The Republican leading the probe of Hunter Biden has his own shell company and complicated friends

Dec 13, 2023, 9:05 PM

FILE - House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., emerges from the c...

FILE - House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., emerges from the committee room, followed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to speak to reporters after Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden's son, defied a congressional subpoena to appear privately for a deposition before Republican investigators who have been digging into his business dealings, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

TOMPKINSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rep. James Comer, a multimillionaire farmer, boasts of being one of the largest landholders near his rural Kentucky hometown, and he has meticulously documented nearly all of his landholdings on congressional financial disclosure documents – roughly 1,600 acres in all.

But there are six acres that he bought in 2015 and co-owns with a longtime campaign contributor that he has treated differently, transferring his ownership to Farm Team Properties, a shell company he co-owns with his wife.

Interviews and records reviewed by The Associated Press provide new insights into the financial deal, which risks undercutting the force of some of Comer’s central arguments in his impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden. For months, the chairman of the House Oversight committee and his Republican colleagues have been pounding Biden for how his relatives traded on their famous name to secure business deals.

In particular, Comer has attacked some Biden family members, including the president’s son Hunter, over their use of “shell companies” that appear designed to obscure millions of dollars in earnings they received from shadowy middlemen and foreign interests.

Such companies typically exist only on paper and are formed to hold an asset, like real estate. Their opaque structures are often designed to help hide ownership of property and other assets.

The companies used by the Bidens are already playing a central role in the impeachment investigation, which is expected to gain velocity after House Republicans voted Wednesday to formally authorize the probe. The vote follows the federal indictment last week of Biden’s son Hunter on charges he engaged in a scheme to avoid paying taxes on his earnings through the companies.

But as Comer works to “deliver the transparency and accountability that the American people demand” through the GOP’s investigation, his own finances and relationships have begun to draw notice, too, including his ties to prominent local figures who have complicated pasts not all that dissimilar to some of those caught up in his Biden probe.

Comer declined to comment through a spokesman, but has aggressively denied any wrongdoing in establishing a shell company.

After Democrats blasted him for being a hypocrite following the Daily Beast ’s disclosure of the company last month, Comer countered by calling a Democratic lawmaker a “smurf” and saying that the criticism was the kind of thing “only dumb, financially illiterate people pick up on.”

The AP found that Farm Team Properties functions in a similarly opaque way as the companies used by the Bidens, masking his stake in the land that he co-owns with the donor from being revealed on his financial disclosure forms. Those records describe Farm Team Properties as his wife’s “land management and real estate speculation” company without providing further details.

It’s not clear why Comer decided to put those six acres in a shell company, or what other assets Farm Team Properties may hold. On his most recent financial disclosure forms, Comer lists its value as being as much as $1 million, a substantial sum but a fraction of his overall wealth.

Ethics experts say House rules require members of Congress to disclose all assets held by such companies that are worth more than $1,000.

“It seems pretty clear to me that he should be disclosing the individual land assets that are held by” the shell company, said Delaney Marsco, a senior attorney who specializes in congressional ethics at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

Marsco and other experts were perplexed as to why Comer would place such assets in a shell company, especially since he disclosed his other holdings and does not appear to have taken other efforts to hide his wealth.

“This is actually a real problem that anti-corruption activists would love to get legislative reform on,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in government ethics. “It is hard to trace assets held in shell companies. His is a good example.”

Comer created the company in 2017 to hold his stake in the six acres that he purchased two years earlier in a joint venture with Darren Cleary, a major campaign contributor and construction contractor from Monroe County, Kentucky, where the congressman was born and raised.

It’s not clear how Comer came to invest with Cleary, who did not respond to an interview request. They have offered mutual praise for each other over the years, including Comer having called Cleary “my friend” and “the epitome of a successful businessperson” from the House floor.

Cleary, his businesses and family have donated roughly $70,000 to Comer’s various campaigns, records show. He has also lauded Comer on social media for “For Fighting For Us Everyday” and has posted photos of the two on a golf course together.

At the time he and Comer entered their venture, Cleary was selling an acre of his family’s land to Kentucky so it could build a highway bypass near Tompkinsville, which was completed in 2020. He sold Comer a 50% stake for $128,000 in six acres he owned that would end up being adjacent to the highway.

Comer, a powerful political figure in this rural part of Kentucky, announced his bid for Congress days after purchasing the land.

Marketing materials described the land as “choice” property and play up its proximity to the bypass. The partnership sold off about an acre last year for $150,000, a substantial increase over its value when purchased, property records show.

Farm Team Properties has also become more valuable. On Comer’s financial disclosure forms, it has risen in value from between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2016 to between $500,001 and $1 million in 2022, records show.

