Ethics Committee finds Phil Gingrey improperly aided Ellijay bank

WASHINGTON -- As U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey heads for the exits, the House Ethics Committee issued a "letter of reproval" today for Gingrey's actions on behalf of an Ellijay bank.

The committee publicly revealed its findings that the Marietta Republican gave "special favors or privileges" to the since-failed Bank of Ellijay by allowing it to meet with top Treasury Department officials, a key member of Congress and a high-ranking congressional staffer in January 2009 about its pending application for TARP funds. Gingrey helped start the bank and his investment in it was worth as much as $500,000, according to a 2011 Reuters report that first raised ethics questions.

The key problem for Gingrey, in the Ethics Committee's determination, was that he went out of his way to help the bank even though it was not in his district. Members are directed not to help non-constituents in such ways. From the letter:

"[T]he Committee found that the circumstances of your official actions on behalf of Bank of Ellijay, in light of your substantial financial interest in the bank, supported the Committee's finding that you provided special favors or benefits to the bank. ...

"It is true that you received no compensation or financial benefits as a result of these meetings. Further, the Committee did not establish that you arranged the meetings solely because of your investment in, and association with, Bank of Ellijay. However, there is no question that reasonable persons might infer such a connection, given the size of your financial investment in the bank."

The letter also points a finger at Gingrey's chief of staff, David Sours, the son of longtime GOP activist John Sours of Cobb County and chief of staff to incoming Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe.

"The Committee was also troubled by your Chief of Staff's use of your name and his family connection to the then-Treasurer of the United States to arrange the Treasury Department meeting."

The letter closes the case against Gingrey, who is leaving Congress after losing a bid for U.S. Senate this year. You can read the full letter here.

Gingrey's attorney, Stefan Passantino of McKenna Long and Aldridge, said via email that the committee is misguided in trying to make an example of Gingrey:

"We are extremely disappointed that the House Committee on Ethics chose to issue a letter of reproval during representative Gingrey’s final hours in office. While the Committee itself concedes that Representative Gingrey was not acting for his own financial benefit, and that the Office of Congressional Ethics had previously dismissed all allegations pertaining to its inquiries concerning Representative Gingrey, the Committee appears to be using the opportunity to issue a public reprimand of an outgoing member as a means of issuing guidance to other members and as a substitute for providing the prospective clarity about the rules concerning conflicts of interest the Committee itself has long acknowledged are required.

"Representative Gingrey assisted a bank he thought of as a constituent organization by having his office help set up informational meetings through which bank officers could inquire about how TARP funds were going to be allocated. It is undisputed that Representative Gingrey never sought any preferential treatment for anyone in obtaining TARP funding and did nothing further upon arranging the requested meetings.

"While this is the lowest possible form of sanction the Committee can issue, press accounts concerning the treatment of other, remaining members of Congress have caused me a great deal of concern that the Committee isn’t following its own past precedent and that Representative Gingrey is being used to create a ‘teachable moment’ on his last day in office when issuance of forward-looking guidance to remaining members would have been more appropriate.”

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