On many weekends, arguably the second most powerful person inside the Georgia Capitol can be found up to his elbows in manure.
Chris Riley calls caring for his two dozen cows “pure therapy,” an escape from the politics that rule his days in Atlanta as chief of staff to Gov. Nathan Deal.
But even on his bucolic Gainesville farm, Riley isn’t far from his boss of more than two decades. Wander across Riley’s property and you’re in the governor’s backyard, or that of his son, Jason Deal.
Rarely in Georgia has there been a political power couple as closely entangled as Deal and Riley. As Deal wages what will almost certainly be his final political campaign, Riley will once again be at his side.
At a recent sermon at Gainesville’s First Baptist Church — they even share the same church — the governor choked up as he introduced his aide as “the person who I depend on probably the most.”
The intense loyalty flows both ways. And, some say, can result in ethical blind spots for both men. In nearly every scrape that has wounded Deal politically, Riley has played a starring role. And often taken the heat.
“In my experience, staff typically are blamed when someone is unhappy with the outcomes,” said former state GOP leader Rusty Paul. “After all, the first rule for staff is: the boss delivers the good news; staff delivers the bad news and catches the resulting javelins.”
“Chris Riley is a very adept javelin catcher.”
Riley was still a student at Georgia Southern University when he began posting yard signs for Deal, during the then-Democrat’s first run for Congress in 1992. He’s been employed by Deal for more than half his life — and since joining the Deal payroll he’s never worked for anyone else.
But the relationship extends far beyond the office. In addition to sharing a property line, Riley has been Deal’s business partner, his plane pilot and his sounding board. When Riley purchased land from his boss to extend his own holdings, Deal financed the two loans — totalling more than $200,000 — for his top aide.
“It’s unusual, there’s no question,” said Richard Riley, Chris’ father. “They know what the other one is thinking. They can finish each other’s sentences. It’s built on years of working together. It’s built on trust.”
Man in the middle
But critics point to a series of missteps they say paint a less flattering portrait.
The most recent put Riley in the center of the ongoing saga over disgraced ethics chief Holly LaBerge, who was recruited by Deal’s aides to lead the watchdog agency. LaBerge’s tenure led to a whistleblower lawsuit, a weeklong trial, a jury verdict against the state and an agreement to pay about $3 million to settle multiple complaints.
The drip-drip of the ethics news continued over the summer as LaBerge revealed in a memo that Riley texted her while she was on vacation in July 2012 to urge that she resolve pending ethics complaints against his boss — a revelation that resulted in another cycle of negative news for Deal’scampaign.
Before that, Riley was then-U.S. Rep. Deal’s chief advocate in working to save a government inspection program that had a lucrative arrangement with Deal’s auto salvage firm in the late 2000s, setting up meetings with state officials in Atlanta using his congressional email account. An investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics found that Deal appeared to have used his office to improperly pressure state officials. Deal had already resigned from the House when the findings were released.
Riley again faced scrutiny for billing taxpayers more than $300,000 for Deal’s airplane travel through Chattahoochee Logistics while Deal was a member of Congress. On the heels of an internal audit, the company refunded more than $80,000 in overpayments. At the time, Riley said the company was owned by his wife. FAA records show, however, Riley signed documents listing him as controlling member. A Deal lawyer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he signed the documents on his wife’s behalf.
Riley denied any wrongdoing in each of the episodes. And Deal responded by steadfastly backing his loyalist in each case. After the LaBerge memo was released, Deal didn’t hesitate when asked whether Riley and his colleagues still enjoy his confidence.
“Certainly, I stand by them,” he said.
There’s not a father-and-son relationship, although Deal, 72, is old enough to be the 45-year-old Riley’s father. It is more a case of brotherly love, one borne out of loyalty and friendship.
‘A problem solver’
In Deal’s nearly four years as governor, Riley has built the reputation of almost omnipotence at the statehouse. He’s got more than his finger on the pulse of the Capitol’s inner workings. You could say he has both his hands around it.
File an open records request to a state agency, and odds are Riley is in the loop. He’s a factor in virtually every major decision at the statehouse, and plays a part in the state’s biggest economic development pursuits. During the legislative session, when he lets his beard grow scruffy, he is deluged by lawmakers or lobbyists who know his support is crucial to their cause.
His public calendar is almost identical to Deal’s schedule, and he once told congressional investigators that he “rarely allows [Deal] to go anywhere without him.” But he’s no longer a fixture at the governor’s side; nowadays Riley ducks many public events, and when he does appear he’s often surrounded by supplicants.
On the campaign trail, he is a feisty defender of his boss who rarely forgets slights and is quick to point out weaknesses in an opponent. As this year’s campaign intensified and Democrat Jason Carter rose in the polls, the governor looked to Riley to leave his official post and join his re-election effort.
“As you all know, I have had the opportunity to work for Gov. Nathan Deal for the past 22 years,” Riley wrote to staffers. “I have been involved in each of his campaigns since 1992, and there’s no way I’d miss the last campaign he will ever run.”
Even now, though, he can still be spotted at the state Capitol, sometimes parking in his former parking space beside the Gold Dome.
Richard Riley said his son was pondering a career in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or the Secret Service, searching for excitement.
He found it in politics.
State Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, who heads the chamber’s budget-writing committee, is among those at the statehouse who work with him the most closely. He said the governor’s loyal aide is far from iron-fisted, and that sometimes he resembles a traffic cop more than a power broker. But little goes on in the budget that he doesn’t know about.
“I see Chris as a problem solver. He tries to help ensure that we are able to fix the budget, that his boss’s interests are protected and that things that need to be resolved are resolved,” said Hill. “He just keeps the process moving.”
He recalled a behind-the-scenes fight between House and Senate budget negotiators over a long-stalled effort to build a roughly $20 million science building for Clayton State University. Hill said Riley broke through the gridlock by paying for the construction through bonds.
“We might eventually work it out,” said Hill. “But we have to work with him. And he’s our partner.”
Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican insider who was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief-of-staff, was put in charge of local appointments after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. He formed a trio of committees to oversee the process and GOP leaders tapped members to vet candidates.
Many picked big-time donors or party honchos. But Deal, then a congressman, asked Riley to sit on the judicial committee.
“He was just a staff member for the congressman, but Nathan felt he was the person he wanted. The others appointed bigwigs,” said Tanenblatt. “And even back then, Nathan looked to Chris as someone he could trust.”
Don’t expect Riley to go anywhere should his boss win re-election. While many Deal aides are preparing to leave, burned out by the demands of working for the state’s top politician, Riley plans to stay on board for another term.
“I serve,” he said, “at the pleasure of the governor.”