Watchdog questions ethics of Valadao's opposition to high-speed rail

The Fresno BeeJuly 23, 2013 

A Washington watchdog organization wants the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Hanford Republican David Valadao over his moves to oppose California's high-speed rail project.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sent its request Tuesday to the Office of Congressional Ethics. In its five-page letter, CREW alleges that the first-term congressman "abused his position on the House Committee on Appropriations to benefit his and his family's financial interest."

Valadao was elected last fall to represent the 21st Congressional District, which includes Kings County and parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. His family's Valadao Dairy is south of Hanford in Kings County.

CREW requested the investigation after The Bee reported on July 14 that several Valadao Dairy properties sit directly along one proposed high-speed rail route through Kings County, and that the family owns other parcels within a mile of two route options. The report also noted that as a member of the Appropriations Committee, Valadao last month successfully offered a spending-bill amendment that, if it became law, could delay or block construction of the high-speed rail system, including the stretch through Kings County.

Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, complained that Valadao did not reveal to his fellow Appropriations Committee members that his family's property stands to be affected by the high-speed rail route, which critics have complained could diminish the value of farmland, homes and businesses on or near the line.

"By using his position to introduce an amendment benefitting his and his family members' personal financial interest, by advocating for the amendment in an effort to persuade his colleagues to support it, and by voting for the adoption of the amendment," CREW's letter stated, "Rep. Valadao appears to have attempted to provide a financial benefit to himself and his family members in violation of House conflict of interest rules."

In an email Tuesday afternoon, Valadao spokeswoman Anna Vetter avoided addressing the CREW allegations and instead focused on Valadao's consistent stance against high-speed rail in both the state Assembly and in Congress.

"Congressman Valadao has listened to his constituents and is opposed to a project that destroys homes and businesses throughout the Central Valley," she said. Valadao, Vetter added, "will always do what's in the best interest of those who elected him."

A Kings County property database shows that Valadao Dairy -- of which Valadao is the managing partner -- owns three acres directly along one proposed high-speed rail route south of Hanford. Those parcels total about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million. Another 664 acres owned either by the dairy partnership or other members of the Valadao family, with assessed values amounting to more than $7.5 million, sit within a mile of at least one route option in the area.

Notwithstanding his family's property interests, "Congressman Valadao opposes high-speed rail regardless of the route," Vetter said. Valadao's staff noted that his properties are only a few of more than 600 parcels in Kings County that could be affected by the high-speed rail route.

Sloan said that House rules allow members to participate in floor votes if they are part of a class of constituents who are affected by an issue "out of concern over disenfranchising their constituents." But she said she believes it was inappropriate for Valadao to offer and act on his amendment in the Appropriations Committee.

"Even if one could argue the point that he's part of a class, we don't believe it's at all arguable that he wouldn't have to disclose that conflict," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If you're trying to kill a project that affects your land values, I don't see how you get around that."

CREW is viewed within Washington circles as a left-leaning organization which overwhelmingly targets Republicans with its complaints. On CREW's list proclaiming the 18 "worst governors in America" last week, 16 were Republicans. But the organization has, on occasion, been critical of Democrats including Laura Richardson, a former congresswoman from Long Beach; Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York.

"We have gone after Republicans and Democrats," Sloan said Tuesday.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was established in 2008 to review alleged misconduct of members of the House of Representatives. It is governed by a six-member board of private citizens appointed by the Speaker of the House and the House minority leader.

Since the 113th Congress was seated in January, nine ethics inquiries have gone through the OCE's preliminary and secondary reviews. Seven cases have been referred to the Ethics Committee for review.

How the Office of Congressional Ethics works

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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