April 6, 2012

Hot water rising for Rep. Miller, son

Rep. George Miller, D-CA, has cultivated a reputation for honesty and high ethical standards, but that image may suffer amid revelations about two cases in which he and his lobbyist son came to the aid of powerful campaign donors and troubled California companies.

Miller has represented California’s seventh congressional district since 1975, being one of only two remaining members of the Watergate class of Democrats elected in 1974. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and a long-time confidant of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

In the first case, the senior Miller intervened in a 2005 referendum on a proposed zoning change in Pittsburgh, CA, sought by the Albert D. Seeno Construction Company, the San Francisco Bay area’s largest homebuilder and a prospective Miller campaign donor.

Seeno builds homes and shopping centers throughout Northern California and in five other states. The Seeno family’s net worth is estimated at $2 billion. Miller’s son, George Miller IV, was the family firm’s registered lobbyist in Washington, earning $320,000 from 2003 to 2005.

From 2003 to 2008, Albert D. Seeno Jr., his brother and partner Thomas, and other family members contributed nearly $800,000 to a lengthy, bipartisan cast of state and federal candidates, including Miller, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-CA), President George W. Bush, and Sen. John Ensign, (R-NV), as well as the major Democratic and Republican national and congressional campaign committees.

Seeno needed the zoning change to build 1,400 new homes in Miller’s district, a project with potential to generate millions of dollars in profit for the firm.

The zoning change was opposed by local environmentalists, so political leaders put the zoning change on the ballot as Measure P. The environmentalists saw Miller - who had a 100 percent voting record in Congress in 2005, according to the League of Conservation Voters – as an ally in the campaign to defeat the proposal.

But they were stunned three days before the voting when Seeno officials distributed an endorsement letter from Miller, saying “Measure P is well written and has many benefits for Pittsburgh.”

The referendum was narrowly approved, 51-49 percent, in balloting that saw less than 11,000 votes cast.

More recently, the Miller duo has been caught up in the growing controversy surrounding the U.S. Department of Energy’s award of a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to the struggling SunPower Corporation.

Miller in 2010 urged DOE Secretary Steven Chu to approve the loan guarantee to the solar panel manufacturer with facilities in the congressman’s district. Miller also escorted Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar on an October 2010 tour of the SunPower facility.

Just hours before the DOE loan program was set to expire last Sept. 30, DOE awarded the $1.2 billion loan guarantee to SunPower.

SunPower has paid George Miller, IV and his lobbying firm, Land, Hansen, O’Malley & Miller $138,000 fee for representation. Officially, Miller only represents the firm in California, but the issue could get sticky as Sunpower’s fortunes wane.

Since the DOE loan guarantee, the company’s stock has fallen nearly 50% and is hovering below $6.00 a share. At its height, SunPower commanded $133 a share and enjoyed a market value of $13 billion.

Today, it is valued at $800 million, but carries $975 million in debt. Morningstar, the independent rating company gives SunPower only two out of five stars.

On February 1, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in federal court against the Interior Department and the U.S. Department of the Treasury for records on the SunPower loan guarantee. The Treasury Department executes all DOE loan agreements.

The lawsuit also seeks records and communications between federal officials and George Miller IV’s lobby firm, Lang, Hansen, O’Malley and Miller.

Miller has claimed that he never discusses legislation with his son. A spokesman for the congressman did not return a reporter’s request for comment.

In January 2006, Miller denounced “the Republican culture of corruption that has permeated every corridor and pillar of power in Washington.”

Those words could come back to haunt the veteran Democrat because his son openly boasts about his family’s political connections in California and Washington.

“George Miller brings a lifetime of friendships, relationships, and contacts together with over 15 years of front-line advocacy experience,” reads the son’s profile on the Sacramento-based lobbying firm’s web site.

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