As House Oversight Committee chairman, Comer has presented himself as a bipartisan ethics crusader only interested in uncovering the truth. As evidence, he has pointed to a long career as a state legislator and official who sought to build bridges with Democrats and to “clean up scandal, restore confidence, and crack down on waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Interviews with allies, critics and constituents, however, reveal a fierce partisan who has ignored wrongdoing by friends and supporters if they can help him advance in business and politics.

“The Jamie Comer I knew was light and sunshine and looking for common ground. Now he’s Nixonian,” said Adam Edelen, a former Democratic state auditor and friend, comparing the lawmaker to a disgraced former president who resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal.

In Comer’s telling, he is a man of self-made wealth who founded his first farm while still enrolled at Western Kentucky University and shrewdly invested in land.

After graduating in 1993, Comer got into the insurance business with Billy D. Poston, a family friend.

The two later had a falling out. When poor health prevented Polston from running for reelection as a state representative in 2000, Comer, then 27, took on Polston’s wife in the GOP primary, winning that race and the general election. For years, Comer took credit in interviews for defeating the ‘incumbent.”

Comer cut his teeth in the bare-knuckled machine politics of Monroe County, Kentucky, and knew how to win allies, according to those who knew him.

When he was barely out of high school, Comer was writing campaign checks to state politicians, including a $4,000 contribution to a Republican candidate for governor in 1990, followed by another check in 1991 for $1,050, according to campaign finance disclosures published in local news stories. Both contributions listed Comer’s occupation as “student.”

Comer followed in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, Harlin Comer, who was a leading figure in local Republican politics, as well as a construction contractor and bank officer.

When Harlin Comer died in 1993, the 21-year-old Comer took over as chairman of the Monroe County GOP. A wave of indictments against local Republican office holders, some of whom helped launch Comer’s political career and became close friends, soon followed.

Mitchell Page and Larry Pitcock were among those charged in the sweep. Page, then the county’s chief executive, and Pitcock, the former county clerk, were sentenced in 1996 to 18 months in prison for tampering with a state computer database so that they and their families could avoid paying vehicle taxes.

Rather than turning on Pitcock and Page, Comer has remained close to the men. He praised Page on the House floor in 2020 for his “principled leadership.”

Page did not respond to a request for comment. Pitcock could not be reached at phone numbers listed to him.

Pitcock and his family members have donated about $9,000 to Comer’s political campaigns and held one of Comer’s first fundraisers when he ran to become state agriculture commissioner, records show. Comer dismissed questions about the propriety of having Pitcock sponsor a fundraiser for him, noting to CN2 News that it helped him raise nearly $60,000.

Comer eventually hired Pitcock’s son to work for him in the agriculture commissioner’s office, records show. Members of the Pitcock family have since attended a House Republican fundraiser with Comer in Washington and posed for photographs with him inside the U.S. Capitol.

In 2011, a voter fraud case roiled local politics and swept up Billy Proffitt, Comer’s longtime friend and former college roommate. Proffitt pleaded guilty in December 2011 and was sentenced to probation.

A few years later, Proffitt came to Comer’s defense from allegations that nearly derailed the future congressman’s political career. During the 2015 Republican primary for governor, a local blogger began posting about accusations that Comer had abused a college girlfriend.

Comer vehemently denied the allegations. And in the hopes of discrediting the stories, he leaked emails to a local paper that suggested a rival campaign had been coordinating the coverage with the blogger, according to The New York Times. The leak allegation may have discredited the other candidate, Hal Heiner, but ended up hurting Comer’s campaign.

The coverage angered the former girlfriend, who wrote a letter to the Louisville Courier-Journal in which she asserted that Comer had hit her and that their relationship had been “toxic.” She also told the newspaper that Comer became “enraged” in 1991 after he learned she had used his name on a form she submitted before receiving an abortion at a Louisville clinic.

Proffitt, however, told the newspaper that he had never seen Comer be abusive toward Thomas.

“That doesn’t sound like Jamie at all,” said Proffitt, using Comer’s nickname, adding that he had never heard about the allegations of Thomas getting an abortion.

Comer ended up losing the primary by 83 votes to Matt Bevin, who went on to win the general election. It was the only campaign that Comer has lost.

The lawmaker and Proffitt remain close friends and business associates.

Profitt’s family’s real estate company is spearheading the efforts to sell the land held by Farm Team Properties.

In a brief interview, Proffitt called the focus on Comer’s shell company “much ado about nothing,” adding that the lawmaker “is a loyal friend and a good man who comes from a really, really good family.”

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The Republican leading the probe of Hunter Biden has his own shell company and complicated friends