,000 residents near the general aviation facility, which was in Miller’s congressional district.
It was not an academic worry, as years earlier, an aircraft making an instrument approach to the airport slammed into the Concord shopping mall, killing the pilot, two passengers and injuring 84 Christmas shoppers. More recently, a plane had hit a minivan, severing a 12-year old girl’s leg.
Despite the potential for tragedy, in January 2004, Miller dispatched a stern letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) demanding that federal authorities overrule county efforts to close Buchanan. The closest alternative to Buchanan was San Francisco International, 27 miles from Concord.
The congressman demanded a "prompt" answer from the FAA. Three months later, federal officials vowed to keep Buchan open. It is open today.
Federal lobbying disclosure reports show that in January 2004 George Miller IV represented a powerful Concord developer, Albert Seeno, Jr. who maintained a 10-seat Citation II corporate jet at the Buchanan field. When it was new, the jet retailed for $3.9 million.
Seeno owned 1 million square feet of office space in three large buildings adjacent to the airfield. Closing the airport could cost Seeno tenants, so he wanted the air field to remain open. Federal reports show Seeno paid Miller IV at least $60,000 in lobbying fees to keep it open.
The Buchanan airport saga was at least the third case in which Miller is now known to have intervened in a manner that benefitted one of his son’s lobbying clients. In total, Miller IV personally received $320,000 to represent Albert Seeno in Washington, D.C.
A spokesman for the congressman did not return a reporter’s telephone call seeking comment. A call to George Miller IV's firm was also not returned.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the non-partisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the father-son relationship seems inappropriate.
“If he took action on behalf of one of his son’s clients, that would be inappropriate,” Sloan told The Washington Examiner.
Miller IV also arranged a face-to-face meeting between Seeno and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, at the time the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who then also dispatched an angry letter to the FAA.
The second case was in 2005 when Miller intervened on the side of the Seeno family on a ballot measure to alter the boundary of Pittsburg, California, which allowed the developer to build a sprawling 1,400 residential subdivision. Miller endorsed the proposal three days before it passed by a narrow margin, over the opposition of California environmentalists.
In 2007, after he sided with the Seeno family, Albert and Sandra Seeno contributed $4,870 to Miller’s re-election campaign. Seeno family members have contributed more than $500,000 to Democrat and Republican congressional candidates and campaign committees, according to OpenSecrets.org.
The third instance of favoritism was Miller’s 2010 support for a $1.2 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee to SunPower. Miller publicly endorsed the loan guarantee and escorted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar around the SunPower facility with SunPower CEO Tom Werner that year.
And from 2009 to 2011, SunPower hired Miller IV’s lobbying firm, Lang, Hansen, O'Malley, paying it $176,000 in lobbying representation fees.
All told, the congressman’s son has earned nearly a half a million dollars representing clients who benefited from his father’s official actions.
Congressional rules are lax about conflicts of interest when family members lobby. The U.S. House Committee on Ethics imposes some restrictions on spouses who lobby. But it does not set limitations concerning other family members such as a son.
The Ethics Committee ethics manual, however, does warn members about lobbying by family members: “Special caution must be exercised when the spouse of a Member or staff person, or any other immediate family member, is a lobbyist.”
Congressman Miller sponsored the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which was the 2007 centerpiece of his party’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Republican corruption. While the act forced more public disclosure about gifts and lobbying, it did not bar or limit family members who wish to lobby.
Cleta Mitchell, a Republican campaign finance attorney told the Examiner the repeated case of father-son favoritism is a serious problem for Rep. Miller.
“I think this is quite serious. And I think someone should ask for an inquiry before the House Ethics Committee,” she said.
Sloan agreed there are problems when family members lobby. “CREW has been very critical of family members lobbying Congress. We are always concerned about family members who receive a lot of money for those who have interests before their parents.”
Miller has denied knowing who his son represents as a lobbyist, but Mitchell doesn’t buy that explanation. “His son is registered as a matter of public record,” she told the Examiner. It's his duty to know his son’s clients so he can avoid conflicts, she said.
“He would have an obligation to say, ‘son, who are your clients? I need to know in advance so it doesn’t look like I’m doing something because you’re my son,” Mitchell said. “ If you were going to actually conduct yourself in the most ethical manner , that’s what you would do.”
CREW’s Sloan said many relatives trade their family relationships for big lobbyist dollars. In 2011, George Miller IV reported his California lobbying income topped $6.1 million.
“Children and spouses often tell potential clients they have a familial relationship with a Member of Congress,” Sloan told the Examiner.
“I always think it’s a problem when family members are trading on their connections with members of Congress,” she said.
Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner’s special reporting team.